There’s a lot of shade around my house, and its lushness got me to wondering why nature evolved shade plants, since the photosynthesis that supports almost all life on earth is driven by sunlight.
But then it came to me that nature abhors bare ground. Her drive is to cover the earth with life that forms ecosystems. And in any mix of trees, shrubs and vines, shade will be thrown. So, nature supplies shade-loving plants to cover that ground and fill that niche.
However, we find that not all shade is equal. There’s partial shade, meaning that a spot may get full sun for an hour or so during the day. Or, sunbeams may come peeking through the leafy canopy above, making a dappled shade. Then there’s bright shade, meaning a shady spot with a lot of reflected light from a white building or a stretch of walkway. Light shade is a bit darker than bright shade, but not as dark as full shade, meaning the area is shaded throughout the day. And if the canopy overhead is thick, full shade may become deep shade, suited for plants that actually don’t like much light at all.
Among her shady characters, nature has created some really gorgeous plants. So if you have a shady spot in your garden that you’d like to dress up, first decide what kind (or kinds) of shade you have, then consider the following.
Flowering Maple (Abutilon megapotamicum) is a native of Brazil that likes partial shade in our climate and will grow 3 to 4 feet tall and colonize a shady spot about 8 to 10 feet in diameter. It’s a cheery plant, with long, loosely arched stems, narrow spear-point leaves and happy-looking Chinese lanterns in red and bright yellow that dangle from the branches. Deer love it, unfortunately.
Camellia (Camellia japonica) prefers bright to full shade here. Sun may brown the flowers’ petal tips. It’s an evergreen shrub growing from 6 to 12 feet tall. It remains inconspicuous for most of the year, but in late winter it puts on a fabulous show. There are hundreds of cultivars to choose from. As it matures, many gardeners prune away the lower side branches to reveal its interesting trunks.
Daphne (Daphne odora) throws its delicious, intense perfume for 50 feet around when it blooms in February. Give it a spot with partial shade, but most importantly, make sure it’s planted where its roots won’t stand in water, even during rainstorms, or it will die. It’s a fickle plant that may just up and die anyway, but its perfume is so enchanting that it’s worth a go. ‘Aureomarginata’ has yellow-edged leaves and pink flowers, but I prefer ‘Alba’ with white flowers and deep green evergreen leaves.
Doublefile Viburnum (V. plicatum tomentosum ‘Mariesii’) thrives in light shade. Its wide-spread branches are held horizontally, and then in mid-spring, white lace-cap flower clusters appear along the branches, making the 6- to 10-foot shrub look like someone has intentionally decorated it. It’s a show-stopper when in bloom.
Other shrubs for the shade garden include fuchsias, gardenias, carpenterias, coprosmas and rhododendrons and azaleas.
For perennials to plant below the shrubs, consider these:
Astilbe (Astilbe x arendsii) can take full sun only if you are very near the ocean, otherwise, full shade suits them fine. These perennials have finely cut leaves and feathery flower plumes in white and shades of pink. They are pretty as a massed drift. They need a rich, humusy, moist (but not boggy) soil that’s well-drained.