By Jane Milliman
The first thing to recognize about shade: If it’s dense and dry enough (think about the area directly under a pine tree) nothing grows there. The good news is, this also includes pesky weeds, so these areas are low-maintenance. If you have even the slightest bit of dappled shade — say, up close to the trunk of a maple — try tiny groundcovers such as hardy cyclamen, right, ‘Crimson Fans’ mukdenia, and European wild ginger.
Tough-as-nails perennials, such as hellebores, hardy geraniums, ferns, and sedges, thrive toward the drip line of a tree, where there’s a little more light and water.
Spring ephemerals, which are plants that bloom early and then go dormant, are excellent for dappled, woodland-style shade. These include bulbs such as crocus and daffodil — standard shade-zone denizens. But you can find many more: bleeding heart, pictured, Virginia bluebells, hepatica, mayapple, and trillium come to mind. Many of these are wildflowers, but please don’t dig them up and transplant them.
One tip-off that a plant is shade tolerant is it has big leaves — all the better to soak up limited sunlight. Hosta is the classic example. There’s also Filipendula (sometimes called queen of the prairie or meadowsweet), shown pictured. Other examples: Darmera, ferns, Annabelle hydrangea, and the underused yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata). Most plants in this category prefer moist locations.
Another clue to shade tolerance is variegation, or the presence of colors other than green. Hostas often qualify, but others include silvery brunnera, pictured, spotted and streaked pulmonaria, tawny sedges, and bright and festive Japanese forest grass.
For woody plants, look to the understory. Redbud, mountain laurel, elderberry, dogwood, and doublefile viburnum, pictured, can create an inspirational display when blooming. Many of these species are now available as superior cultivars — breeders have labored for years to bring us interesting versions of the same plants that thrive here at home.