Adding beauty and color to the shade garden can be a daunting challenge to many gardeners. Of course, there are plenty of annuals and perennials that do well, but when it comes to shrubs, or more precisely, flowering shrubs, the choices seem to dwindle. I’m going to profile 15 shrubs that do well in shade that you may want to try in your garden.
For best success, plant shrubs in the spring or early fall. Avoid planting in the heat of the summer or just before the first frost date in your region.
Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)
Facts: Zones 4 to 9; 4 to 6 feet tall; suckering; dry to damp soil; sun to moderate shade
This old-time favorite shrub has grown in popularity due to its versatility. It will grow from almost full sun to full shade in dry to wet soil. The maroon flowers appear from spring to summer and can be highly fragrant, although fragrance varies widely. The leaves have a coarse texture and the plant is deer-resistant.
Endless Summer® Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Bailmer’)
Facts: Zones (4) 5 to 9; 3 to 5 feet tall and wide; moist but well-drained soil; partial shade
This is the first truly cold-tolerant bigleaf hydrangea. The plant blooms on both old and new growth giving it the ability to withstand late frosts and pruning. Like all other bigleaf hydrangea, the flowers will be blue in acidic soil and pink in alkaline and bloom from late spring to fall.
Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
Facts: Zones (5) 6 to 9; 6 to 10 feet tall and wide; moist but well-drained soil; partial to moderate shade
This is one of the largest hydrangeas available. Shrubs produce spikes of white flowers up to 16 inches long in June that fade to pink by fall. Huge, oak-shaped leaves turn crimson in cold weather often lingering on the shrub into winter. Oakleaf hydrangeas seem to be very tolerant of shade as long as they have rich, well-drained soil. Their fall foliage is usually orange-red and lingers well into winter.
Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix)
Facts: Zones 6 to 10; 6 to 8 feet tall and wide; evergreen; moist but well-drained soil; light to medium shade
Perhaps the most cold-hardy palm in the world, needle palm has been reported to withstand temperatures of -10 F. Its shrub form makes it perfect for smaller gardens. It comes by its name honestly with sharp, 6- to 8-inch needles that grow from the crown in the center of the plant.
Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.)
Facts: Zones 5 to 8; 6 to 10 feet tall and wide; evergreen; moist but very well-drained soil; partial shade
Different species and cultivars abound, all of which are very beautiful. Despite their large evergreen leaves and huge trusses of flowers in mid-spring, they do quite well in cold weather. They perform best when they receive some morning sun.
Piedmont Azalea (Rhododendron canescens)
Facts: Zones 6 to 9; 6 to 15 feet tall and wide; moist but well-drained soil; fragrant; partial shade
The Piedmont azalea looks nothing like the evergreen azaleas from Asia. Its growth habit is more upright and tree-like. Large trusses of pink and white, honeysuckle-like flowers appear in early spring. The aroma is also similar to honeysuckle and can be enjoyed from some distance. They also appreciate a bit of morning sun.
Camellia (Camellia spp.)
Facts: Zones 6 to 9; 8 to 15 feet tall and wide; evergreen; moist but well-drained soil; partial to medium shade
Along with azaleas, camellias epitomize the Southern garden. Coupled with their lustrous green leaves, they bloom in the fall and winter with showy flowers in a range of colors. They lend a cheerful look to the sometimes bleak winter garden.
Andromeda Shrub (Pieris japonica)
Facts: Zones 5 to 8; 5 to 8 feet tall and wide; evergreen; moist but well-drained acidic soil; partial to medium shade
A relative of the blueberry, Andromeda shrub sports profuse clusters of small, bell-shaped, white flowers in the early spring. Even after the flowers fade, the seed pods retain a white to creamy color, making it appear as though the shrub is still in bloom.
Doghobble (Leucothoe spp.)
Facts: Zones (5) 6 to 9; 3 to 6 feet tall; suckering; evergreen; moist but well-drained, acidic soil; partial to medium shade
This arching evergreen shrub is often found along the banks of streams and creeks. Although it likes ample moisture, it grows best in a loamy/sandy soil that drains quickly. White, bell-shaped flowers are produced in spring but are hidden by the leaves.
Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
Facts: Zones 4 to 8; 8 to 12 feet tall; suckering; moist but well-drained soil; partial to medium shade
This large shrub has several factors in its favor; it blooms during the dog days of summer (August) with huge spires of white flowers similar to those of an oakleaf hydrangea, attracts butterflies, has good fall color and, unlike hydrangeas, is deer-resistant.
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Facts: Zones 5 to 9; 3 to 7 feet tall; suckering/arching; dry to wet soil; full sun to medium shade
I’ve yet to find a spot where Virginia sweetspire doesn’t do well. It will grow in dry soil in the sun and wet soil in the shade. White blooms appear in the mid-spring. Fall color rivals that of any burning bush.
Kerria (Kerria japonica)
Facts: Zones 4 to 9; 6 to 10 feet tall and wide; arching; average well-drained soil; partial to medium shade
The lovely yellow flowers on this plant remind me of forsythia, and it works well as a substitute for forsythia in shade. The foliage has an attractive, “corrugated” appearance that provides good texture after the blooms have faded.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis spp.)
Facts: Zones 4 to 8; 4 to 12 feet tall; fragrant; moist but well-drained soil; full sun to medium shade
A must-have for the winter garden. Witch hazel, depending upon species, will bloom in the fall or winter. Most have yellow (but some have red) fringe-like flowers, followed by coarse foliage with average fall color.
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Facts: Zones 3 to 8; 3 to 8 feet tall; moist to wet soil; full sun to partial shade
Clethra is another shrub that blooms from summer to fall with fragrant, white or pink bottlebrush flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. It performs best in soil that is damp to wet and tolerates flooding.
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
Facts: Zones 4 to 8; 7 to 15 feet tall; evergreen; moist but well-drained soil; partial to medium shade
Often described as one of the most outstanding flowering native shrubs, this mid-spring bloomer is hard to miss when it’s in bloom. Flowers range from red to pink to white. Older plants have a twisted habit and cinnamon-colored bark with vertical lines.
From State-by-State Gardening June 2007.
Oakleaf Hydrangea photo by David Liebman. All other photos by Theresa Schrum.