Take Five: Forgiving Perennials for Shade

 In the ever-evolving search for tough plants in our challenging weather extremes, it's time to look at a few shade perennials that endure year after year in my less-than-ideal conditions. I have many fir trees that suck up most of the surrounding water, so to live here and thrive, a plant has to be able to handle dry shade. Here are five (perhaps with an extra couple thrown in) top performers to expand on my Take Five series. Some I would not do without in my shade garden. To review some recent Take Five posts you can find them here (shrubs for sun), here (shrubs for shade) and here (perennials for sun).

Ophiopogon species are grass-like perennials, the ones seen in cultivation are generally short with either green, black or variegated foliage. Pictured is Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', black mondo grass. They are evergreen, spread slowly, have lavender flowers followed by black fruit. They are terrific in the front of the border and as a contrast to silver and green foliaged shade plants. 

Also, a shout out to the little grass on the left of this photo, Carex conica 'Snowline'. It is so long lived, small, evergreen and tolerant of whatever I throw at it. I have had several of these petite grasses that even moved from my old garden and are still thriving here. They love this shady area and sparkle among green-leaved plants.

Ophiopogon planiscapus, the green straight species, is also evergreen and provides lovely foliage contrast to broader leaved shade plants. It too will spread to form colonies in time. Ophiopogon really does not receive summer water from me and it thrives, despite the fact that the genus comes from warm temperate Asian climates.

If you have a lot of greens in the shade garden, a pop of 'Nigrescens' sets them off nicely. I have a few of these in sunnier spots and they do fine, though they can get sunburned in very bright sun, but they look much more lush and happy in at least part shade.

So many ferns are fabulous for the shade garden, though I find some prefer much more water that what I can give them (Athyrium niponicum, for example). Not Polystichum species, however - they all seem to endure no matter what extremes they go through, even though I see them listed at many nurseries as wanting evenly moist soil and summer irrigation. I'm unclear then why mine do so well with little summer water under fir trees, perhaps they are tougher than we originally thought. This is Polystichum makinoi. A very handsome fern, it grows to about 2' tall and wide and is hardy zones 5 - 9.

Polystichum polyblepharum tassel fern, is another handsome fern, hardy zones 5 - 8, also about 2 x 2'.

Polystichum setiferum 'Bevis', soft shield fern, zones 4 - 8 and larger than the previous two at about 4' x 4' in size.

Polystichum munitum, Western sword fern in a sea of Oxalis oregana. This is one tough fern, growing in sun or shade and is very long-lived. They can get quite large in time, I've had a few older ones get to about 4' tall in really wet and warm springs and have seen even larger ones while hiking in our local forests. I have dozens of these throughout the shade garden, they were all here when we moved in and we are fortunate to have so many, even though they are quite common. Sometimes common is a wonderful thing.

These are all evergreen ferns; however, a clean up of last year's fronds in late winter gives a fresher look. I don't often do this, but last year I did give many ferns a clean up and they looked really lovely for the rest of the year. These plants add a bit of structure to my garden, a little like a yucca does in the sunny garden. They generally tolerate groundcovers at their base, in fact, it likely helps retain water in the soil when it's covered.

Full admission, I'm not the biggest hellebore fan. They are pretty and seeing them in garden centers this time of the year does get the heart racing a little, but I don't go wild for them as do some gardeners. But I adore Helleborus foetidus, the stinking hellebore. I haven't detected any foul odor, rather I appreciate the finely divided foliage. 

These little plants that truly resemble a little subshrub are practically bulletproof in my dry shade garden. They are evergreen, they do flower a funny greenish-white bloom and they do reseed a little. I think they look super with broader leaved shade plants. I have spread them around all over the shade garden in hopes that they take over someday. Hardy in zones 5 - 9, reaches about 2' x 2'.

OK, I have a couple seedlings in my garden of Helleborus orientalis that are fun to see in winter. And they are tough as nails so I suppose they stay.

Helleborus argutifolius, a light variegated form whose name I don't have. This too is a tough as nails plant and does appreciate a good clean up in late winter to highlight the current year's fresh foliage.

I know. I know. I include this every time I have a "best of" kind of post. Geranium macrorrhizum, big root geranium truly is the best. It tolerates dry shade really well, I mean under fir trees, under maple trees, really really well. All of these are pictured in exactly those conditions. They are also semi-evergreen (they shrink down in winter somewhat) but put it all back on with abandon in late winter. The bumble bees like the flowers and the foliage has a spicy scent.

And they are kind of pretty!

Here they are in late winter, just pushing some fresh growth. Hardy to zones 4 - 8, reaches about 2' tall by about 2' wide, but colonies form, increasing its width in time.

They are good as a groundcover, as a front of the border plant too. They will certainly take more sun but for me, they are invaluable as a shade perennial. They form polite colonies, I sometimes get seedlings in the gravel but they are by no means obnoxious, in fact I wish I had more. Geranium × cantabrigiense is another with equally impressive credentials.

I always thought of hostas as problematic - attracting slugs, wanting a lot of attention and water and nutrients, but this hosta in particular is impressive. Hosta 'Guacamole' was the 2002 American Hosta Growers Hosta of the Year, I can see why. For some reason slugs haven't bothered this (and a few other hostas in the garden, actually), it is large, stately, extremely fragrant and once established, does well with low to no summer water.

It is a sport of Hosta 'Fragrant Bouquet' and retained that quality, incredibly sweetly scented flowers.

Big, bold leaves with slightly quilted effect have the coloration of an avocado cut in half. It's a large hosta at about 20" tall with a wide spread of about 3'.

Pretty! This and Hosta 'June' and 'Wolverine' have proven to be really good garden plants. 'Guacamole' can handle more sun and will have more pronounced coloration if sited as such. Surprisingly drought tolerant once established, though would do well with much more water, too. Hardy in zones 3 - 8.

Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety' as a ground cover plant in my garden. I include it on this list because it is not only well-behaved, it is evergreen, spreads politely and never sulks, even on the hottest of summer days. I never give it summer irrigation and yet it still performs where most other plants might die under large trees in full shade. It also has the lovely trait of its white margins turning pinkish in very cold weather. While it's not a fast-spreader, three one-gallon containers I purchased several years ago have finally knitted together under a large Acer macrophyllum to create a lovely carpet beneath.

I never anticipated this would be such a tough plant and am quite pleased it has both resilience and beauty. It can take sun but in my shade garden it is very happy. I hesitated at first to include it on my list because E. fortunei the species is considered invasive on the East Coast of the U.S. However, it is not so considered in the rest of the U.S. It might also be true that this variegated form is not as vigorous. I will keep an eye out, just to be on the safe side. For now, it stays on the list for adding sparkle in deep shade and tolerating tree roots and drought as well as looking great year-round. I feel as if I should have planted much more of this at the beginning of my shade garden planning days. I might be celebrating the shade garden much more if I had.

It can oddly also be an upright shrub, mounding upon itself to form a taller form. It can also be trained to climb, not unlike ivy. It is about 2' in height and spreads to at least several feet. It has done so slowly for me.

Small scale, evergreen, cool looking and oh-so-easy in the shade garden, Saxifraga x geum 'Dentata' is my new go-to for edging my shade garden. If I have a blank area along my mossy path, in this plant goes.

New leaf growth in spring is bright and cheerful, also the slugs seem to leave it alone (have I just cursed myself?).

Flowers are sweet, star shaped clusters at the end of long wiry stems. The plant is about 4" tall (foliage) and spreads, I have a few patches 3' or so in width. Hardy zones 6 - 9. Again, I see many nurseries listing this as wanting evenly moist soil, but I am here to tell you they do just fine in my garden with basically no extra summer water. Perhaps our wet winters are enough for this sweet small-scale groundcover. Also, Saxifraga 'Primuloides' deserves mention. Very similar but without toothed leaf margins. 

There are other choice plants that do well for me, some notable examples are Oxalis oregana (though can be aggressive if too happy OR fry and dry out in super hot summers), Epimedium sp. of course (they just require a lot of cleaning up in late winter so have some maintenance to look their best but are otherwise superb), Aruncus dioicus - goatsbeard and Vancouveria chrysantha to name a few. 

Many perennials in my shade garden have disappeared or been replaced, some examples are Thalictrum sp., Tricyrtis sp., Vancouveria hexandra is great but doesn't want to stick around, Hakonechloa macra hates the root competition, Fuchsia sp. are also not happy nor are many Hydrangea sp., Kirengeshoma, Mukdenia, Syneilesis, Woodwardia, Impatiens omeiana, Disporum, and I am sure others I can't recall. They just don't exist any more, but as I knew from the beginning, it is all a big experiment. Hopefully my experimentation can save you some time if you have similar conditions as I do.

OK, there you have it, five-ish fantastic perennials for dry shade in my summer dry, winter wet climate. What does well for you if you have shade? Do tell! Thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing from you! Happy gardening and for all of us who have snow and ice right now (so many!), may it all melt away soon. Very soon.


  1. Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes11:45 AM PST

    Great selections, Tamara! I just might have to try Geranium macrorrhizum. I have been holding off, mostly because PNW western bleeding heart does so well in my garden and has a similar look and feel. At least the geranium doesn't go into summer dormancy. Have you tried D. formosa in current garden?

    1. I have not tried D. formosa (except I do have D. formosa 'Langtrees' which I love, it's not that aggressive, though), though I have many friends who have it and love it, though it spreads like crazy. I would be open to trying it, though. I think the two (Geranium m. and Dicentra formosa) would play well together.

  2. Workhorse perennials are a must in any garden. People often knock the 'common' ones but there is a reason they are planted so frequently. Geraniums are so great for so many situations. I have macrrorrhizum and 'Biokovo' which is my favourite. A little daintier and not quite so aggressive. Wish I could grow some of your other selections but alas not hardy here.

    1. Oh, yes, 'Boikovo' is a great one! I have a few sprinkled in - you're right, not so aggressive. Hardiness is always a factor, I do forget how lucky I am to have such a broad range of plants I can grow. Good point about common-ness, it's not necessarily a bad trait!

  3. Christina Clark10:39 AM PST

    Thanks so much for the beautiful photos and great plant ideas! They are especially welcome on this brisk morning with quite a bit of snow still in evidence. We've had a some progress with melting, so I wont complain too much. I especially love your recommendations for tough plants as I'd really like to make my garden more resilient and it's so easy to get distracted by wonderful delicate things. The tough plants are wonderful too and this helps me keep my eye on them. Love, love, love your garden, your photography, and your advice! 💚

    1. Christina! SO lovely to hear from you. Your words are so kind, really. We are currently beginning the slow thaw but it's going to take a while. I hope you melt quickly and the ice damage is non-existent.

      I get SO distracted by wonderful delicate things, it's human nature, I guess. It was especially a problem when I worked at Joy Creek Nursery, every friggin' day a new temptation would show itself. We want to grow ALL the cool plants, right? I have to step out of the cool kid camp and be boring. But it saves my sanity more often than not.

    2. Christina Clark3:05 PM PST

      I can only imagine the temptations at Joy Creek! Goodness! You (and FM!) must have the patience of a saint. Yes, we want ALL THE PLANTS! Haha! However, I must strenuously disagree with you after that - there isn't a boring spot anywhere in your garden. It's all awesome and I don't even have to exaggerate to say that. Truly, yours is the most exciting and inspiring residence I've ever seen and every post or visit leaves my mind bursting with super cool things I want to try in my garden. I love the berms that make it feel like you're walking really INTO the plantings, the way the big fir south of your home feels like the central hub with paths spinning gracefully off, every plant seems to have just the right amount of space, and I'd better not start on the plants themselves or I'll write a novel here. Love it all! And we'll all love staying sane with plants that can thrive without crazy amounts of care.

    3. You humble me, Christina. I really appreciate your perspective, too - walking into the plantings, for example, and the paths off of the Doug fir - it's nice to know the way the garden looks to friends. I see it every day and feel that I lose that freshness, so I appreciate your eyes. Yes, the sanity factor as far as plants that are tough as nails - that's important, so very important to me at this point. I'm sure many of us can relate after having lost so many treasures to the extremes year after year.

  4. Anonymous6:31 PM PST

    I'm seeing lots of familiar friends today. I love all the ophiopogons. In fact, one clump of my ophiopogon nigrescens has decided to attractively invade my saxifraga dentata. Separately, I've been trying to build a colony under my 'sango kaku' (coral bark) Japanese maple for years. Those are voracious as far as water goes. They've survived, but are now trying to grow further away from the maple, kind of like someone slowly edging away from someone at a party. I also have lost thalictrum, disporum, impatiens omeiana, mukdenia. But my Syneilesis is multiplying. Maybe mine is a different hybrid? It's surprisingly tall. I'm carefully nurturing a volunteer cranesbill start that was in a plant from Joy Creek. It's had a little trouble getting settled (squirrels!) but I'm hoping it will bloom this year and it will be something interesting because of the wonderful cranesbills they carried.
    Do you know where to get the little carex?

    1. Interesting about your Acer p. 'Sango Kaku' being voracious for water....I haven't had that experience necessarily but every garden is of course different which is why we have these discussions....to find out what does well in different gardens. I'm happy about your Syneilesis and a little jealous, I loved that plant. I wonder what your geranium volunteer is...I love finding surprises like that. As far as the Carex 'Snowline' - I purchased a few from Xera Plants in the past. You might want to check with Greg and Paul to see if they're growing it this year.

    2. Anonymous3:15 AM PST

      Thanks! I'll check with Xera.
      My 'Sango Kaku' being thirsty could have something to do with the neighbor near it that doesn't believe in plants except for one bed of squash. His property near my tree is completely hard-scaped and never sees water so the tree had to get all of its water from my side. Plus, my tree is close to 30 years old and is pretty large. I have a reverse version of your hosta 'Guacamole' called Holy Mole that's also good. I'll have extra of that this spring, time to divide it. A very plain somewhat smaller hosta that I really like is an older one called 'Devon Green' It's a little darker with plain green slightly shiny very ridged leaves. Tough as can be and very slug resistant. I'll take a picture of the cranesbill when it blooms. Maybe you will recognize it.

  5. Anonymous8:57 AM PST

    First, I bookmarked this post because it has links to your other "Take Five" posts. I love those and know I'll use it for future reference.
    Your first vignette, with Podophyllum (spotty dotty?) and black mondo grass is heavily! I would have thought the Podophyllum needed more water.
    Many favorites here, from small grasses to ferns (I recently planted "Polystichum setiferum Bevis" and I'm in denial about its 4'x4' eventual size).
    I'm a sucker for Hostas And Hellebores. When they flood nurseries in late winter, I'm in serious trouble. It is interesting that slugs have favorites among Hosta: some are quite untouched while others are down to the stem by Summer.
    I found "Many perennials in my shade garden have disappeared or been replaced" to be a profound. I have multitude of tags I acquired from plants that no longer exist in my garden. Like you, I practice 'love the one you are with': if a plant loves my garden, I will love it right back!

    1. Anonymous6:46 AM PST

      I wish there was an editing feature... I alway find silly mistakes in my comments even though I re-read it before I publish. Sigh.
      "heavily" supposed to be "heavenly"...
      It should say: "...a profound statement.

    2. Oh, Chavli, that 4 x 4' size of the fern? Don't be afraid! It's sooo lovely you'll be happy to have it, I promise. Isn't that curious about hostas and slugs? I can't figure it except maybe the taller ones are harder to reach...or maybe thicker leaves are tougher to eat? Ha ha...about your comment "heavenly" - I must have subconsciously known what you meant because I didn't catch it! Same with the profound statement! I get you!

      And the podophyllum? Well, it gets a little extra water from FM from time to time (his favorite plant) but it really does better than I thought it would with little water. Mind you, when it's 95 degrees and arid, it's the first to flag up there so it isn't drought tolerant by any means.

    3. Also, there are many other "Take Five" posts on my website, if you go to the home page and type Take Five in the search engine they should pop up for easy reference.

  6. Anonymous6:04 PM PST

    Thank you for sharing your experience and taking some of the guesswork out of our planning and outcome. I so enjoyed our visit to your garden, your presentation at our garden club, and reading your blog.

    1. I'm so glad and thank you for commenting! Are you part of the Corvallis Evening Garden Club by chance? :)

  7. Anonymous1:43 PM PST

    Another great post, I couldn't agree more with your choices! However, I did have a different experience with Hosta 'Guacamole'. Like you, I rarely watered mine, as it is planted in part shade. It grew wonderfully and more than tripled in size and then, the heat dome event happened. It has now dwindled down to just a few growths and a pale shadow of its former self, and that's with summer watering and fertilizing, now. So, I don't know why it took such a hit and I don't expect it to come back this year either, nevertheless, it is a gorgeous plant and the fragrance is amazing! It always would surprise guests as the source, as they weren't expecting a hosta (of all things!) to be so wonderfully fragrant. One other comment, I believe the name on your variegated hellebore argutifolius, may be 'Janet Starnes' as I have a hellebore by that name and yours looks so similar as to be indistinguishable from mine. Please keep up the great posts. I refer to them for inspiration quite frequently!! Erik

    1. Thank you Erik for your comments and feedback of Hosta 'Guacamole' - interesting that yours suffered so much after heat dome. I'm glad, however, that you confirm its fabulousness and fragrance! I'm really curious what happened with yours. And thanks for the name on the hellebore - I suspected that might be the case but wasn't confident I had the right one, your comments make me believe it is indeed Janet Starnes. Cheers and thank you for your kind words and encouragement! I appreciate it so much.

  8. This post really shows me how much site matters. Agreed that Polystichum and Geraniums tend to do great in dry shade. Fantastic plants. But, Ophiopogon, Hosta (in general, haven't tried Guacamole), Saxifraga, and Oxalis all die out at our place if I don't water them at least once a week. On the other hand, I've had no problems with Vancouveria hexandra going for months without water. Other winners include Fuschia procumbens, Trachystemon orientalis, and Hacquetia epipactis.

    1. It's so interesting, Jerry! That's one reason I love to blog - comparing notes and understanding what does well - and where. Yours is an excellent example of this. I am really surprised that Saxifraga and Ophiopogon die out for you. That's incredible from my perspective but yours is a different zone and different soil. And Fuchsia procumbens? I've tried that a dozen times with very poor results. Thanks for your examples and sharing your experiences. It makes us all a little better prepared. By the way my soil is Cascade silt loam, according to those in the know.

    2. Anonymous11:55 AM PST

      Solid zone 7, McAlpin Silty Clay Loam for us. Definitely very different results. I was shocked how well our F. procumbens did last year - three and a half months with no water and still green. Maybe we've got a special variety!


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