Shade Loving Shrubs

Jeanne Grunert
Rhododendron are shade loving shrubs

Shade loving shrubs can add color or year-round foliage interest to your landscape. Many shrubs tolerate partial to full shade, and most do well in the home garden.

Shade Loving Shrubs

Before discussing the many beautiful shade loving shrubs, a definition of shade may be helpful. Gardeners define shade as any area of the garden that receives less than six hours of sunlight a day. Areas receiving no direct light at all, such as under large trees or behind a home, may be considered medium to deep or dense shade.

It's important to note how much shade the area receives before choosing shrubs. While most shrubs that thrive in dense shade will do just as well in light to medium shade, some actually prefer dense shade. Very few flowering shrubs produce blossoms in dense shade. Choosing the right plant for your location is half the recipe for success.

Another important aspect of landscaping with shrubs is choosing shrubs that provide foliage contracts. Because shady areas tend to be dark, try to plant shrubs with different textures and leaf contrast. You may want to try a broadleaf evergreen next to a deciduous shrub, for example, or choose a shrub with winter interest, such as holly, and plant near shrubs providing spring interest, such as a rhododendron.

Shrubs for Light Shade

Shrubs that thrive in light shade include many of the flowering shrubs we enjoy every spring as well as needled and broadleaf evergreen. Some good choices include:

Needled Evergreens: Most of the needled evergreens grow to be six feet or taller, so place these towards the back of the landscape.

  • Canadian Hemlock (Tusuga Canadensis)
  • Concolor Fir (Abies concolor)
  • Mugho Pine (Pinus mugho)
  • Russian Cypress (Microbiota decussata)

Broadleaf Evergreens: Broadleaf evergreens in this category provide attractive foliage. Some, such as azaleas and rhododendrons, also provide pretty flowers.

  • American Holly (Ilex opaca)
  • Azaleas
  • Blue Hollies (Ilex meservae)
  • Boxwood (Buxus species)
  • Euonymus
  • False Holly (Osmanthus)
  • Forsythia
  • Leatherleaf Viburnum (Viburnum rhytidaphylum)
  • Rhododendron hybrids

Deciduous Shrubs: Deciduous shrubs drop their leaves in the fall. Consider interspersing these with both needled and broadleaf evergreens to provide interest year-round.

  • Blueberry (Vaccinium)
  • Cotoneaster varieties
  • Forsythia
  • Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)
  • Viburnum
  • Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

Shrubs for Dense Shade

Imagine walking through the woods at midday in the summertime. The lush green foliage all around probably includes many of the shrubs that thrive in dense shade. Many of these plants adapted to the forest environment where little light penetrated the old growth canopy. Choose these shrubs mainly for their foliage interest. Some, such as the native rhododendron, provide flowers in the springtime.

Needled Evergreens

  • Densa yew (Taxus x media)
  • English yew (Taxus baccata 'Repandens')

Broadleaf Evergreens

  • Aucuba (Aucuba japonica)
  • Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) - note that Cherry Laurel blooms best in medium shade
  • Inkberry (Ilex glabra)
  • Japanese Andromeda (Pieris japonica)
  • Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata)
  • Mahonia
  • Mountain_Laurel (Kalmia)
  • Native Rhodendrons
  • Skimmia - prefers medium shade but may tolerate dense shade

Deciduous Shrubs

  • Japanese Kerria (Kerria japonica)
  • Snowberry (Symphoricarpos)

Flowering Shade Loving Shrubs

Some shade loving shrubs also provide beautiful flowers. Most flower in the springtime, although some species of virburnum flower in the summer. Choose a variety of shrubs to stretch the blooming time from early spring through early summer. Varieties of shade loving shrubs that also produce flowers include forsythia, azalea, rhododendron, kerria, Mountain Laurel, and virburnum. Others provide berries for wintertime interest. These include the various hollies. Many hollies also have interesting leaf foliage that add color year-round.

Site Selection and Planting

Most people look for shrubs that thrive in shade to use as foundation plantings. Foundation sites contain notoriously bad soil. While your home may be different, most soils near the foundation of the home are hard packed with construction junk lurking beneath the surface. If this describes the soil nearest to your home, be sure to work the soil thoroughly. Do so only when it is dry, as working wet soil can damage the soil's composition. Have the soil tested at the your local garden center or cooperative extension office to determine its pH and whether or not you need amendments such as lime to alter the pH. Work in plenty of good compost or well aged manure to add vital nutrients to the soil.

Before you buy your shrubs, you may want to make your own landscape design sketch. It's simple and will save you time and money by providing a plan or blueprint for your garden. Using a piece of graph paper or a plain piece of paper, measure out and mark the foundation or garden area you wish to plant. Next, using a research book or online guide to shrubs, determine how tall and wide each shrub of interest will grow. Planning for growth, mark how many you need or want. Arrange shrubs by height, keeping taller ones like evergreens in the back and smaller ones like the deciduous shrubs near the front. Consider light requirements too, making sure not to plant light shade loving evergreens in a portion of the garden that contains only dense shade. If you want to plant more than one of each type, consider planting them in odd numbers. Gardeners know that planting odd numbers presents a more natural appearance than even numbers.

Once you have your simple plan, it's only a matter of adding up how many shrubs you need and heading over to the garden center to choose them. Plant shrubs in fall or spring to lesson transplant shock and stress. Be sure to water them thoroughly, and enjoy your new garden.

Shade Loving Shrubs