Updated/Fact-Chacked on June 21, 2023 by Gareth James
Unfortunately, I have a North facing garden. I do get a lot of sun in places as it’s a large garden, but any pots within 2M of my house are in 90% shade; pots get one hour of sunlight in the morning and a couple of hours in the evening.
I’ve been on a mission the last couple of weeks to design some amazing-looking full-shade containers, but it’s taken hours of research.
This article represents my shortlist of plants I may use in my designs; I’ll post my full-shade container designs once they are finished, so you can steal my ideas! I have only included shade-loving herbaceous perennials in this list but will include a few shrubs for full shade at the end.
Many of these full-shade loving plants will produce flowers, but generally in spring and early summer. Many have large leaves with good architectural qualities and produce flowers on long stems, often with tiny flowers.
These plants have been extensively researched and cross-referenced across numerous credible sources like the RHS and speaking to plant experts in local nurseries. I often find different information about plants across websites, which is very annoying when trying to plan.
Some websites may state ‘partial shade’ for plants, but many will flower in full shade, you will just get fewer flowers.
- 1 Ferns (Athyrium)
- 2 Hostas
- 3 Marigold-leaved beesia (Beesia calthifolia)
- 4 Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)
- 5 Liriope muscari (Lily turf)
- 6 American wake-robin (Trillium grandiflorum)
- 7 Stinking iris (Iris foetidissima)
- 8 Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
- 9 Dusky cranesbill ‘Lily Lovell’ (Geranium phaeum)
- 10 Masterwort (Astrantia)
- 11 Bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis)
- 12 Lungwort (Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’)
- 13 Fringe Cups (Tellima grandiflora)
- 14 Meadowsweet (Filipendula purpurea)
- 15 Toad Lily (Tricyrtis formosana)
I recently assumed all ferns like shade, planting a Golden male fern in full shade in one of my pots, only to discover they thrive in full sun.
Ferns have great architectural qualities, but choose one of these types if you are looking for a full-shade fern: Athyrium niponicum var. pictum, Dryopteris filix-mas, Polystichum rigens, Dryopteris wallichiana, Adiantum venustum, Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Cristatum’, Polypodium vulgare ‘Bifidomultifidum’, Polystichum aculeatum AGM.
Hostas are fantastic for growing in full or partial shade, depending on the variety. Most hostas have amazingly large variegated leaves and flowers that reach up on tall stems. We have written a mini-series about hostas, including planting hostas and maintaining them properly.
Marigold-leaved beesia (Beesia calthifolia)
Beesia is not native to the UK but can thrive in damp, shaded locations. The plant was discovered over 100 years ago in China and Burma by plant hunter George Forrest.
Many people, including myself, do not find beesia an attractive plant. The leaves are deeply veined with spiky edges; they look diseased – though they produce white flowers on long vertical stems, similar to hostas. The plant is also evergreen so that you will get winter interest.
Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)
Lily of the valley can grow and flower in full shade once established; plant crowns will not survive outdoors before May and are best started off indoors. Lily of the valley does spread rapidly but can be easily divided up if outgrowing the designated space.
This season, I’m planting Lily of the Valley in a container next to my back door (in full shade), using ferns as a planting companion.
Liriope muscari (Lily turf)
Liriope muscari is a great addition to any garden; it is a late bloomer producing flowers from August through to November. When most perennials are dying back, lilyturf will come to life – also providing evergreen leaves over winter.
Liriope muscari is easy to grow in well-drained soil and needs very little maintenance, divide up plants in early spring if it has spread too much.
Most Liriope sold have blue flowers, but you can buy a white flowering variety called Liriope ‘Muscari Monroe White’. Liriope Muscari Okina is a variety with stunning light green foliage and violet flowers.
American wake-robin (Trillium grandiflorum)
The American wake robin is a woodland plant for North America, flowering in spring with large white petals. The plant is not particularly attractive but will thrive in a shaded spot and survive for at least 10 years.
Stinking iris (Iris foetidissima)
The stinking iris is a great addition to a shade garden, providing evergreen leaves through winter and flowers from June to August. From autumn, this iris produces red fruit until the end of December, providing winter interest.
This plant will be an addition to our shade pots this season due to its architectural foliage and good height (75cm); the plant also has the AGM award from the RHS – award for garden merit.
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
Snowdrops are usually the first plants to bloom in early spring, which excited gardeners about the season ahead. Though snowdrops prefer partial shade, like the dappled light underneath trees, they will grow in full shade.
Last autumn, I planted a load of snowdrop bulbs in my lawn under my cherry blossom tree; they have been great to see in early spring.
Dusky cranesbill ‘Lily Lovell’ (Geranium phaeum)
Like many shade-tolerant plants, this geranium is early flowering from late spring to summer. It will grow to around 0.8 m in height over 3-5 year period. Though this perennial can be grown in the sun, it performs best in damp shade. This geranium has an RHS AGM award and is fully hardy.
I bought this plant from The Hardy Geranium Nursery and absolutely love it – I’ve been amazed at how many tiny bees it attracts to its small flowers.
Most astrantia thrive in partial shade but can still do well in full shade; the lighter-coloured varieties perform best in shade, while darker varieties can be placed in a sunny position.
Consider some of these varieties: Astrantia ‘Buckland’, Astrantia ‘Roma’ (PBR), Astrantia major ‘Sparkling Stars Pink’ (Sparkling Stars Series), Astrantia major Florence, Astrantia major Florence Astrantia major Florence
Bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis)
Acanthus mollis has show-stopping foliage for a shaded area of a garden. With stems reaching 1.5 metres, the plant has lush glossy leaves, produces white flowers from April-May, and is an evergreen perennial providing winter interest. Be careful you buy the correct variety as Acanthus spinosus is like full sun.
Lungwort (Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’)
This lungwort flowers in spring but is semi-evergreen; you will likely have year-round foliage if there are no long hard frosts. The plant grows to 0.5 in height and will spread equally as wide using rhizomes.
Fringe Cups (Tellima grandiflora)
Fringe cups flower in early summer but can bloom to the end of July in the right conditions. The plant produces tall stems with bell-shaped white flowers. Fringe cups combine well with hostas in a shaded north-facing border.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula purpurea)
Meadowsweet is a herbal plant used for centuries for its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. The flowers are not particularly pretty, but the plant is often used for its foliage. Flower buds can be removed so the plant puts more energy into producing foliage. Meadowsweet thrives in damp conditions and will thrive in a north-facing garden in the shade.
Toad Lily (Tricyrtis formosana)
The toad lily is one of the few shade-loving plants that flowers later in the year. The toad lily can reach 1M after 3 or 4 years and is relatively hardy (H4), though heavy mulching is advised over winter.
If you still have not found something that interests you, take a look at Periwinkles (Vinca minor variety, not vinca major, which is invasive), Astilbes, Hellebores, Digitalis grandiflora (this foxglove likes partial shade, but will flower well in full shade – I tested it last year!) and the sunset foxglove (Digitalis obscure), English Ivy (Hedera helix), Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Ruby Port’ & Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Munstead White’ AGM.
I have only included full-shade perennials in this article, but if you are looking for shade-tolerant shrubs, here’s a list for further research:
- Camellia sasanqua ‘Jean May’ – medium-sized shrub with pink flowers in spring
- Fatsia japonica – medium-sized shade shrub which produces white flowers in autumn and fruit
- Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’ – a small evergreen shrub that produces yellow flowers in spring and fruit through the summer
- Daphne laureola – Bushy shrub with yellow flowers and dark foliage
- Lomaria-leaved mahonia – Large evergreen shrub with masses of yellow flowers and dark blue berries in autumn
The RHS have a fantastic list of shade shrubs ordered by size and shade tolerance.
What is Shade Tolerance?
Shade tolerance refers to a plant’s ability to survive in low light. Many shade-tolerant plants have a natural habitat on woodland floors, where light is blocked by trees above.
Shade-tolerant plants have adapted over thousands of years to survive in low light conditions, becoming more energy efficient. They often have large leaves, like hostas, and flowers on long stems to attract pollinators. They also can move their leaves to absorb far-red light to produce energy.
Shade Plant FAQs
Can pansies grow in the shade?
Pansies thrive the most in full sun or partial shade, they need a least 4-5 hours of sunlight per day.
Can lavender grow in shade?
Most lavender varieties require full sun to thrive. You may still get blooms in partial shade, but they will die in full shade.
Best hanging basket flowers for shade?
Ideally, hanging basket flowers need at least 4 hours of sunlight per day, but some begonia and fuschia varieties will still bloom in full shade – you won’t get the quantities of flowers.
Will primulas grow in the shade?
Primulas generally like full or partial shade, like under a tree, though some will survive in full shade but lose some colour intensity in their flowers.
Will ornamental grasses grow in full shade?
Most ornament grasses require partial shade but some will survive in full shade: Woodrush, Luzula, Hakonechloa macra, Carex ‘Ice Dance’
Places to buy shade plants
Gareth is the owner of Plantsman Media. Gareth lives in the North East of England and is obsessed with flowers. He has just started RHS level 2 certification.