Winter Interest: Shade Plants

Continuing with the theme of plants that provide winter interest, this week we look at what that means for shade. Our shade garden is a real work in progress. We have been working on extending a long, shady path and plantings along the northern border of our property for about a year. Many of these plants are still immature, but they have amazing potential. Let's tour a few of the standouts.

Fatsia japonica 'Spider's Web' really lights up the shade. This is an evergreen shrub that will reach about 8' tall at maturity. I have observed at the nursery that when these were exposed to sun they really burned, at least as small plants. Perhaps they are more tolerant of more light as they mature. 

Euonymus fortunei 'Silver Queen'. In the gardens at Joy Creek Nursery, this plant is more columnar in shape than it is wide and really brightens up the corner in which it's planted. I think it will become evident that the majority of these shrubs have variegation of some kind, a bright beacon that I can see looking out windows in our home on those cold days I don't want to be outside.

While this may seem like a pedestrian shrub, Aucuba japonica 'Gold Variegated Sport', it really shines in winter and, once established, handles dry shade. Yes, please. At 7' tall, they help (or will when they mature) tie the woodland area together and provide a backdrop for smaller shade-lovers.

Viburnum tinus 'Variegatum', an evergreen viburnum that reaches about 7' at maturity and like its cousin 'Spring Bouquet', it blooms in winter and has metallic blue berries that follow. It's said to be deer resistant. Hardy to about zone 6a.

I am a huge fan of Osmanthus or tea olives. While most of these will also do fine in sun, I have them on the edge of the shady area where they get part sun. Slow to mature, they are worth it in that they are heavily perfumed. They are really tough, take to pruning, average soil and are quite drought tolerant once established. Pictured is Osmanthus x fortunei 'San Jose'.

 Osmanthus x fortunei 'San Jose'.

Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Purpurea' - which, as the name suggests, has dark purple new growth. This one reaches about 10' at maturity. 

Osmanthus delavayi has smaller leaves and blooms in April.  

 New growth on O. h. 'Purpurea'.

Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Rotundifolius' reaches about 6 x 6' at maturity. Full to part sun, hardy to zone 7. I have a few others, they really are great shrubs if painfully slow to grow. For an extensive look at wonderful cultivars, check Xera Plants' website here.

This is Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Variegata' or variegated star jasmine. While this has yet to bloom and grace the garden with its perfume, I don't really mind as I grow it for the foliage. I use this as a very small scale groundcover.

 Ardisia japonica is a new ground cover type plant for me, brought to my attention by my colleague who claims this is the best shade plant ever. It is evergreen, spreading, has small pink flowers followed by red berries, and colonizes by underground runners. Hardy to zone 7. 

Sarcococca ruscifolia - fragrant sweet box. That fragrance. These small evergreen shrubs tolerate dry shade and are, like many other plants we've seen, great for setting off fancier spring-time shade plants.

 Ophiopogon planiscapus - the regular ol' Ophiopogon rather than the 'Nigrescens' that is so popular. I have both, but I really like this simple green grass-like plant that is super low-maintenance and spreads slowly. It looks great against ferns and rocks.

This can handle some sun, but in wet soils. Uncinia rubra, this is a seedling from a 'Belinda's Find' I once had but has long since vanished. I like that it adds a warm orangey-pink glow to mostly green ferns surrounding it.

Another seemingly dull, pedestrian shrub - I see what this does for the winter garden at Joy Creek Nursery - so I had to add one. Abelia grandiflora 'Francis Mason' is semi-evergreen, has fragrant shell-pink flowers, the calyx on this flower is deep pink and it persists long after the petals have dropped, adding even more color. Its golden tones add color to the shade garden, too. It's just a workhorse of a shrub. 

Lonicera nitida 'Lemon Beauty' or variegated box honeysuckle reaches about 3-4' high by about 3' wide and could make a good small scale hedge. It can take a little more sun, but it really sparkles in part shade. Takes average soil and pruning.  

This has been in the ground from early 2016 and has been painfully slow growing, but must be mentioned. Mahonia fortunei 'Dan Hinkley' an introduction from Xera Plants. From their website:

While visiting Dan several years ago he lamented that Monrovia had not picked up his collection of this showy evergreen shrub. He then gave it to us and we named it after him. Handsome evergreen shrub with finely serrated divided leaves that emerge ruby red when new. Forms a multiple stemmed patch to 5′ wide and 4′ tall. If it gets leggy do not hesitate to chop it back it will return more dense and less floppy. And it will recover fast. In September 2″ long streamers of light yellow flowers are followed by blue fruit. Part shade to full sun in a protected location with light summer water. Locate out of subfreezing wind. Great in a woodland. High deer resistance.

Good old Vaccinium ovatum, our native evergreen huckleberry. Another painfully slow shrub (is there a trend here?), it double delivers as an edible landscape plant.

Our native snowberry does this so I keep it around.

A wider look at some of the older shade area on the right and the "edged" sunnier berm garden on the left. I'm liking how this is coming along. 

Another shade area under deciduous cascara, hazelnut and maple trees. The whole area got a good 3 - 4" layer of wood chips as a mulch to help keep weeds down. 

There are many more plants in the shady areas at Chickadee Gardens. These are but a few that sparkle right now, in the middle of winter, when we need it most. As they mature and create pockets of interest and micro-climates, I will certainly document them and share their progress. Other fantastic plants for winter interest, I might add, are our good old native sword ferns or Polystichum munitum - boring? perhaps, but super-adapted to our area and structural and easy. Many other ferns, too, as well as Chamaecyparis 'Barry's Silver' (another variegated small tree), a pittosporum or two and many others. I'll save them for another day and another post.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always, thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing what you all are up to! Happy gardening, everyone and to our East Coast friends, we hope you stay warm and that the polar vortex departs soon!


  1. This is another nice overview, Tamara. I think I need to try Sarcocca, although its water needs could prove to be a problem. I've tried Lonicera 'Lemon Beauty' 2x and, even though it should theoretically grow here, it's failed to thrive. Uncinia died out quickly in my garden but Sunset's entry on the plant suggests I was foolish even to try it. I grow a LOT of Abelias, however. 'Edward Goucher' came with the garden and is still my largest and most vigorous but the variegated varieties, 'Hopley's', 'Radiance' and 'Kaleidoscope' have also done well.

    1. Thank you, Kris! Oh, I really like Sarcococca - we have a bunch in the gardens at Joy Creek and they are such a breath of fresh air in the middle of winter. Too bad about your Lonicera, and why did Sunset suggest it won't do well for you? Too hot?

      Abelias - I'd like to try some more, thanks for the recommendations!

  2. I am always fascinated by the variety of plants you have in your garden. I wish I could grow more of them.

    1. Thanks, Lisa! I have a lot of variety, that's for sure. It's the problem with a plant addict!

  3. Nothing like some variegation to brighten up the dull days in winter. Love to watch the progression of your garden.

    1. Indeed, I totally agree - variegation helps so much. Thanks for commenting and reading! I hope this year in the garden some things will really start to take off. We shall see come summer time! :)

  4. Finally, a list of plants I not only recognize, but actually have some of! Haha. It's lookin' good!

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