Native Plants

Colorful Native Plants for Shady Places


I’m often met with skepticism when I assure clients there really are plants that flower with little or no direct sun. If I suggest creating a spring garden with an array of brightly blooming native bulbs, shrubs, and perennials in shade, skepticism gives way to outright disbelief.

The word “wildflower” can evoke images of spring ephemerals carpeting the floor of our Southeastern forests in early spring. Delicate wonders such as Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) emerge and flower making a spectacular show, then vanish completely as the trees leaf out. Fortunately for gardeners with limited space, not all spring-flowering natives are so fleeting. And for those of us who love vivid colors, many are anything but pastel.

Green and Gold/photo by Tom Harville

Green and Gold/photo by Tom Harville

Two low-growing, persistent natives are Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum). A member of the poppy family, Bloodroot sends up chalk white flowers in very early spring followed by attractive round leaves that persist all summer. Green and Gold, an easy to grow evergreen groundcover, bears golden yellow flowers for an extended season of bloom. After an initial flush in spring, Green and Gold blooms sporadically through summer and fall.  As a bonus, neither is attractive to deer.

Native bulbs and shrubs can provide color for those seeking a lower-maintenance garden. Trout Lilies (Erythronium spp) and Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are bulbs that feature vivid flowers and dramatic foliage before disappearing in late spring. Trout Lilies have pagoda-shaped blooms in yellow or white and speckled leaves.  Bluebells dangle bright pink flowers that age to sky blue above soft, blue-green leaves.

Before the Bluebells flower, Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) unfurls its bright yellow flowers on bare wood. Every part of this small shrub (6 – 12 ft.) is spicily fragrant. This host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly also offers bright red berries for songbirds. Another group of deciduous shrubs, native azaleas, provide a long season of color for shady gardens. In April, Florida Flame Azalea (Rhododendron austrinum) is a red-orange blaze of fragrant flowers.

Of course no garden is complete without a few showy perennials. Two of my favorites are Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) and Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). Each spring, the shade bed near our deck delights us for weeks when the butter yellow disks of the poppies float among ice blue clouds of phlox. Perhaps the brightest of all the shade bloomers, Fire Pink (Silene virginica) flames with bright red flowers April into summer.

Featured image – Woodland Phlox and Celadine Poppy/Dale Batchelor

Dale Batchelor is the founder of Gardener by Nature LLC, a company offering garden consultation, design, management services, and gardening classes. Her display garden, co-created with her husband, John L. Thomas, is a certified National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat and a native plant habitat recognized by the North Carolina Native Plant Society.

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