Hardy flora for the 'dark side'

April 24, 2013 

Head to the nursery this week because new plants are arriving daily and the best plants go first. Last week, I gushed over unbeatable plants for the sun, and to be fair to gardeners on the dark side, here is a partial list of the best-looking, well-behaved plants for the shaded areas of the garden.


Think native when planting under fir, cedar and other trees. Sword ferns are a natural under trees, but lamiums, nandinas, epimediums and pulmonarias also adapt to dry shade, especially if you mix organic matter into the soil and mulch with wood chips.

Add taller shrubs, such as huckleberry and Oregon grape, and you’ll have a shade garden that won’t demand water to survive. Not all nurseries carry native plant material. You should call around first to see who has a supply in your area.


Acer: You know this as the Japanese maple. Don’t be fooled by the Latin name, Acer palmatum is the graceful Japanese maple that will thrive in the dappled shade of overhead cedar, hemlock and fir tree. Use the red leaf Japanese maples in the background to add depth (Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ is unbeatable) and the Japanese maple varieties with bright green or golden leaves in the front of a bed or against a dark-color house. I recommend coral bark maples or the Golden Fullmoon maple for fantastic foliage. April is a good month to check out maple trees at the nursery so you can see the color of the fresh spring growth before it changes for summer.

Acuba: This evergreen shrub looks like it belongs in a jungle with large shiny leaves that are sprinkled with a dusting of golden spots. It may not have the spectacular blooms of a rhododendron or hydrangea, but for a dark corner out of the wind or in a pot near the front door, this work horse of a plant has a golden touch. Acuba can grow to five feet tall, but it can be pruned in the spring to keep it compact.

Ajuga: Ajuga is the evergreen groundcover that loves our climate, crowds out weeds and flowers with blue or purple spikes. New, more compact varieties such as ajuga ‘Chocolate Chip’ and the purple ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow’ make this the Madonna of the plant world.This plant performer keeps reinventing itself in new colors. Ajuga also performs well in pots and can dangle like a trapeze artist from hanging baskets.


Any plant with white flowers or with white variegation in the foliage will light up a shady area. Lobelia, lobularia, begonias, cleome, pansies, and fuchsias will flower without much sun. But look for color from foliage plants, such as coleus, sweet potato vine and fancy-leaf ivy, as well.

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. For gardening questions, write to her at P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, WA 98022. Send a self-addressed stamped envelope for a personal reply. She also can be reached at her website, binettigarden.com.

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