Nature’s Curse

A dry shade garden. What could be worse? No sun. No moisture. You can’t have a cut flower garden, nor a woodland garden. The one wants sun, the other moisture. So is there hope for the gardener cursed with dry shade? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes, and this discussion will focus on those shrubs and perennials that actually thrive in dry shade. But it must be stressed that even these tough plants need regular water until they get established.

Although Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of sadness for Christians, it also signals one of nature’s most welcome events, the flowering of the Lenten Rose or Helleborus (hardy in USDA Zones 6-9). Rising from clumps of evergreen leaves, these blossoms come in a rainbow of colors, a palette that is rapidly expanding as hybridizers rush to satisfy a surging demand. Hellebores owe their popularity not only to their early display, but also to their love of shade and dry soil. Once they have settled in they will self sow, or for more control increase your stock by dividing older plants in late fall or winter. And for those gardeners battling browsing deer, take heart; hellebores contain poisonous alkaloids, a highly effective deer deterrent.

A couple of months after the hellebores have bloomed, the vivid pink and purple flowers of Geranium macrorrhizum emerge, brightening a shady spot or lighting up the shadow cast by a rock wall. Commonly known as Bigroot Geranium for its thick rhizomes that spread vigorously, this sturdy groundcover can tolerate the hot humid summers of the South (hardy in USDA Zones 3-8); their fat roots store enough water to keep the plant vibrant. The flowers, beloved by butterflies, fade in late spring, and that’s the time to give your geranium a haircut. As the summer days grow shorter, the geranium’s spicy scented leaves turn multiple shades of orange and red and lasting well into winter.

Blooming at about the same time another dry shade lover, Bergenia cordifolia also spreads by rhizomes although at a much slower rate than the geranium.
A handsome groundcover, Pig Squeak, so dubbed by the sound made when two leaves are rubbed together, sports tiny showy pink flowers in spring standing tall above glossy green leathery leaves that turn purplish bronze in the fall (USDA Zones 3-8).

Often mistaken for orchids the dainty nodding flowers of Epimediums, the final flowering perennial group chosen for a dry shady area, actually belong to the Barberry family.
Flowering in early spring epimedium blossoms span a vast spectrum of colors including all shades of pink and purple, yellow, orange, red or white, and the leaves are just as varied, purple, green, bronze; only your taste limits your choice. Hardy in USDA Zones 5-9 these Asian natives may be grown as groundcovers or as specimen plants, they may be deciduous or evergreen; again the choice is yours. For more information on this remarkable genus see the blog post These Leaves Shine in the Shade.

For a more casual look consider planting the weeping willow of grasses, Carex, a grass look-alike that actually is a sedge.
With over 1500 species in the family the gardener can choose a blue carex, or a green one with ivory stripes, solid green, or green with white margins – the choice is almost limitless. And the uses of this elegant plant are equally varied; plant it to soften a wall, serve as a point of focus, or control soil erosion on a dry shady slope. Holding its color through winter in the warmer climes (it is hardy from USDA Zones 5-9) its strappy leaves turn bronze the farther north you garden. But no matter how it ages through the seasons, the interesting texture of a carex always enlivens a winter garden.

Lovers of dry shade are not limited to perennials; many shrubs prefer those conditions as well, and Kerria japonica is one of the most colorful.
Bursting with vibrant yellow blossoms in early spring long before its puckered green leaves emerge, this graceful specimen is named for an 18th century head gardener at Kew Gardens. A mature Kerria can grow to be 6 feet by 6 feet, but if that size threatens to eat up your garden, whack it back to the desired size right after flowering. Even in winter this beauty continues to delight the eye; bare of leaves its vivid green branches stand out, especially in a garden smothered in snow (hardy in USDA Zones 4-9).

Another colorful shrub that flourishes in dry shade is the Missouri native Physocarpus or Nine Bark, named for its exfoliating bark that peels away in strips.

Blooming in May a little later than the Kerria the pinkish white clusters of flowers are a knockout against the purple leaves of the cultivar ‘Diablo’. For a brighter variety chose ‘Amber Jubilee’ whose orange, yellow and gold leaves will cheer up any dreary spot. Hardy from USDA Zones 3-7 the deciduous Nine Bark tops out at about 6 feet, but if you want to contain it prune it after it has flowered.

No discussion of shrubs that flourish in dry shade would be complete without mentioning the Boxwood family. Everyone knows English boxwood; it’s the most popular landscape shrub in the country, but it does have its drawbacks, slow growth rate and foul odor among them, so this discussion will focus on its lesser known cousin, Buxus microphylla var. sinica or Korean Boxwood.
Not as formal as English boxwood, it is evergreen (USDA Zones 4-9), a big selling point, although in the colder climates it tends to turn bronze and should be protected from winter winds. Search for the cultivar ‘Wintergreen’ if you want a tough shrub that holds on to its green color through the winter. At maturity a Korean boxwood will not get much taller than 4 feet, and although it blooms, the highly scented flowers are sparse and insignificant.

If it’s fragrance you’re after one of the most outstanding choices is Sweet Box or Sarcococca ruscifolia (USDA Zones 7-9). In late winter tiny white flowers peek out from glossy green leaves and fill the air with a sweet vanilla scent, and after the flowers have died bright red berries take their place. Plant this shrub where both the fragrance and the winter display will be fully appreciated, by an entrance door or flanking a walkway. Be sure to give enough space for your Sweet Box; when it is fully grown it will be about 3 feet wide by 5 feet tall. If you absolutely have no room for another shrub no matter how outstanding consider planting the groundcover variety S. hookeriana var. humilis.
A native of the Himalayas this variety of sarcococca grows only 1 to 2 feet tall and differs from its taller brethren only in berry color; it produces black fruit rather than red.

The final shrub selection for a shady dry area is Nandina domestica, Heavenly Bamboo, so named because it was often cultivated by monks in their temple gardens.
Grown in USDA Zones 6-9 it is evergreen in all but the coldest climates, but even there it will drop only a few leaves in winter. Come spring the lacy green foliage breaks out followed by bunches of tiny white flowers, but many gardeners prize it most for its fall color, a rich deep burgundy, and its clusters of drooping red berries. For the best fall color, try to give it some sun and for the best berry show plant several nandinas together. However, if you garden in the southeast and are concerned about its invasive habit select one of the cultivars that produces little or no fruit; ‘Fire Power’ and ‘Gulf Stream’ are two good selections. The foliage of ‘Fire Power’ emerges a bright lime green in spring and turns fire engine red in the fall. ‘Gulf Stream’, one of the bushiest and most compact of the nandinas, sports bronze leaves with orange tints throughout the growing season.

So as this discussion illustrates, by choosing plants wisely and watering them well early on a gardener can break nature’s curse and bring life and light to the most inhospitable of sites, a dry and shady garden.

Shrub and Perennial Plant Resources

Bluestone Perennials
www.bluestoneperennials.com

Nature Hills
www.naturehills.com

Lazy S’S Farm
www.lazyssfarm.com

Monrovia
www.monrovia.com

Photo Credits

1. Hellebores – CC BY-SA 3.0
2. Geranium macrorrhizum – Hardyplants
3. Bergenia cordifolia – Christain Hummert
4. Epimedium – Peter Coxhead
5. Carex halleriana – CC BY-SA 3.0
6. Kerria japonica – Jeffdelonge
7. Physocarpus – Jean-Pol GRANDMONT
8. Buxus microphylla var. sinica – Sten Porse
9 Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis – CC BY-SA 3.0
10. Nandina domestica – Public Domain