Top Plant Picks for Your Shade Garden

Try these top shade performers for Pacific Northwest gardens.

Credit: Carolyn Jones / Great Plant Picks

New to shade gardening? Get started with these recommended plants

It’s curious to me that gardening in shade is sometimes seen as a trial; most of my favourite garden plants are shade lovers and many of these are Great Plant Picks, selected for their strong performance in the Pacific Northwest.

Create Some Shade!
By Douglas Justice
So you don’t have shade in your garden, but would like some? Here are five trees that have been chosen as Great Plant Picks and are perfect for creating a canopy for your favourite shade plants: Trees are hardy to the zone number indicated.

Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’ (zone 6) This well-known Japanese maple is noted for its moderate stature (to 8 m/26 ft. or so), beautiful, ample leaves and reliable crimson-orange autumn colour. ‘Osakazuki’ is also a relatively robust plant, growing almost as rapidly as popular cultivars like ‘Bloodgood,’ but without producing the heavy shade of the purple-leafed selections. Perennials and smaller shrubs can be successfully cultivated under a young ‘Osakazuki’ canopy as long as the soil is deep, well drained, well aerated and moist. With age and in poor soils, many of the maple’s roots will be at the soil surface.

Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis (zone 5)
Chinese red birch is a smaller-growing tree (15 m/50 ft. to 23 m/ 75 ft.) than many of the more familiar birches, but it is vigorous, given deep, moisture-retentive soil. An accommodating addition to the garden, this northern Chinese tree does not seriously compete with other plants around the root zone. It will tolerate occasional bouts of flooding and drought, and it harbours few pests. Because of its graceful growth habit, spectacular bark and clean leaves, Chinese red birch looks great at any time.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum (zone 4) Katsura is an excellent tree for moist conditions, in sun or shade. The small, rounded leaves and slender, upright-spreading branches of C. japonicum produce a light to moderate shade, suitable for a variety of shade-loving shrubs and perennials. The katsura’s small footprint – even multi-stemmed trees tend to be narrow near the base – makes it suitable for most gardens, and its non-aggressive roots (in all but the shallowest of soils) allow for planting under the crown.

Cornus controversa (zone 5)
Table dogwood (sometimes also known as giant dogwood) is an upright, relatively fast-growing tree with strongly tiered branches. Like other dogwoods, C. controversa prefers moist soil, but isn’t an aggressive water-user, so establishing plants beneath its canopy is easy. The cultivar ‘June Snow’ produces flowers at a young age compared with the species. Pruning to a single stem, recommended by some authors, may reduce the time required to attain height; multi-stemmed trees, however, can be at least as or even more attractive than single-stemmed specimens.

Malus (zone 4)
Crabapples are noted for their beautiful flowers and attractive fruit, but their cultivation is generally restricted to continental climate regions, where the numerous fungal problems that can affect leaves are not significant. Nevertheless, there are crabapple cultivars that can be more widely grown, and a number are highly rated for freedom from disease. A good selection of these that also display a variety of sizes, habits and shading characteristics includes the Great Plant Picks: ‘Adirondack,’ Golden Raindrops™, Red Jewel™, Strawberry Parfait™ and ‘Sugar Tyme™. Crabapples are easily accommodated in the smaller garden and perfectly suited to growing in intimate proximity with other plants.

When I had a garden with bright, full sun and sandy soil, I longed for a bit of protection for woodland treasures. And weeding in the shade on a hot summer day seems a much less onerous task!

Spreading English yew (Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’) is an exceptionally handsome foundation plant for shade. Its deep green needles are held on widely arching branches that droop at their tips.

Evergreen, it provides solidity and structure to any composition, creating a foil for other plants. It will grow slowly to about 1.2 m (4 ft.) high by 3 m (10 ft.) wide in time, but can easily be kept smaller. To maintain the informal, somewhat uneven shape, trim branches by hand at varying points around the shrub. Or, to add punch to the garden, shear this conifer into an eye-catching geometric shape. Yews are drought tolerant once established.

Another evergreen shrub that can stand on its own or be sheared into a hedge is sweet box (Sarcococca confusa). I always have one near the door that opens to the shady side of my home. This is because it blooms very early in the season and is exquisitely fragrant. If you place it too far afield, you could miss its scent. Growing to about 1.2 m (4 ft.) high and wide, it doesn’t mind deep shade and dry soil once established – hence its success under the eaves on the north side. It’s my favourite in this genus because each leaf has a little wave to it, so the overall effect is richly textural. The tiny white flowers mature into glossy black fruit. Later I always find “babies” under the shrub to pot up and give away.

I once saw a hedge of sweet box planted under the handsome leaded glass windows of the library in a Vancouver home. I could picture cracking open a window in March, curling up with a good book and inhaling the wonderful perfume – ah, heaven!

For sensational fall colour and all-around good looks, I would happily add fernleaf full moon maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’) to any shade garden. It grows slowly to about 4.5 m (15 ft.) high and 6 m (20 ft.) wide, making it a perfect small tree. With age it develops an interesting structure of grey branches that provide winter interest after the leaves have fallen. The leaves of this clone of full moon maple are deeply cut and divided, just like the perennial monkshood (Aconitum) for which the cultivar is named.

Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost'
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’

Variegated plants that like shade can brighten up a dark corner of the garden. A charming evergreen shrub to do just that is Pieris japonica ‘Variegata,’ with its white-margined leaves and white flowers in spring. It will reach about 1.8 m (6 ft.) high and 1.2 m (4 ft.) wide with time.

Pieris also have attractive clusters of flower buds that decorate them all winter. Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ has a funny old common name that few use anymore – Siberian bugloss – but it’s a sensational perennial for shade. The species is native to the Caucasus Mountains, so it doesn’t mind the cold one bit. This clone has striking foliage: large, heart-shaped leaves with a silver background and veins of deep green. The leaves are roughly hairy and die away in winter. In spring it bears little blue forget-me-not-like flowers, as it’s in the same family. ‘Jack Frost’ is a tough and forgiving plant.

Pair ‘Jack Frost’ with Wallich’s wood fern (Dryopteris wallichiana) for an interesting contrast in texture. Also deciduous, it sends up glossy, dark green fronds up to 1 m (3 ft.) tall

Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’

Purpleleaf autumn snakeroot (Actaea simplex [Atropurpurea Group] ‘Brunette’) is a deciduous perennial from very cold parts of Asia. This is another of my “must-have” favourites because of its stature – its wonderful maroon, multi-parted leaves form an airy clump to 1.2 m (4 ft.) high and wide, yet it doesn’t need staking. On top of that, literally, appear racemes like white bottlebrushes in late fall, just when you are feeling sad that summer is over. (This plant used to be in the genus Cimicifuga, but it turned out really to just be a variation on the Actaea theme, a genus that was created first.)

These are some highlights among variegated and maroon plants, but you can also add golden foliage to jazz up your shade garden.

Goldleaf bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’) and golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) create spots of sunlight in the garden. The typical pink-and-white bleeding heart flowers of ‘Gold Heart’ sail over leaves of acid yellow – it’s not a colour combination for everyone, but it is certainly eye-catching.

Erythronium 'Pagoda'
Erythronium ‘Pagoda’

Hakonechloa prefers to face the sun; in full sun, the leaves bleach more, and in shade they are a bit greener. Its arching habit makes the foliage buoyant, responsive to the slightest breeze. Airy seed heads are produced in late summer and the plant takes on rich autumn tints before becoming dormant for winter. For a short-lived blast of cheer, plant a drift of yellow trout lily (Erythronium ‘Pagoda’). This hybrid of E. revolutum, our western trout lily, is more vigorous, spreading to form a mass of mottled, glossy, deep-green leaves and stems bearing three or four flowers each. Soon after flowering, the whole plant withers, enabling it to survive very dry summers with little water.

Last but not least, I wouldn’t be without a number of liliaceous woodland plants, including false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), which is native to much of North America, including British Columbia. It grows to about 1 m (3 ft.) high and wide, with arching stems that end in fluffy white flowers. The alternate leaves are handsome, with deep parallel veins (almost pleated) and a long tapering tip. The flowers mature into red berries by autumn. Truly a three-season perennial, it deserves a rest during winter.

I, for one, cherish scores of shade plants and feel sure that once you have grown them, they’ll be your favourites, too!

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated:

  • Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ (fernleaf full moon maple) – zone 5
  • Actaea simplex [Atropurpurea Group] ‘Brunette’ (purpleleaf autumn snakeroot) – zone 4
  • Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ (Siberian bugloss) – zone 3
  • Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’ (goldleaf bleeding heart) – zone 4
  • Dryopteris wallichiana (Wallich’s wood fern) – zone 6 (with mulch in winter) or 7
  • Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ (yellow fawn lily) – zone 4
  • Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (golden Japanese forest grass) – zone 5
  • Pieris japonica ‘Variegata’ (variegated lily-of-the-valley shrub) – zone 6
  • Sarcococca confusa (sweet box) – zone 6
  • Smilacina racemosa (false Solomon’s seal) – zone 4
  • Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’ (spreading English yew) – zone 5

Great Plant Picks is an educational awards program committed to building a comprehensive palette of outstanding plants for Pacific Northwest gardens. Awards are based on the combined expertise of forty horticulturists from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Great Plant Picks originates at the Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle and provides a forum for sharing horticultural information with the wider gardening community. For more photos and detailed information on almost 500 Picks, visit

With more than 30 years experience in horticulture in B.C. – in wholesale, retail and at VanDusen Botanical Garden for a decade – Carolyn Jones brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to GardenWise and as staff horticulturist. Douglas Justice is the curator and associate director of the UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research; he is the chair of the Trees and Conifers Subcommittee of GPP. Prior to that, Douglas taught horticulture at Kwantlen University College.