Tough Plants for Dry Shade, Part 2

This has been by far the most popular topic on this blog, especially now that people are getting back into their gardens and looking for suitable plants to add to them.

My first selections were really tough plants that are necessarily a little uncouth and seedy. Here are a few more, including more refined types.

Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, Plumbago, is a great plant for late summer and early fall, when it produces small, intensely blue flowers, sometimes with red-tinted foliage. It spreads, but not in a rampaging, ground-conquering way. Maintenance is simple — just cut the stems to the ground in winter or during spring clean-up. It works well paired with spring bulbs, since it sprouts out relatively late.

Ceratostigma plumbaginoides

Perennial Candytuft, Iberis sempervirens, is another reliable, moderately spreading, medium high groundcover.  The pure white flowers contrast nicely with the leathery, dark green foliage. It gets a bit lanky in shade, but can be cut back after flowering to keep it more  or less compact.

Iberis sempervirens

Several of the hardy geraniums do well in dry shade, but Geranium macrorrhizum is one of the best. There is a white form (although pink-tinted) that should please purists. Like the two plants described earlier, it spreads moderately but is not a pest. The foliage is rather strongly scented. Some find it objectionable, although one source describes it as similar to ripe plums or passion fruit. I can’t say I agree with that; it is an odd smell, hard to characterize, but not what I would call foul.

Geranium macrorrhizum

Sadly, my plants are not yet in bloom, but the picture also shows Euphorbia robbiae and a grey-green and white variegated ivy, both happy in dry shade.

The epimediums are wonderful in dry shade. For most of the year they are superior foliage plants. The foliage should be cut down in late winter or early spring, before the new growth starts. Flowers are produced soon after, in clusters on thin, wiry stems. Colours range from white through yellow to reddish. One of the best is Epimedium x perralchicum “Frohnleiten,” so reliable that it’s almost like furniture.  It does spread, slowly but relentlessly, so be prepared to take control measures around the edges of its territory.

Epimedium "Frohnleiten" with Iris and Tellima

Also in this photo is another good plant for dry shade — Tellima grandiflora, also known as Fringe Cups. The common name is more accurate than the Latin, in this case, since the flowers are quite small. They are fringed, however.  The leaves are somewhat rounded and lobed and are said to turn red in winter, although mine never do. This is a woodland plant native to the northwest coast of North America, that looks good with ferns and hostas.

Bergenias do well in both shade and sun. Naturally, they bloom better in sunny situations and some varieties have foliage that turns red in winter; this phenomenon also manifests better in sun than shade. However, they are patient plants that struggle along valiantly in pretty abysmal conditions such as are found under maples. There are several species; I confess I do not know to which mine belong.


Veronica peduncularis “Georgia Blue” is another low-growing plant (6 t0 10 inches high) with a slowly spreading habit, that does quite well in relatively dry, shady conditions. Dark blue flowers are produced in early spring. It’s good used as an edging for beds; can be clipped to shape after blooming.

Veronica "Georgia Blue"

The photo also shows foliage of Iris cristata (another good plant for somewhat challenging conditions) and an emerging variegated Hosta.

Another groundcover-type plant (do you detect a trend here?) for dry shade is Lamium maculatum “Pink Pewter.” There are many varieties of Lamium, but I have found this one to be reliable here. It dies out in spots, but resurges in other spots, so I always have it. Needless to say, if treated better (water and compost) it does better. The pink flowers in late spring look elegant with the silvery foliage.

Lamium "Pink Pewter"

Finally, a brief mention of Liriope (Lilyturf) and Ophiopogon (Mondo Grass). These related species form clumps of grassy leaves, ranging in height from a couple of inches to more than a foot. Blooms are white or purple, but it’s the whole plant that makes the visual statement. Ophiopogon japonicum “Gyokoryo” is a very dwarf form that spreads to form a grass-like mat. Near the Tommy Douglas Branch of the Burnaby Public Library I saw a fetching combination of what looked like Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus “Nigrescens,” most likely) and some sort of ornamental variety of Horsetail — a very modernesque looking pairing.

A final word — this selection of plants is, as I have already said, less tough and hardy than those listed in my earlier tough plants posting. You can’t just plant them and forget them, especially in less than ideal spots such as under trees. Occasional watering, fertilizing and mulching helps, but even so, don’t expect these plants to perform to their maximum potential under challenging conditions. And yes, I have featured a lot of groundcovers. Visualize them forming a kind of tapestry, combined with hellebores, hostas, ferns and shrubs, with spring blooming bulbs for early colour.