There are plenty of beautiful plants that will grow in average to moist shady areas, but dry shade can be tough. And finding a pretty flowering perennial that will tolerate dry shade is even tougher. The drought of 2012 here in the upper Midwest tested even the sturdiest plants, and this year I’ve learned which ones are the true survivors in my garden. The plants I’m listing below not only tackled the drought last year with barely any supplemental watering from me (thanks to city watering restrictions), but came back this year none the worse for wear. I heartily recommend them for your dry, shady spots.
These perennials can be difficult to come by, and occasionally expensive as a result, but it’s worth the effort to track them down. Not only will epimediums dazzle you with dainty, dangling, fairy-like flowers in early spring, but they’ll provide attractive foliage all season long, and most varieties put on a great show of fall color. The flowers of epimediums are generally small, and it can take a gardener’s eye to appreciate them because of the way they’re tucked into the plant’s foliage, but I love them because they’re not ostentatious and, when I go looking for them amidst the spring growth, they feel like my special little secret.
The first thing I do every spring, as the snow is finally melting, is to go out and look for the hellebores. These sturdy plants seem like they’ll survive anything, and they never fail to impress me by blooming earlier than even the crocuses and daffodils (hence the common name, Lenten rose). Hellebores are gaining in popularity, and there are some spectacular new colors and double-blooming varieties coming on the scene regularly. My own are of the plain, single variety–as sturdy as they come. But check out the image from my garden (below) and you’ll see that they’re really anything but plain. My hellebores always draw comments from people wondering what that pretty, early-blooming flower is.
Okay, I’m cheating a bit here–Solomon’s seal isn’t what you’d call a “flowering perennial.” Although it does have a bloom, it’s more of a little white teardrop that’s barely noticeable. Still, it has spectacular foliage, a graceful habit, and it tolerates dry shade like nothing else. In late April or so, you’ll begin to see the pips of each individual frond poke out of the soil. Over time, Solomon’s seal will spread to blanket a shady area. (It’s not the least bit aggressive, though. In fact, I wish it would spread a little faster.) I wouldn’t garden in the shade without it.
This little woodland flower is an ephemeral, meaning that it shows up in the spring and disappears with the heat of summer. But, while they last, trilliums put on a lovely show. Like Solomon’s seal, they’ll spread slowly in woodland soil to form a nice patch of flowering spring beauty. (Fun fact: Trillium seeds are spread by ants.) In some states, trilliums (a native wildflower) are protected. In any case, picking them or harvesting them from the wild is damaging. When you pick a trillium, which removes the leaves from the stem, you’re taking away the plant’s ability to produce food to sustain its continued growth. When you harvest them, you diminish the already small population of wild plants. So, leave them alone and get them from a grower who does not harvest wild plants.
Gardening in dry shade does sometimes mean that you have to dial down your expectations when it comes to showy blooms and learn to appreciate the subtle beauty of woodland species and ephemerals. I’m a big believer in any plant that can tolerate shady, dry conditions, and return again with enthusiasm the following spring. Take some time to track down these shade-loving beauties–you won’t be disappointed!
FINDING PERENNIALS: If you’re looking for some difficult-to-find perennials, Dave’s Garden has a great resource. Search the PlantFiles database for the plant in question (example: epimedium) and click on individual varieties that interest you. Not only can you read more about the specific plant, and usually see photos, but the site will often list vendors who have the plant available. (Clicking on “Learn more about” beneath any specific vendor name will take you to the Garden Watchdog page, which will provide vendor information and reviews.)