Leslie Hunter is a horticulturist at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.


Mission Impossible
by Leslie Hunter - posted 03/22/18

Fragrant variegated Solomon’s seal takes on golden hues in fall. -Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

In an ideal world, all planting beds would have well-drained, rich soils and the perfect amount of sun and water. I was in heaven when I moved from red Georgia clay to rich, humusy Iowa soil, but even that has problems to contend with.

Bottom line, nowhere is perfect and no one understands this better than plants, the ultimate compromisers. They have learned to adapt to just about every complicated growing condition, from sun to shade and wet to dry.

Plants need two things to grow, sunlight and water. As long as they have at least one of those things, they find a way to adapt.

One of the hardest spots to garden is the place where they have neither – dry shade. Already dealing with less sun, these plants also have to compete with larger trees and shrubs for moisture. Here are three perennials that have taken on that challenge and own it with style.

In late summer, fruit of Solomon’s seal goes from blue to black. - Ariec/CanStockPhoto.com • Smooth Solomon’s seal’s flowers dangle under the leaves along the stems. - Rebekah D. Wallace/Bugwood.org

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spp.)
There are several species of Solomon’s seal that are useful in the dry shade garden. Polygonatum biflorum is a native Solomon’s seal of eastern and central North America and is hardy to Zone 3. A rhizomatous herbaceous perennial typically found in wooded areas, smooth Solomon’s seal creates a 1-3 foot mound of arching upright, unbranched stems. Small, yellow bell-shaped flowers dangle under the leaf axils from April to May and are followed by blue-black berries in the fall.

Fragrant Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum ‘Variegatum’) is a native of Europe and Asia and is very much like its cousin. It differs in size, only 18-24 inches tall, and coloration, the light green leaves are edged in white. The flowers also have a sweet scent. The Perennial Plant Association names this the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2013.Solomon’s seal likes part to full shade and is not a fan of hot weather. If you look this plant up, the descriptions will tell you it grows in moist, rich soils. Most shade plants would prefer those conditions but Solomon’s seal has learned to adapt. It preforms marvelously under the shade of nearby trees where the canopy keeps it cool. The leaves turn bright gold in fall.


For best results, plant bigroot geraniums in dry, shady areas. - Emil Ivanov/Dreamstime.com

Bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizumi)
Bigroot geranium has so many good things going for it you may ask yourself why you have not planted this one yet. A semi-evergreen rhizomatous perennial, Geranium macrorrhizum has fragrant gray-green foliage, beautiful magenta flowers April through July, fall color and no pest problems, not even rabbits. The 12-24 inch mounds will spread over time by rhizomes or self-seeding, which creates an almost weed free barrier. It does well in full sun to part shade and resents wet feet and hot, humid weather. The dry shade garden is a perfect fit for this tough yet lush looking geranium.

There are several cultivars of bigroot geranium available with bloom colors from the deep magenta of ‘Bevan’s Variety’ to the white of ‘Album’. Hardy to Zone 3, tolerant of shade and drought, and four season appeal make this a must for the dry shade area in your garden.

‘Mrs. Moon’ lungwort, known for tolerating dry shade, has been a popular garden choice for decades. - PerennialResource.com

Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.)
Named after a diseased organ, lungwort has an unfortunate name for an outstanding plant. Grown for luminous foliage of gray-green and silver, this rhizomatous perennial produces low mounds of long fuzzy elliptical shaped leaves.

Pink bells that fade to blue hang right above the foliage in midspring. Reaching only 12 inches tall and 24 inches wide, lungworts are a nice alternative to hostas in the shade garden. Hardy to Zone 3, they prefer moist well-drained soil in part to full shade and dislike wet feet. They do remarkably well in dry shade once established.

Pulmonaria are in the Boraginaceae family, having cousins like forget-me-nots (Myosotis spp.) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginiana). There are several species hailing mainly from Europe, and of course numerous cultivars with variations in the mottling. The white mottling on the leaves are actual air pockets that keep the undersides of the leaves cooler.

‘Silver Bouquet’ has almost silver foliage and ‘Mrs. Moon’ (Pulmonaria saccharta ‘Mrs. Moon’) is an oldie but goody with silver-spotted, dark green leaves.

Dry shade may seem like a frustrating place to try and garden, but before you give up and throw mulch on the problem, give these perennials a chance. Let them show you how tough plants really can be.


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.


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