Take Five: Forgiving Shrubs for Shade

Let's continue our conversation about the top plants, the best of the best in terms of not only survivors, but thrivers in our gardens. Last week I shared my top five shrubs for sun, this week in the same spirit I present shrubs for shade.

We all want plant successes in our gardens. The selection of plants we can grow, while still quite large, is toughening up these past several years. Faced with a multitude of weather (and other) challenges, these shrubs for shade have sailed through it all in my garden. Drought, late freezes, non-existent springs, wildfire smoke, saturated soil, diseases, insect damage as well as mole/vole problems have been no match for these winners. Here then are (arguably) the top five shrubs for shade in my zone 7b garden these past eight years.

As many of you predicted, Mahonias are on my list for best shrubs for shade. There are a few species of our native Oregon grape, they are: M. aquifolium, M. nervosa and M. repens. Mahonia aquifolium is the tallest at about 6' tall and spreading, M. nervosa (pictured) is medium height at about 2' tall and spreading, M. repens is a groundcover at about 1' tall and spreading. They all spread by suckering and while I list them as shrubs for shade, can also tolerate sun, though they would fry in the sun in my garden with very little irrigation.

Mahonia nervosa in autumn as the maple leaves fall. This evergreen shrub does indeed have prickly leaf margins and leathery leaves. Some find its prickly nature off-putting, however, it is an incredibly valuable plant for not only Pacific Northwest gardens and our forest ecology, but is useful in many parts of the world. 

Mahonia nervosa flower buds, just beginning to open. Mahonia is often listed as belonging to the genus Berberis, but most of us around the Pacific Northwest consider it part of the Mahonia genus.

Mahonia nervosa fruit, which looks the same on all three species. These berries are enjoyed by wildlife and can indeed be consumed by humans, though have a slightly bitter taste. 

There are many other species of Mahonia that are incredibly garden-worthy for me. Pictured is Mahonia eurybracteata  'Soft Caress' which, as its name indicates, is nearly free of prickly parts. The leaves are much narrower, but otherwise it has the same look and habit of others in its genus. I have had this one in a container on my front porch for several years and it still looks great, despite being neglected from time to time. I also have one in the ground in the shade garden and it too looks great. They become multi-stemmed suckering shrubs in time, some such as Mahonia x media 'Charity' reaching heights of 15' or more. While I don't currently have 'Charity' in my garden I think it's time to add it and similar species.

I featured this beauty on a post recently - Mahonia x savilleana, a hybrid between M. eurybracteata and M. gracilipes. Evergreen, gorgeous, very little maintenance. This makes me want ALL the Mahonias.

Mahonia fortunei ‘Dan Hinkley’, introduced to the trade by 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. Xera Plants introduction. 

Since this photo was taken (a few years ago) it has grown considerably, and brings up a good point - these are slow plants to get going. They all of course require regular irrigation in their first year but beyond that they are incredibly forgiving.

New bronze tinted growth on M. 'Dan Hinkley'.

Danger Garden did a wonderful post all about her Mahonia collection, you can visit that post here.

Morella californica (syn. Myrica californica) known by the common name Pacific wax myrtle, is a much larger evergreen shrub than Mahonia. This particular specimen is in the Darlingtonia State Natural Site on the Oregon coast. Its leaves are soft and glossy bright green, it reaches heights between 10' - 25' and is excellent as a screening plant. It can be pruned to shape and to make a denser shrub, but is not necessary.

This specimen is in my garden, photographed in winter. Its leaves reflect the light beautifully and birds regularly hang out in its canopy.

Detail of leaves of Morella californica. Native to the Pacific coast from Washington to southern California, it is one of our most valuable native, evergreen shrubs for shade (and sun in the right place). 

In coastal areas it is said to be excellent in full sun, but mine in much shade is very happy. It would likely be fine this far north in full sun but evergreen shrubs for shade are valuable so I keep it in this category.

While they do well in moist areas, when established they are adapted to drier conditions. It is on my top five list as it is handsome year round, has value for wildlife, fixes nitrogen in the soil to benefit its surroundings, can be sheared to shape and make denser or, in my case, left natural. It grows to be rather large so is great for screening and for inhabiting that mid-upper layer canopy, and birds love it. I've never seen diseased leaves or die off, and when heavy wet snow split the trunk in two (which I taped up), it recovered without skipping a beat. 

Aucuba japonica 'Gold Variegated Sport' (from Joy Creek Nursery). Aucubas are on my top five list for shrubs for shade because they are large (though slow-growing) and tolerate dry shade. In fact, they survive in my garden with virtually no summer water (once established). They even grow in deep shade, so there's an incredible reason to grow it. They tolerate poor soil and even pollution - so perhaps pedestrian as far as flashiness goes - but oh, so very useful.

A second Aucuba japonica with variegation, though if this is a specific cultivar, I do not know what it is. In fact, I have had a few seedlings in the garden and half of them have some degree of variegation. In too much sun these plants' leaves turn black and drop - so really for me they are a shade shrub. Aucuba are native to woodlands in Japan and China. They can reach 10' in height, so are a good screening shrub if you can wait for this slow grower. If I regularly irrigated mine I imagine they would grow much quicker for me, but the point of having them for me is that they are drought-adapted once established.

Aucuba japonica 'Rozannie' is a much more compact plant at about 4' tall at maturity. It has bright red berries that persist until spring and due to its smaller size is easy to tuck into a smaller garden.

Flowers of Aucuba japonica are odd and interesting. If you need an evergreen shrub for dry, deep shade - give Aucuba japonica a try.

Sarcococcas are an evergreen shrub or groundcover with a tolerance for dry shade. They also tolerate deep shade. Pictured is Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ which grows to about 3' tall and wide and has dark reddish stems. 

Sarcococca ruscifolia reaches about 4' in height and width. Here is pictured with both ripe berries and new flowers, which are incredibly fragrant.

Berries earlier in the season are reddish.

Sarcococca ruscifolia in full bloom on a late winter day in the gardens of Joy Creek Nursery several years ago. Yes, it blooms for us in the Pacific Northwest in late winter to early spring and is a very sweet, welcome fragrance in winter.

This is Sarcococca saligna in the gardens of Joy Creek Nursery as all of these photos are. The photos I have of Sarcococca ruscifola, S. saligna and S. confusa in my own garden show immature plants and are not the best photos, rather I thought it better to illustrate mature specimens. Sarcococcas are slightly slow to get growing for me, though they might be more moderate growers with more irrigation and richer soil. Mine are all a decent size now even with tough conditions. 

Why do I list it here as a tough, forgiving plant in my garden? It is tolerant of shade, deep shade, and dry deep shade. That should be reason enough. But wait, there's more. It is evergreen, it is fragrant and blooms at a time of the year when I need it the most. It has not been disturbed by voles or moles and really doesn't need rich soil or regular irrigation (after the first year), but it would gladly take those conditions. I've seen it pruned but it certainly doesn't need it. Five species are also listed as Great Plant Picks for the Pacific Northwest. It will take part sun but don't let it burn in hotter areas. It is easy, pretty and fragrant.

Symphoricarpos alba, common snowberry, is a native woodland spreader that has many merits. Its white berries are very sweet and persist through winter. It spreads to form thickets and is about 4' tall (though Symphoricarpos mollis is a little smaller at under 3'), is deciduous and handles a wide range of soil types. It will survive drought though it might look a little crunchy but, man, is it a survivor.

It is ubiquitous throughout forests in the Pacific Northwest. Its berries also make for fun floral arrangements in winter.

I regularly observe hummingbirds flocking to its tiny flowers, an unexpected flower choice but they do. It is all over in my western woodland garden and while it has a lot of great qualities, it does indeed spread like crazy so it is not for a small garden where plants could be swallowed up by this beast.

A rather large patch of it grows very hardily under a big leaf maple tree. This is mid-winter, its berries are a most welcome site adding interest and forage for birds, though it is often the last berry they will eat when they are desperate. It also serves as cover for many birds, most notably towhees where I suspect they nest.

There is sometimes a little yellow coloration in autumn, though not every year. This particular patch is in full sun and does fine. One more thing to add about this deciduous, spreading, suckering shrub is that I have observed some plants around it aren't as robust as they should be. It is suggested that they could indeed have allelopathic properties - meaning growth of surrounding plants is inhibited by chemicals in an allelopathic plant. Perhaps this trait could be used to an advantage - plant these to potentially thwart invasive blackberry, for example. Just a thought.

Bonus plant! How could I possibly leave out Gaultheria shallon? It is evergreen, soft-leaved, has fabulous (edible!) berries, spreads to fill in gaps and never needs irrigation. Our native salal as it's commonly known, is so pretty and so welcome in my garden. It asks nothing of me and like so many on this list looks great year-round. I honestly wouldn't have a shade garden without it. It is found on the Pacific coast from Alaska to California. In shade it can get quite tall at about 6' or so but in sun stays much shorter. It grows especially well on the coast (especially in California where inland it would fry), but in my garden it grows in both sun and shade, preferring (and looking prettier) in shade.

Again, Osmanthus and Lonicera nitida should be on this list and they are for me. They are both adapted to sun as well, being versatile and useful plants. Osmanthus are not totally hardy for many people but they have been sturdy shrubs in my 7b-(ish) garden. Lonicera is fabulous and can be pruned to any number of shapes including hedges. I for one think both are incredibly useful and pretty shrubs for a variety of situations. Vaccinium ovatum, our evergreen huckleberry, is also excellent, evergreen, provides food for critters and is pretty. It is just so slow to grow for me. I have read criticism that if it doesn't grow at a good rate then I'm doing something wrong or it's not happy. I'm here to tell you I have it planted in many different areas of my garden and all of it is slow growing. I've given it lots of water, little water, rich soil, poor soil, under trees, away from trees, with groundcover underneath, without groundcover and it's just slow. For me. Period. And that's ok, I still love it and wouldn't do without.

This list is likely to change in the future, but my selections are solid now, having withstood a myriad of challenges over many years. I pointed this out in the last post - that while these are my selections for my garden - your list will likely differ. You may not be able to grow some or any of these, but I think it's worthwhile to get the conversation rolling and to share information. As far as deer and rabbit resistance, I do not have any experience with this as our property is surrounded with a deer fence. If you have experience one way or another, feel free to share your information. Also, as a reader asked last time, fire resistance is something to consider. I am not familiar enough with what is and is not fire resistant, but it is something to learn about.

With that spirit, thank you for reading and commenting. We do love hearing from you and hearing what has done exceptionally well for you in your shade gardens. Happy Gardening from all of us at Chickadee Gardens!


  1. Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes12:02 PM PDT

    Great list! I would add camellia. Lots of good cultivars out there for fall, winter and spring. I bet a white like C. x williamsi 'Buttermint' or C.sansanqua 'SetsugeKka' would look great in your shade garden!

    1. Yes, Camellia for sure - though I don't grow any myself. I'll look into your suggestions, a white one sounds lovely.

  2. Anonymous1:36 PM PDT

    I love shade plants and shade gardens. PNW rain forests are just my kind of thing.
    It seems to me, as most of the plants on your list suggest, that using native plants can almost guarantee success.
    I remember you lamented about vole tunnels in your shady path. I wonder if salal and mahonia could handle the voles better. I believe both have dwarf varieties.
    I grow a tall mahonia charity, and I always dread pruning day. Those leaves are tough and painful! Like pine needles, they don't readily compose either.
    I added sarcococca humilis a couple of years ago: evergreen ground cover, lovely late winter scent... what's not to like? They sucker. An unwelcome surprise.

    1. Native plants *almost* guarantee success, but it must be said that they are not zero maintenance - they of course need to be irrigated at least their first year in the ground. I know you know this but so many people who come to shop at nurseries have been told they are to just put them in the ground and walk away. Not so. They are living things like anything else and some do fail. (rant not for you, Chavli - it's more to guide folks who were told this and others who perpetuate this.) Salal and Mahonia - I do plan on spreading those around to replace more water thirsty plants. So far they have not had issues with critters (knock on wood). Yes, Sarcococca humilis is so lovely, they all are. Cheers!

  3. My first exposure to Sarcococca was at the University of Victoria. This incredible fragrance filled the air. When I finally tracked down the source I was surprised to find these little non-descript shrubs with the little white flowers. Such a heavenly scent from them. Alas, here on the prairies we don't really have any shrubs that do well in shade. Cornus sericea is about as close as we get or Sorbaria but beware of it's spreading tendencies.

    1. Isn't it surprising that such an incredible fragrance comes from such a non-descript shrub? So lovely. Ah, yes, on prairies you have a whole different set of requirements for plants to succeed - a lot of deciduous plants I imagine are successful?

  4. I need to look into some of these Mahonia species as possibilities for my increasingly shady areas. I love the 'Dan Hinkley' selection.

    1. Oh, yes, Kris! I bet you could grow a few! They do tolerate dry conditions so well, I imagine if they weren't too hot they would be gorgeous in your garden.

  5. Meagan Hatfield9:37 AM PDT

    I'm happy to report that the deer on my property haven't touched our Mahonia or Gaultheria. I have seen them chewing on my snowberry but not frequently.

    1. That's great to know, Meagan, thanks for the information!

  6. I can confirm that all of the shrubs listed do well in our zone 7 garden too, with my favorites being the Mahonias and Morella californica for their ability to withstand more drought than the Sarcococca species and Gaultheria shallon. Both of the latter struggle if I don't water them once every week or so during mid-late summer. I've only just started planting Aucuba, I would they they are slower growing than Vaccinium ovatum, but hold up well. Deer or rabbits have periodically mowed down the less prickly Mahonia cultivars, like Soft Caress and Dan Hinkley. They've left everything else listed from your post pretty much alone.

    1. Great information, Jerry, thank you. Interesting to know about Sarcococca and Gaultheria - how interesting as I feel I'm really dry and never water mine and they always look great. That's why it's so good to have these conversations so we can all compare. Aucuba has been really easy going, I hope it is for you as well.

  7. Thanks for the link love! I've added a couple more mahonia since that inventory, they're such great plants for our climate.

    1. Of course, Danger! I couldn't agree more.


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