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Top 10 Perennials for Shady Gardens (Dry Shade)

European Wild Ginger (Asarum europaeum)

Not many plants do well in dry shade.  This is one of the most difficult garden areas to successfully populate with happy plants.  However, the following list provides some of the best.  Prepare the area with compost in order to improve the soil’s ability to retain moisture.  The plants may be less lush and not as floriferous as those grown under ideal conditions.

1.  Old-fashioned Bleedingheart (Dicentra spectabilis) – Zone 2

This is the most recognized, all time favourite Bleedingheart conjuring up childhood memories of summers at Grandma's. An absolute must for the cottage garden.  Although graceful and elegant don't underestimate its ability to withstand a myriad of conditions.  Also known as Valentine Flower and native to China, Japan and Korea, it was introduced to English gardens in 1857 where it still thrives, so it's a survivor!   Drooping chains of pink hearts appear over a bushy mound of powdery-green leaves in springtime.  Generally speaking, the cooler the location, the longer flowering should last.

2.  Barrenwort (Epimedium x rubrum) – Zone 4

This selection is one of the few perennials one would dare claim will do well in dry shade, perhaps even under thirsty trees.  This selection will do a great job as a slow-spreading shady groundcover and offers distinctive, dense, semi-evergreen foliage that often turns bronze during the colder months.  Sprays of small, showy, cherry-red flowers appear in spring providing a much-needed lift to the shady garden.  Virtually carefree and very worthwhile.

3.  Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis) – Zone 1

This wonderful old-fashioned perennial is grown as a cut flower and signifies a return to happiness making it a favourite for bridal bouquets; elegant with a sweet fragrance.  According to legend, it sprang from the tears of Eve after she was ejected from the Garden of Eden.  Classic bell-shaped flowers appear in spring and early summer on plants that multiply quickly to form a groundcover in shady sites, even difficult ones like under trees.  A joy to behold.  Beware: this plant is poisonous and toxic if eaten.

4.  Japanese Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’) – Zone 2

This perennial adds elegance to the shade garden with its graceful arching stems of green leaves edged in creamy-white and tiny, dangling, white flowers that remind you of ballerina slippers each with tiny green tips, usually in clusters of four to a stem. Once flowering has finished the flowers are replaced with dark blue, almost black, berries. Native to Japan and Korea, it prefers rich moist soil where it is quite vigorous; it will spread much more slowly in dry shade. A wonderful companion to Astilbe, Hardy Ferns and Hosta.

5.  Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) - Zone 5

This is a Japanese woodland native and although slow to establish, is a superb addition to the dry shade garden.  Once it reaches maturity, it makes an outstanding specimen.  The leaves are bamboo-like, variegated bright gold and green so very showy in the shade.  The most appealing feature of this grass is its graceful, cascading habit.  Leaves may highlight with pink or red with the onset of colder temperatures.  It can tolerate morning sun and in cool summer regions, even full sun.   Looks amazing in mixed containers too.

6.  Bigroot Cranesbill (Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Ingwersen’s Variety’)- Zone 2

This Border type of Cranesbill has a lot going for it!  Named for the plantsman, Walter Ingwersen, who has developed many alpine plants, this Cranesbill forms a vigorous groundcover yet isn’t invasive, is drought and heat tolerant, deer resistant, has fragrant leaves, smothers unwanted weeds, attractive foliage with good fall colour and pale candy-floss pink flowers in summer.  It’s so tough it can handle sun and being planted in dry shade under thirsty trees.  You may want to also consider two other Bigroot Cranesbill called ‘Bevan’s Variety’ (magenta-pink flowers) and ‘Variegatum’ (also magenta-pink but smaller).

7.  Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) – Zone 5

This species of Hellebore prefers some moisture early in the year during the flowering period but tolerates moderate summer drought and has proved successful with gardeners in the Midwest.  This selection is quite different in appearance to other Hellebore you may have in your garden, featuring small soft-green flowers, often edged in purple, in branching sprays over sturdy green foliage that remains evergreen.  The common name and botanical name suggest an unpleasant odour but it is mild; at least to our noses so give it a try in the dry shade.

8.  European Wild Ginger (Asarum europaeum) – Zone 2

We talked about texture before and that is what European Wild Ginger adds to your shade garden.  Although most Wild Gingers prefer moist, shady sites, this selection can withstand less moisture.  It is the most readily available species and produces dark green, heavily polished, rounded almost heart-shaped foliage in a low mound.  It SLOWLY forms a groundcover in a small area. Unusual Dutchman’s Pipe flowers are brownish in colour and remain hidden underneath the leaves.

9.  Bergenia (Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’) – Zone 2

This tough perennial isn’t fussy and can handle full sun to full shade and almost every soil type from moist to drought conditions – yes, even dry shade.  It’s sometimes referred to as ‘Pig Squeak’ due to the sound the leaves make when rubbed between two fingers.  The flower clusters are magenta-pink and appear in early spring.  However, the pure magic of this plant is the glossy, heart-shaped leaves that turn a deep burnished maroon colour once cooler temperatures arrive in the fall, lasting throughout the winter months in most regions.

10.  Purple Labrador Violet (Viola labradorica) – Zone 3

This is a charming addition to any shade garden from our Jeepers Creepers® line of groundcovers (http://www.jeeperscreepers.info/) and is native to Greenland, Eastern Canada and the US.  It forms low tufts of purple-tinged leaves and produces loads of tiny, mauve, wild-violet type flowers in spring and again in the fall.  It actually will bloom all summer in cooler regions.  It is fast spreading but somewhat slow to thicken up.  It prefers a cool spot away from the hot afternoon sun and is perfect in a woodland garden or shady border.