The Evergreens: Shade Plants

Evergreen plants make a garden a year-round destination. They act as a foil for perennials and annuals; in winter, they simply are the garden. Last week we looked at a few of my favorite sun-loving evergreens, this week let's explore a few shade-loving plants that I know are super hardy and easy to care for.

Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' otherwise known as black mondo grass. True, this does well in sunnier locales, it seems to fare much better for me in at least partial shade. Not only is it evergreen (does not die back seasonally), but its spring flowers followed by black berries add an extra layer of interest. Slowly spreading to form small colonies, it's an edging plant I wouldn't be without. The dark foliage is a nice contrast to mostly greens of the rest of the shade garden and also pairs well with silver foliage, which I also tend to use in shade.

Here's a shrub that can't be beat, Vaccinium ovatum or our Northwest native evergreen huckleberry. If you get berries before the birds do, they are a little sour but tasty. It too is a versatile plant that can handle a bit more sun, but full sun has burned it in my gardens. Perhaps at higher elevations it fares better in full sun.

Emerging growth is bronze-red, quite attractive. In spring it sports small, bell-shaped white flowers. Very versatile but painfully slow-growing, it's still worth having in the garden and it helps to set off those larger leaved ubiquitous rhododendrons. Mature shrubs are about 6' high and can be pruned to shape if desired. It's great for informal gardens, which is how I use it intermixed with ferns, perennials and other shrubs.

The evergreen standout in this photo is the tree in the center, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Barry's Silver'. Another slow grower, this silver beacon will eventually reach 6'. It is listed as a full-sun dwarf tree (by Xera Plants which is where I purchased mine), but I have found that in my garden, part shade is ideal. As you can see in this photo, it is very open shade, and receives a little dappled sunshine for part of the day when the sun is out.

The soft needles really are beautiful year-round. The silver tones work well with all manner of other foliage colors from burgundy to green to warmer oranges and yellows. In other words, it pairs well with a wide range of plants and it also adds spark to the garden.

Beesia deltophylla is a short shade perennial at about 12" high and 24" wide; isn't large but it's fantastic. Very shiny heart shaped leaves look good year-round and, in spring and summer, spikes of white flowers rise above the foliage. This is one that is great for the front of a border or edge of a path, a small-scale ground cover. It can handle deep shade, something that very few plants can. Originally from China and brought to the U.S. by Dan Hinkley, it is one of only two species in the genus Beesia. 

Carex conica 'Snowline' has been with me for at least 6 years, holding its own as an edger in two of my gardens. These grasses are about 2 - 2.5' wide and only a few inches high and have very narrow leaves. The variegation means it shows up well in shade, an especially useful trait if you observe your shade garden from a distance as I often do. It grows slowly. You can cut it back to the ground in spring to refresh the plant, but I never have and it keeps on looking fabulous. 

Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Variegata' is a vine, but here I am using it as a small-scale ground cover. Eventually reaching 10' in length and a few feet in width, this evergreen jasmine does bloom but not as much as the species. I think this may be because I have it in part shade; if it were in more sun it would likely flower more with its trademark jasmine scent. I love how it brightens up dark corners on the ground, I also recently planted one growing up the side of the deck in more sun.

Our West Coast native Garrya ellpitica 'James Roof' or silk tassel bush is a broadleaf evergreen shrub reaching about 10' x 10' in time. It's versatile, handling sun or shade and a wide variety of soils as long as they are well-drained. Wonderful long catkins (10") are its signature, coming on in winter and spring. An underused shrub in my humble opinion. Here the catkins are already forming in November. I'll be watching those closely, they are so interesting.

Our native sword ferns or Polystichum munitum is ubiquitous in the Northwest, but it's so versatile. Seen here in a row on the top of the berm, they were transplanted from what is now the orchard to this locale, we wanted to save them. They can be found in sunnier locales but I find they look fresher in at least part shade. They can handle that super dry shade underneath conifers, a difficult site indeed. They create a woodland feel if massed under the canopy of conifers or in a mixed border they add a vase shaped punch of green. Mature ferns are about 3' x 3' with new growth coming on in spring, while older fronds touch the ground and can be cut back if desired for a neater look.

They really don't require much here in the Northwest. When they have ideal conditions, that is shade and fluffy forest soil, they tend to look like this.

Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Irene Patterson' is a New Zealand native that has survived the harshest of winters the Pacific Northwest can drum up. I purchased this from Cistus Nursery several years ago and is the only pittosporum of about six species that has survived, most were gone after one or two years.The speckled variegation sparkles in part shade, it is said to handle full sun although I tried that and it burned. Now in dappled shade, this evergreen shrub stands at about 3' high, although it will eventually reach about 5'. Dark stems contrast with the foliage making a very handsome specimen. In warmer climates, pittosporum in general make great hedges as well as specimens.

Good ol' Rhododendron pachysanthum, a small 4' or so fuzzy rhodie. Around the Northwest, gigantic rhododendrons are the norm - you see them in front of nearly every house built from 1940 on, and they often get huge and gangly, obscuring front windows and doorways. While I appreciate them in the woods, for my garden I wanted something with a little extra interest, so I chose this. It's never bloomed and that's ok with me. It's all about the foliage. As it's petite, it is easy to tuck in here and there. Not that my garden is petite . . . but . . . it came with me from the old garden.

Polypodium scouleri is another West Coast native fern, but rather smaller than sword ferns and leathery in texture. It has very neat foliage, that is to say with little blemish or dying off in my experience.

Here, new bright green growth really glows. It is said to reach 10" across or so, but I have a few clumps that I've had for several years that are now at least 15" and as it grows by underground rhizomes, it could continue to spread. I adore this little fern, it appreciates cooler weather so I keep it out of hot sun.

Yet another West Coast native (we have some fantastic shade plants here in the Northwest) is salal or Gaultheria shallon, a variable shrub to 6' tall. It forms the understory of much of our forests and although widespread in this region, it's not used extensively in gardens. It handles sun and shade, but usually looks brighter green and more lush in a bit of shade. Foliage is used often in the floral industry, flowers are small and white or pink blushed and appear in spring and summer. Fruits are dark purple and edible, pretty tasty, too. If you can get it established in the garden it is really very low maintenance. It will handle sun better if it receives regular moisture.

Sarcococca or sweetbox comes in many sizes and species. The main attraction is its sweet fragrance in the middle of winter - January and February - when naught else is going on. It's so strong, you'd swear it was honeysuckle or a summertime fragrant flower. Seemingly boring the rest of the year, this is a valuable shrub for the shade garden with the added the benefit of fragrance.

Typical height is around 3', they handle dry shade once established. It prefers shade and can handle deep shade but likes open shade in my opinion.

Although small, these sweet box flowers are amazingly fragrant. Be sure to plant some near a doorway or path where its fragrance can be appreciated, although it is strong so you will likely smell it before you see it. I have several Sarcocooca ruscifolia plants in my shade garden and they are quite small still, a little slow growing. These photos are from the gardens at Joy Creek Nursery where I work.

Saxifrage! There are so many, some that prefer sun, others for shade. Here Saxifraga umbrosa 'Variegata' sends up wands of frothy flowers in summer. It prefers dappled shade and can handle a bit of sun but will fry if it's too hot. These rosettes are good-looking  year round.

Saxifraga x geum 'Dentata' is another of the shade loving saxifrages. It is a spreading clumper, too, to about 3' across for mature plants. At only a few inches high this is sited at the front of the border.

Epimedium: This is one of those plants - the ones that do well in dry shade, one of the most difficult types of environments for plants. Also known as bishop's hat, named for their odd little flowers, they range in leaf shape, growth habit, flower color and size. They are evergreen, although they look better in my opinion when old foliage is cut back in early spring when new foliage emerges. This epimedium photo was also taken at Joy Creek Nursery, I believe it is Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' - a better spreader than most epimediums.

I think this one is Epimedium x rubrum 'Sweetheart' with pink flowers and a blush margin on heart-shaped leaves.

The new foliage is bright and soft, a great small scale ground cover for woodland areas or works especially well as an understory for deciduous trees.

There are just a few of my favorite shade-loving evergreens, many adapted to a wide range of conditions, although I know these all do really well in the Northwest. Some evergreen plants may seem boring (sarcococca, for example) but visually, you want those dark green backdrops for your more interesting plants to stand out, plus their foliage is quite handsome. I prefer to think of them as understated elegance. The fragrance alone for sarcococca is worth having it in the garden.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens! Thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love to hear what grows well for you in your own garden. Happy gardening everyone!


  1. Another great post, although fewer of these plants would be happy here. I grew Sarcococca in my former shady garden and, as you described, it faded into the background most of the year but when it bloomed you knew it even though the flowers were tiny. I also tried Epimediums in my old garden, even though I was well outside its range there. It didn't bloom much but it also didn't die so that may be an experiment I'll try again once my shade house is up.

    Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Yes, many of these are quite suited to the climate of the Pacific Northwest. Let us know about the Epimediums if you try them again, it would be good to know that they can live in a warmer climate - as dry shade plants are few and far between. Happy Thanksgiving to you as well!

  2. Love all of these shade plants. Wish I could grow one and all. I do have some Epimediums. Love em. They are great for dry shade.

    1. Aren't they wonderful plants? Once they take hold and are established, they are well worth their price. We love 'em too!

  3. Great selection there and all fab additions (if not essential) to gardens of similar climate :)

    1. Thank you Mark and Gaz! Although not tropicalismo - many are, in my humble opinion, essential indeed for shade gardens of similar climates. Cheers!


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