Gardening Tips: Flowers That Grow In Shade

A selection of flowers for all levels of shade from medium to dense to bring color to the shade garden all season long.

If you're looking for something a little more interesting than moss and lichen to brighten up a shady corner of your garden, the wide variety of shade-loving flowers available will provide you with an abundance of colors and shapes to start your shade garden with.

Knowing what kind of shade you're working with is the first step in choosing the most suitable plants. The density of the shade and exactly what's casting it will influence which flowers will flourish there.

Densities of shade

Naturally, not all types of shade are the same and, although growing information often names the type of shade suitable for a plant, it rarely specifies exactly how much light the plant requires.

A partly shady (or mostly sunny) garden is one that receives five to six hours of direct sun during the day. This light usually comes early or late in the day. Near mid-day sun may be blocked by small trees, fences, or other structures. Light, dappled, or filtered shade is a variant of partial shade found in areas where the pattern of light is continually changing throughout the day. A grove of young birch, acacia or dogwood trees or mature trees with high, open canopies will create dappled shade. When a tag states that a plant does well in shade it's usually referring to this type of shade.

Open or medium shade is found under the canopy of trees whose lowest branches are thirty feet above the ground. This area will be out of the sun for four or five of the day's brightest hours, but receive sun early or late in the day. Most shade gardens fall into this category.

Full shade is cast by the thick, broad canopies of deciduous trees like Norway maples. Although shafts of light may reach the plants beneath them, these shafts usually don't remain for long. Dense shade, the heaviest type, is the cool, evenly dark shadow on the floor of an evergreen grove or beside buildings that block light for most of the day. Within these categories there are many choices to keep your shade garden in color all season long.

Flowers for partial to medium shade

While many flowers will tolerate partial shade, the flowers listed below thrive there.

Hellebore or Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis)

Hellebores are among the earliest perennials to flower, opening white, rose, or burgundy blooms between January and March, depending on the climate. The glossy dark green foliage also adds interest to the garden year round. Hellebore requires protection from afternoon sun.

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata)

In mid-spring this perennial sends up one- to two-foot stalks, each topped with a sphere of lilac or white flowers. Blue phlox prefers moisture and light shade, but may not perform well in dense shade. This plant has a strong spreading habit.

Astilbe (Astilbe sp.)

Two-foot high feathery wands of white, lavender, pink, peach, and red are produced by the Astilbe in late spring through early summer. Grouped plantings show the flowers off especially well. Astilbe produces well even in fairly deep shade, but does require moist and very nutrient-rich soil.

Columbine (Aquilegia sp.)

This graceful woodland flower ranges in height from eight inches to two or three feet and comes in a multitude of color combinations. Red, yellow, blue, or purple blooms appear in May and on into July. Columbines do best in moist but well-drained soil with light shade.

Foxglove (Digitalis sp.)

This annual's late-summer spires of distinctively-shaped flowers easily reach four feet, making it ideal as a background planting. More of the foxglove's speckled white, pink, and purple flowers will be produced in light shade or in afternoon-only shade. With less light than that, the plant may become spindly and require staking.

Japanese anemone (A. hupehensis, A. vitifolium, and A. tomentosa)

One of the few autumn-blooming shade flowers, the Japanese anemone displays showy single or double blooms in pink or white. They grow best with some morning sun and rich, moist soil. Meadow anemone (A. canadensis) also thrives in partial shade.

Other flowers that flourish in partial to medium shade include bulbs such as daffodils and narcissus (narcissus species), Siberian irises (Iris sibirica), tulips (tulipa species) and grape hyacinths (Muscari racemosum), so long as they receive sun when they send up buds and begin to bloom. Rhododendrons and azaleas also do well in medium shade.

Flowers for full and dense shade

If you're working with the deep, cool shade beneath a group of conifers or mature hardwoods, the following flowers should do well for you.

Primrose (Primula sp.)

One of the first flowers out in spring, this low-growing annual is available in dozens of colors and several sizes. Primroses prefer peat soil with plenty of moisture and partial to full shade.

Trillium (Trilium sp.)

The lily-like flowers of this elegant woodland plant come in more colors than just the well-known white. Some 30 species offer early-spring blooms in red, pink, purple, yellow, and green.

Hepatica (Hepatica sp.)

Also known as liverwort or liverleaf, Hepatica produces long-lasting, daisy-like flowers of white, pale pink, or lavender that appear in early spring. This perennial prefers moist growing conditions.

Perennial Geraniums

Several species of geraniums also bloom well in the shade. G. nodosum, which offers glossy deep green leaves and lavender flowers requires full to dense shade. G. phaeum (Mourning widow) produces blackish, brown-purple, lilac, or deep maroon flowers, while G. phaeum 'Album' blooms in white.

Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)

A cluster-growing woodland plant with lemon-yellow blossoms that appear throughout spring and into summer, this flower can bring a splash of sunlight into a forest garden. The celandine poppy favors slopes and banks with a rich bed of fallen leaves and in these conditions can reach 18 inches high and will spread readily.

Lungwort (Pulminaria)

Also known as Joseph and Mary or Soldiers and Sailors, this hearty plant prefers shade and moist, well-drained soil, but can tolerate full sun and poor, dry soil. The flowers are pink in bud, then turn a purplish blue, fading to pale blue with age. Lungwort's white- or silver-speckled foliage is also attractive.

Jacob's Ladder (Polemonium)

In early spring and summer this plant puts out flat or bell-shaped blossoms in blue or white, with lacy foliage similar to fern leaves. Jacob's Ladder grows best in shady spots with rich, well-drained soil.

Foamflower (Tiarella 'Oakleaf')

This perennial sends up a ten-inch-high froth of airy white flowers in spring and early summer and works particularly well in woodland borders. While its soil shouldn't be allowed to dry out, overly wet soil can kill the plant.

Solomon's Seal (Polgonatum multiflorum)

Usually grown for its foliage, this two-foot-high plant also produces white flowers in June. The seeds, which turn red by the end of July and black by September, also add interest.

Bleeding Heart

In addition to the partial-shade varieties, some bleeding hearts are also suited to dense shade. The fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) produces lacy bluish- green leaves and, in early summer, small dark pink flowers on stalks of 12 to 18 inches high. The Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) thrives in full shade and blooms all summer. The hardiest of the Pacific variety has pink blooms, but red and white are also available. Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucularia) and squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis) also do well in dense shade.

Periwinkle (Vinca minor)

Periwinkle's contrast of deep green leaves and delicate blue flowers make this spreading perennial an ideal ground cover for areas of dense shade. Flowers appear primarily in early spring and intermittently throughout the summer.

Wood aster (Aster divaricatus)

Differing notably from its sun-loving cousins, the wood aster thrives in shade. The frilly white flowers come out in late summer after many shade plants have stopped blooming. The wood aster's tall stems tend to fall over, making the plant suitable for trailing over a wall or hill.

Toad lilies (Tricyrtis sp.)

Toad lilies are hardy perennials that send up exotic, orchid-like blooms in autumn. The speckled flowers come in a variety of colors and work especially well in border plantings where they can be admired up close.


Several types of lilies are also at home in the shade. Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), Canada lily (Lilium canadensis), daylily (Hemerocallis sp.), and red surprise lily (Lycoris radiata) do well in full shade, while tiger lilies prefer medium to light shade.

Other favorites for dense shade include the Violet and Viola species, Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), and Brugmansia/Angel's Trumpets (Brugmansia sanguinea).

This is by no means an exhaustive list of shade-loving flowers. Your local nursery or garden shop should also be able to suggest shade growers that will thrive in your area and with a little careful selection you'll be able to replace the lichen with something more eye-catching.

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