Shade Gardening with Perennials

toad lilyMany gardeners take the director's approach to selecting perennials. They conduct tryouts each season, hoping to discover one or more budding new stars. Over time, the true classics will endure, but the process of looking for a beautiful new plant is something gardeners anticipate at the start of each new growing season.

Below, the Chicago Botanic Garden recommends some perennials that offer diversity in the shade garden and may become one of your own new stars.

Shade Garden Stars

Hellebores (Helleborus orientalis, Helleborus 'Royal Heritage')
These variations of the old-fashioned Lenten roses our grandmothers grew offer attractive, glossy evergreen foliage; the bell-shaped flowers appear in tones of dark purple, burgundy, pink, green and yellow. They are wonderful plants for moist shade gardens.

Golden Japanese hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola')
This yellow and green-striped arching grass cascades over borders and edges and brings the much-loved chartreuse color to shady corners. The foliage turns pinkish in fall and remains ornamental throughout the seasons. It is a good companion to lady's mantle and purple-foliaged plants.

Japanese yellow waxbells (Kirengeshoma palmata) 
At 3 feet, waxbells could almost qualify as a small shrub. The maple-shaped leaves appear on wiry stems, followed by creamy yellow bell-shaped flowers. Its large size and shade tolerance make it a good candidate for moist, back-of-the border spots.

Toad lily (Tricyrtis sp.)
What a curious name for such a princely perennial that offers orchidlike flowers in autumn! Position this arching plant close to a patio or porch where you can enjoy the late-season display of exotic spotted flowers that bloom until frost.

Golden bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis 'Gold Heart')
A new spin on an old favorite, this bleeding heart has bright gold foliage that appears in early spring followed by dangling, pink, heart-like flowers. This is a new color combination for partially shaded spring gardens and will bring a bright light to spring greens and pastels.

Japanese painted fern (Athryrium nipponicum cultivars) 
When sited properly, these specimen ferns will spread in a moist shaded garden spot. They're fine accent plants with beautiful arching triangular fronds. Depending on which cultivar is chosen, the fronds can appear in smoky silver, burgundy red or soft green. Spiking foliage adds texture and architecture to surrounding mounded plants. Recommended choices include: 'Picta', 'Silver Falls', 'Ursula's Red', 'Wildwood Twist' and 'Samurai Sword'.

Black snakeroot (Cimicifuga ramosa syn. Actaea simplex 'Hillside Black Beauty' or 'Brunette') 
These selections were chosen for their burgundy-purple foliage that is about as dark as any perennial's foliage can get. The statuesque plants grow between 2 and 4 feet but sport tall spires of light-colored, waving bottlebrush flowers that bloom quite late in the season. Some gardeners report knowing exactly when the plants go into flower by the scent of fresh grapes that fills their backyard. 'Brunette' is the taller of the two and should be afforded a shrub's space. Maximize the rich foliage by placing these plants close to chartreuse or variegated foliage or contrasting them with blue, silver or pink blooming plants. Provide partial shade and evenly moist soil.