Best shade loving plants: 14 buys to add interest to your garden

Embrace the darker side of gardening with these shade loving plants that will add wow factor to forgotten areas

Meconposis, or the Himalayan poppy, are shade loving plants that are hard to grow
(Image credit: Van Meuwen)

There are many beautiful shade loving plants that will flourish in even the darkest corners. So, if your garden has a lot of shaded areas, rather than being a negative you should see it as an opportunity to create something unique. 

Many woodland plants thrive in gloomy spots or under trees, and add a sense of romance to the garden. As long as you choose the right varieties for your location and soil type, shade-loving plants are often hardy and low-maintenance too, enduring year after year with lush foliage and interesting flowers.

Before you start, assess how shady your garden really is. Are you planting for deep shade, or do certain areas receive some sunlight? There are plants that will live happily in the shadows, while others need some light to thrive.

You will also need a good understanding of your soil type. While many shade-loving plants prefer moist but not waterlogged soil, there are those that like drier conditions. Choose wisely and you will have interest in the garden year round.

1. DICENTRA

Dicentra, bleeding heart, is a shade-loving plant

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Reflecting its common name, ‘bleeding heart’, dicentra weeps with boughs of heart-shaped flowers. The easy-to-grow perennial blooms from April until early June, bridging the gap between spring bulbs and summer plants. 

Native to the Far East, dicentra adds a subtly exotic twist to modern and cottage gardens alike.

Where to plant

Dicentra prefer partial shade, and are great for filling the gap between taller plants; in heavy shade you will get less flowers. The plant will thrive in fertile, neutral soil that’s well or poorly drained as long as it has moisture. Its ultimate size is less than one metre tall and wide.

How to care for dicentra

The plant will die down in the heat of the summer, and can be cut back only once the foliage has turned yellow or brown. Feed and mulch as it starts to grow in the spring, and water regularly.

Dicentra 'Valentine' at Waitrose Garden

With its plum-coloured shoots, grey-green foliage and scarlet red flowers, this stunning dicentra adds lots of colour and interest to the garden in spring. A hardy perennial, it will return year after year.


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2. BRUNNERA MACROPHYLLA

Brunnera macrophylla is a shade-loving plant

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Brunnera macrophylla is a charming groundcover plant with forget-me-not-like flowers that are attractive to bees. A hardy woodland perennial, it blooms in spring, adding texture and colour. 

For a more striking variety, opt for brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, which has a silvery frost-bitten tinge to the leaves.

Where to plant

Brunnera macrophylla is a compact, low-growing plant so for maximum impact, plant a series along the front of a border. They need partial or full shade, and look particularly lovely beneath trees. Any soil type is fine, but it should ideally be well drained.

How to care for brunnera macrophylla

One of the best things about brunnera macrophylla is that it’s so easy to look after – it requires no pruning and rarely suffers from disease or pests. As long as the conditions are right, it will flourish for years to come. Propagate by dividing the plants in spring.

Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' at Gardening Express

Bearing heart-shaped leaves veined with silver, 'Jack Frost' has a perpetual Narnia feel, with sprays of sky-blue flowers making a breathtaking display in spring.View Deal

3. Hostas

Hostas are leafy shade-loving plants

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Fantastic for adding lush foliage for most of the year, hostas come in myriad colours and leaf shapes. All plants need some level of shading, but certain varieties like heavier shade than others, so do check the label. 

Many hostas also produce exotic-looking flowers in the summer, adding a much-needed splash of colour to gloomy areas of the garden.

Where to plant

Hostas can be planted in borders or large containers, and as they like moisture can thrive in bog gardens or near ponds. They’ll tolerate most soil types, but ideally need fertile soil that won’t dry out too quickly. As well as shade, hostas like shelter and don’t do as well in exposed, windy locations.

How to care for hostas

It’s important to keep on top of watering hostas in the summer, especially when first planted. Do not let the plants become waterlogged, though – if planting in containers, make sure there are drainage holes. 

Feed once in the spring and mulch with compost or manure to help keep in moisture. Old foliage should be cut back in autumn.

Slugs and snails can be problematic for hostas, so keep an eye out and provide protection where necessary.

Hardy hosta collection at You Garden

With so many lovely hostas to choose from, why stick with just one? This hardy selection contains 'Blue Angel', 'Albopicta' and 'Wide Brim'. All perfect for planting underneath trees and shrubs.View Deal

4. Ferns

Ferns thrive in the shade

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Many ferns are evergreen, adding lush foliage year round. They are hardy plants, and with a large variety of types and sizes available, you are guaranteed to find one to suit your soil type and level of shading. 

Some particularly good ferns to look at for shady gardens are blechnum, dryopteris filix-mas, polypodium, polystichum, athyrium and matteuccia.

Where to plant

With such a wide variety of ferns available, you will need to look at the instructions for the individual plant. In general any shady site with moist but well-drained soil will suffice. Ferns can also be planted in containers, and look fantastic amid other hardy perennials.

How to care for ferns

Ferns are low-maintenance plants, and are very easy to look after. Mulch with well-rotted manure and, if the soil is particularly poor, feed once in spring. Water directly into the ground when the soil is dry, and avoid over-wetting the leaves or they could rot. Occasionally remove any dead foliage.

Athyrium niponicum var. pictum 'Burgundy Lace' at Thompson & Morgan

Also known as the Painted Lady fern, 'Burgundy Lace' has attractive red-tinged foliage that deepens as the plant matures. It's an elegant choice for groundcover in a damp, shaded area.View Deal

5. Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas love partial shade but need some sun

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

With their large blowsy blooms, hydrangeas provide lots of mid- to late-summer colour and also make lovely cut flowers. They are deciduous hardy shrubs, and there are several different varieties to choose from, in a range sizes and flower types – broadly mophead and lacecap. Climbing hydrangeas are also available.

Interestingly, the colour of blue and pink hydrangeas is dictated by the pH level of the soil – blue for acidic and pink for alkaline.

Where to plant

Avoid exposed areas and plant in a border where the hydrangea will receive partial shade, as they do need some sun. Hydrangeas will thrive in rich soil that’s moist but free-draining, but most soil types are fine. Smaller varieties can be planted in containers.

How to care for hydrangeas

Fertilise in the spring and give them a good weekly watering in warm weather. Whether your hydrangea is a mophead or lacecap variety will dictate the best time for deadheading. While lacecaps can be deadheaded after flowering, mopheads should have their flowers left until early spring. At this time, both types can be pruned. Remove a couple of the oldest stems at the base to encourage new growth. Climbing hydrangeas can be pruned after flowering.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Kardinal Violet' at Waitrose Garden

With larger than average flowers, this stunning hydrangea reveals rich reddish-purple blooms in acidic soils, or pinker petals in alkaline soils. Plant in partial shade.View Deal

6. SNOWDROPS

Snowdrops are woodland plants that thrive in partial shade

(Image credit: Future)

Providing a delightful scene on late-winter woodland walks as they emerge through snow and frozen ground, snowdrops will easily naturalise in most gardens. For such a simple flower, there are a surprisingly large number of single and double varieties available. Plant bulbs in late spring for elegant drifts of white flowers the following year. 

Where to plant

Snowdrops will thrive in light shade in moist soil, replicating their natural woodland habitat. They are low growing, so plant at the front of borders, under trees and naturalise in lawn areas. You can also grow snowdrops in containers.

How to care for snowdrops

The ultimate low-maintenance plant, snowdrops require no pruning and just need to be left to die back each year. However, you do need to avoid letting them dry out too much over summer. They are easy to propagate and will multiply year after year. 

Snowdrop (Double-flowered) at Thompson & Morgan

These graceful native beauties love to shelter in dappled shade at the base of trees and shrubs, but look great naturalised in grass. Versatile and vigorous, they will quickly multiply.View Deal

7. PULMONARIA

Pulmonaria are good groundcovers for deep shade

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Also known as common lungwort, pulmonaria blooms in late winter and early spring with pretty, funnel-shaped flowers that open pink but then turn blue. The plants are reliable semi-evergreen, hardy perennials and are easy to look after. In the summer, the leaves often take on eye-catching patterns, offering interest in almost every season. 

Where to plant

Pulmonaria are fantastic groundcovers for deep shade, but will also grow in semi-shade in a sheltered position. They are low growing, so if planting in borders, position at the front. Pulmonaria will thrive in most fertile soil types but like it to be moist and well drained.

How to care for pulmonaria

After flowering, remove dead foliage or any leaves showing signs of mildew. At this point, you can also propagate the plants by division for more blooms next year, although they will naturally multiply.

Pulmonaria 'Blue Ensign' at Crocus

Considered to be one of the prettiest varieties, 'Blue Ensign' reveals compact clusters of vibrant violet flowers throughout spring. More tolerant of sun than most pulmonaria, it's also loved by bees.View Deal

8. RODGERSIA

Rodgersia thrive in damp, shady gardens

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Deciduous perennials, rodgersia are often found growing in damp areas, next to ponds or boggy patches. Their large, lush leaves provide foliage and texture for much of the year, while in the summer, clusters of pink flowers add plenty of colour and interest. Where well established, rodgersia are also good at staving off weeds.

Where to plant

Grow rodgersia in fertile, moist soil in partial shade, although many plants will tolerate full shade or sun. They make perfect planting partners with ferns.

How to care for rodgersia

The plants dislike drought, so it’s important to keep the soil moist. Cut back the plants after flowering. Rodgersia are easy to propagate by dividing the clumps in early spring. As a lush leafy plant, slugs and snails can be a pest, so be on the lookout.

Rodgersia aesculifolia at Van Meuwen

Originating in northern China, Rodgersia aesculifolia is ideal for edging ponds, and for waterlogged borders. Its horse chestnut-like leaves burst with conical panicles of pink flowers in summer.View Deal

9. TIARELLA

Tiarella have frothy cones of flowers and love the shade

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Also known as foam flowers, tiarella burst with cones of frothy cream and pink petals in late spring and summer. Hardy deciduous perennials, tiarella are easy to look after and perform reliably year after year.

Where to plant

Site in partial or full shade in a sheltered position. Most soil types will accommodate tiarella, but it needs to be moist, not waterlogged. Growing up to 30cm tall, tiarella are ideal for providing groundcover or edging paths and borders.

How to care for tiarella

Keep the soil moist and avoid over fertilising. Tiarella are low-maintenance, requiring no pruning, but you do need to keep an eye out for mildew and slugs. The plants can be propagated by division in spring.

Tiarella 'Spring Symphony' at Waitrose Garden

'Spring Symphony' forms a fantastic carpet of foliage in a shady spot throughout the summer. The plants flower in late spring, with tiny blush white flowers. Plant it in large numbers for full effect.View Deal

10. HELLEBORES

Hellebore flowers to attract bees

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Dotted around borders, hellebores are fantastic for adding interest to gardens in winter and early spring, and they are also beloved of bees. These hardy perennials are easy to look after and come in a wide range of colours.

Where to plant

Hellebores generally prefer light shade and do need some sun. They are low-growing plants, so use at the front of borders and in containers. Most varieties like rich soil, but always check the plant label for preferred conditions.

How to care for hellebores

Hellebores can get most of their nutrients through an annual mulch – although container plants will require extra care. Once the plant has died back in the spring, cut off the flowers, but leave the foliage until winter, at which point you should remove dead leaves. Hellebores can be propagated through division in the autumn.

Hellebore 'Mixed' (Lenten Rose) at Van Meuwen

This stunning mix of hellebores blooms in late winter and early spring, and provides food for bees at a time of year when supplies are scarce. An elegant addition to shady borders and containers.View Deal

11. EUPHORBIA AMYGDALOIDES

Euphorbia amygdaloides or wood spurge is a woodland plant that loves dry shade

(Image credit: Getty Images)

As its common name 'wood spurge' suggests, euphorbia amygdaloides is often found in woodlands. An evergreen perennial, it features attractive sprays of yellow-green flowers from spring to early summer, which look fantastic popping up in the middle of borders. 

When cut the plant produces a toxic milky sap, so do take care when pruning and avoid where pets are likely to nibble.

Where to plant

Euphorbia amygdaloides is one of a few shade-loving plants that thrives in dry soil, making it perfect for positioning under large trees with water-hungry roots. It will grow in most soil types, as long as it is well drained, forming a carpet of greenery that helps to suppress weeds. Bear in mind it can become somewhat invasive if left unchecked.

How to care for euphorbia amygdaloides

Cut back old flowers in late summer or autumn. In the spring, remove any new unwanted seedlings. Keep an eye out for aphids.

Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea' at Crocus

This compact euphorbia that has long-lasting, bright yellow flowers in spring that contrast beautifully with the deep purple foliage. Use it towards the front of a border or as a groundcover.View Deal

12. GERANIUMS

Some types of geranium will grow in full shade

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While geraniums all have different levels of shade tolerance, some varieties will thrive in deep shade, including macrorrhizum, nodosum and pheum. These attractive perennials feature white to deep purple flowers in spring to summer, and many also have attractive red and gold coloured foliage in autumn.

Where to plant

Geraniums prefer moist but well-draining, sometimes drier soils, though will thrive in most conditions; check the label for individual preferences. The plants are low growing so best for groundcover or positioning at the front of borders.

How to care for geraniums

For most plants, keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. Remove faded foliage and flowers to encourage new growth. Geraniums can be propagated by division in spring.

Geranium macrorrhizum 'White-Ness' at Waitrose Garden

This stunning full-shade geranium is purity itself and will brighten up dark corners of the garden. It flowers from May to June, and its aromatic foliage can take on seasonal colour in autumn.View Deal

13. LIRIOPE MUSCARI

Liriope muscari grows well in full shade

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Also known as lily turf, liriopes burst with wands of grape-like purple flowers in autumn; this is then followed by black berries. An evergreen perennial, the plant produces grassy leaves that provide excellent groundcover.

Where to plant

Liriopes will thrive in a sheltered spot in most soil types, as long as it’s moist but well draining. It tolerates part to full shade, and is perfect for positioning beneath trees and shrubs.

How to care for liriope muscari

The plants are low maintenance – simply keep the soil fairly moist and cut back foliage in the spring. At this time the plants can also be propagated by division.

Liriope muscari – Big Blue Lily Turf at Gardening Express

Displaying evergreen foliage and tall spikes of hyacinth-like blooms from late summer, well into autumn. Slow spreading, it's ideal for groundcover or as an accent plant.


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14. MECONOPSIS

Meconposis, or the Himalayan poppy, are shade-loving plants that are hard to grow

(Image credit: Van Meuwen)

Widely known as the blue Himalayan poppy, meconopsis is truly a rare beauty, revealing vibrant jewel-like petals in the height of summer. But beware, it is not easy to grow, and many gardeners will fail, particularly in the warmer south. Meconopsis needs just the right conditions to thrive – including plenty of shade – though its uniquely stunning flowers make it worth the effort.

While blue flowers, such as this meconopsis baileyi from Van Meuwen, are the most prized, other colours are also available, including red, pink and white.

Where to plant

If you’re up for the challenge, first establish that you have the right soil type – it must be humus-rich, slightly acidic to neutral and damp but well draining. Chalky soils won’t yield success. Meconopsis doesn’t like the heat, and needs a sheltered spot where it also won’t suffer from cold winds.

How to care for meconopsis

Grow from seed in late summer or autumn and overwinter the seedlings in a coldframe, or sow in February. Avoid over or under watering and use a weak liquid feed during the growing season. 

Meconopsis can be planted out in spring, though they are slow-growing so won’t flower for at least another year. They need fertilising and mulching to thrive, as well as plenty of luck and patience.

Meconopsis 'Lingholm' at Thompson & Morgan

Meconopsis 'Lingholm' is the most popular variety with its fantastic sky-blue blooms contrasting against golden yellow stamens. Perfect for adding the wow factor to shady gardens.View Deal

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