These Leaves Shine in the Shade

One of the thorniest problems facing gardeners is to design an interesting three-season shade garden, a challenge that may confound even veterans who have been digging in the dirt for years. Of course, hostas satisfy both criteria – they certainly have unusual foliage and they hang around until the weather turns really cold – but the plant world offers many other shade lovers that also fill the bill and are causing a stir in the gardening community. Since the goal is to create a shade garden that looks good from early spring to late fall, this discussion focuses on more unusual perennial plants prized for their foliage rather than their flowers.

The first group that thrives in deep shade is the Epimedium, a native of China. Although all epimediums, also known as Fairy Wings, bloom in early spring, it is their fat clumps of delicate heart-shaped leaves that are the big draw. Three cultivars of note are Epimedium x rubrum whose young foliage is tinged with red and produces sprays of purple flowers in early spring.

The second choice is Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Purple Prince” and if you have a passion for purple, this is your plant. After the deep purple flowers fade, the rose-purple leaves of the Prince gradually darken over the summer, turning almost black by fall. The final selection is an old favorite Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’ whose early bronze foliage turns green in summer, and bronze again when the days grow short.

It too produces large purple flowers. Although epimediums are drought tolerant once established, at first plant your beauty in moist, well-drained slightly acidic soil. As an aside, one of the common names for epimedium is Horny Goat Weed, so named because an Asian farmer noticed his goats became increasingly amorous when they grazed on epimediums. Upon research, scientists discovered that the active ingredient in epimediums produces the same results as Viagra. ‘Nuf said.

Any discussion of shade-tolerant perennials must include ferns. Just because your garden wallows in deep shade does not mean that your fern choices are limited to that very lovely but overworked Western Sword Fern.

In that same family, the Polystichum, renown for their easy cultivation and grace P. makinoi, or Makinoi’s holly fern, is a glossy knockout whose fronds soar two feet high. Even those gardeners with the blackest of thumbs can’t go wrong with this choice. Another fern family with aristocratic members is the group of Lady Ferns that includes the regal Athyrium filix-femina, a favorite of Victorian English gardeners.

A more modern member of this royal family is the Japanese Painted Fern, A. nipponicum ‘Pictum’.

The Japanese Painted Fern is prized for its soft silver-gray fronds suffused with hues of pink and lavender – truly a showstopper in a dark corner. Although its fronds may brown out with repeated frostings, it bounces right back when the temperature rises. To add a bit of whimsy to your shade garden include at least one specimen of Alspenium bulbiferum. Its finely chiseled light green leaves sprout small plantlets that can be removed and cultivated, hence the common name, Mother Fern.

Mulch this one heavily in the winter to protect it from freeze-thaw cycles. And of course, all ferns require rich, acidic soil and plenty of moisture.

For a striking addition to a shade garden, a grass that thrives in moist soil is the tongue twister Hakonechloa macra.

A widely respected variety of Japanese Forest Grass is ‘Aureola’ whose yellow leaves are striped with green, and the denser the shade, the more chartreuse the blades. Selected as Perennial Plant of the Year in 2009 its graceful cascading leaves introduce an interesting texture into the shade garden.

Most of us gardeners are a tight-fisted bunch so we relish a plant that produces volunteers. A vigorous self-sower is the old fashioned favorite Brunnera macrophylla, but its offspring may not resemble the parents; variegation in the adult foliage tends to disappear in the young.

Although chosen for its heart-shaped leaves, as a bonus Brunnera produces sprays of dainty blue flowers in early spring. This native of Turkey likes evenly moist slightly acidic soil, woodland conditions, and cool temperatures; it does not weather hot humid summers well, but will perk right up in the fall.

It’s quite unusual to find a shade-loving plant with silver leaves, so Pulmonaria is to be treasured. One of the first plants to flower in late winter, along with the hellebores, its purple or pink primrose-like flowers herald the spring equinox. But it’s really the Lungwort’s leaves that stop the show. Depending upon the cultivar they may be dappled, splashed with blotches of white or silver, or pure silver, or silver edged with light green.

Just picture that shot of light in the lee of a rock wall. Like its cousin Brunnera (they both hail from the Borage family) a Pulmonaria wilts in hot humid summers, but bounces right back once temperatures cool down.

The last choice for a foliage plant that thrives in the shade should be the first choice – Heuchera, – for its variety of leaf shades. The hybridizers have been hard at work with the Coral Bells, and they have produced a pallet of colored cultivars with heart-shaped leaves; no longer does a gardener have to settle for ‘Palace Purple’ or ‘Amethyst’.

If you have a penchant for chartreuse foliage, two reliable selections are ‘Key Lime Pie’ and ‘Lime Rickey’.

Or perhaps you prefer rich bronze leaves, then ‘Caramel’ is for you.

And for a hot shot of color in your garden, ‘Peach Crisp’ is a standout. In the darker shades ‘Velvet Night’ has deep purple leaves, and the foliage of ‘Licorice’ is almost black. No matter what your color preference for sure you will find a Coral Bell to enrich a shady spot. Like most shade-lovers Heucheras are happiest at home in moist, well-drained, rich soil.

Although unusual foliage plants will never upstage their spotlight-hogging cousins, the flowering perennials and annuals, they belong in any garden, acting as a focal point, an elegant backdrop, an interesting carpet, or just a visual break from all the vivid colors of summer. So when designing your garden be sure to save some space for at least one specimen loved only for its leaves.

Plant Sources:

Plant Delights Nursery

Bluestone Perennials

American Meadows

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