Shade Plants: Everything You Need to Know

Shade plants are the best when it comes down to growing in a shaded backyard. Not all yards are created equal, and a lack of sun in yours may have left you with a plethora of gardening woes. Fortunately, there are plants that thrive in shaded areas and look pretty while they do it. Here, we’ll be covering shade plants and everything you need to know about them to bring your yard back to life!

So, what exactly are shade plants? Shade plants are plant species that require little light to survive and do well when placed under larger plants that soak up the sun (such as dense trees). They’re often hardier than their sun-loving cousins and come in a wide variety of colors, textures, and sizes, making them wonderful ornamental fillers. 

The term “shade plants,” however, is broad, including a vast expanse of flora that can bring different auras to your yard. This is why, in the next few sections, we’ll be breaking each category down and providing in-depth information about these adaptive plants. 

What are Shade Plants? 

As we briefly touched upon above, they are plants that can withstand a significant — or partial —  lack of sunlight and thrive. They’re often used in yards that contain many trees or otherwise thick plant life, or as low-lying fillers in sunny flower gardens. 

There is a seemingly unending list of these types of plants with various appearances, some of which bud and flower, others that are leafy, colorful, evergreen, tall, short, and everything in between. Which means you won’t be kept wanting. 

They can also range in the amount of water, space, climate, and sunlight they need, which brings us to our next question.

How Much Sun Exposure do Shade Plants Need?

As with everything in life, the amount of sun they need isn’t a required time that stretches across the entire floral board. 

In fact, there’s even a dividing line between full-shade plants and partial-ones. While the amount of sun changes from plant to plant, generally speaking, a full-shade plant will need 3 or fewer hours of sunlight. Contrarily, partial-shade plants will need 3 to 6 hours of sun exposure. 

3 to 6 hours is broadly how much light plants need to be healthy, but can they handle more sun if necessary? 

How Much Sun Can Shade Plants Get? 

Shade Plants are hardy in the sense that they can handle a lack of light, but some species (such as types of Ferns) simply won’t survive a prolonged encounter with the sun, becoming withered and browned in the heat over time. 

  • Part-shade plants will need protection against the sun when it’s at its hottest — in the afternoons, mainly — as they are fairly sensitive to overexposure. For these plants, you’ll want to plant them in an area where they can receive 3 to 6 hours of morning sun (when temperatures are often coolest). 
  • Full-shade plants, on the other hand, benefit most from sunlight that is indirect. Meaning, the light that bounces off of a building or sunlight that is streaming through the canopy of a tree or other brush. However, most species can tolerate a couple of hours of direct sunlight in the morning and evenings if necessary — but never midday. 

How Often You Should Water Shade Plants

As with sunlight and temperature, the amount of watering a shade plant will need is entirely dependent on its species. Generally, a shade plant will only need to be watered once a week or once every two weeks if your plants are in a moist area.

Keep an eye on the weather and be sure not to overwater them. Remember, they don’t have full access to the sun and therefore don’t lose water as quickly as full-sun or part-sun plants.

Characteristics of Shade Plants 

Aside from the amount of sunlight exposure they can tolerate, sun plants and shade plants vary in other ways, as well. Here are a few characteristics of shade-dwelling species that we’ll cover individually: 

  • They have thinner but bigger leaves
  • They have broader plant bodies 
  • Their leaves are darker — or appear darker —  in color

Why Shade Plants Have Thin Leaves

Plant leaves are not unlike our skin, in that they have layers. The outermost layer of plant leaves is designed to protect the plant from the sun, while the innermost layers handle photosynthesis and other processes, like gas distribution.

Not surprisingly, shade plants — which require little sun — need less protection than sun plants, making the top layer thinner.

Their Leaf Size 

Because they don’t have to worry about overexposure to the sun, hefty water loss, or drying out and burning up, their protective outer layer is thinner, and their leaves are wider. 

The wideness of the leaves ensures that what little sun they do get is enough to sustain them and is evenly penetrated and distributed among the plants’ loosely-packed cells. 

Leaf Color 

Due to the lack of sun, these require a greater production of chlorophyll in order to trap the necessary sunlight. Chlorophyll, being green in color, is densely packed in the plants’ large chloroplasts, giving the leaves of those an overall darker appearance. 

Similarly, in sun plants, the innermost leaves will usually be darker in color for their lack of sun access and the other aforementioned reasons. 

The Best Plants for Shaded Areas

As we’ve discussed above, shade plants can be separated into two main categories: part-shade and full-shade. Below, we’ll cover the best plants for both full-shade and partial-shade areas. 

Best Part-Shade Plants 

Part-shade Perennials are some of the most beautiful option of these plants, and there is a lengthy list to choose from. Ranging from reds, yellows, and oranges to blues, purples, and pinks, the following sun-shaming plants will add a splash of color to your shady garden:

  1. Bleeding Heart: A shade plant adorned with heart-shaped, hanging pink or white flowers and foliage similar to a Fern. 
  2. Primrose: A plant with clusters of flowers ranging from multicolored, pinks, blues, gold, and reds. 
  3. Goat’s Beard: A ginormous, bushy plant crowned with clustered, white blooms and deep green foliage. They can grow up to six feet tall and spread widely. 
  4. Foxglove: Column plants with decently sized bell-shaped blooms. Colors range from Ivory and white to pinks and deep purple. 
  5. Creeping Jenny: A vining plant with bright yellow blooms. Prefers to be in moist to wet soil. It can often be found near streams. 
  6. Creeping Myrtle (Vinca): A thick, low-lying plant great as a filler or ground cover. Produces deep green foliage and violet blooms. 
  7. Columbines: A plant with larger blooms consisting of yellows, whites, and violets. It does well in warmer regions (southern, if in the United States) when planted in part-shade.
  8. Autumn Anemones: A plant with white blooms containing orange and yellow centers. Also known as Japanese Anemones. 

Best Full-Shade Plants

While most full-shade plants won’t bloom or won’t bloom for very long, the leafy plants can sprout glorious displays – and there are still a few flowering plants to select from, as well. The following are the best and most beautiful full-shade plants:

  1. Impatiens: Plant that bears their full array of colorful blooms only when planted in areas of full shade.
  2. Hostas: A large green, waxy, leafy plant that thrives well in full shade conditions. The darker green plants thrive the best.
  3. Coral Bells (Heuchera): An oddly-colored perennial with burgundy leaves and flower spikes that contain off-white blooms.
  4. Oakleaf Hydrangeas (and most species of Hydrangea): Large bushy plants with huge flower bulbs. Colors range from green and white to varying shades of pink, purple, blue, and red. Very sensitive to overexposure to the sun and heat. Best planted in cooler regions such as the Northern part of the United States.
  5. Ferns: These plants are often found in shady forests and can grow enormous when given the proper environment. They thrive in minimal sun and have large leaves.
  6. Dead Nettle: This plant is wonderful for barren areas. It’s a low-lying plant that spreads and packs densely. Dead Nettle is adorned by silvery and pinkish blossoms and does best when exposed to as little light as possible. 
  7. Lungwort: A plant that sports dashing dark green leaves and trumpet or bell-shaped violet and blue flowers. It doesn’t do well in extreme heat and would likely thrive more so in cooler regions.
  8. Primulas: These flowers are delicate, but when given the right environment, they’ll thrive, blooming gorgeous clusters of violet flowers atop deep green leaves. They do best in cooler regions and may not fare well in areas with extreme heat.

Shade Plants that Attract Birds and Other Wildlife

If your yard feels a bit barren and quiet, or you just want to attract fuzzy friends to your home for the experience, you can use a few of these to bring nature to your backyard.

The most common wildlife you’ll attract is Hummingbirds, Butterflies, general insect species like ladybugs and caterpillars, lizards, squirrels, and other scurrying critters, and deer (if you have a large amount of bushy, protective foliage or berry bushes).

Keep in mind that not all of the wildlife you attract will be due to the nectar or berries present on the plants. Some of the following plants provide low-lying shelter for small mammals, creating a well-rounded and balanced backyard ecosystem.

Attracting Hummingbirds and Other Bird Species

Hummingbirds are attracted to bright, fiery florals of oranges, reds, hot pinks, and yellows. This is because these intelligent creatures associate these shades with flowers that contain high amounts of nectar. Your best bet in attracting Hummingbirds is by incorporating these bright colors into your shade plant garden scheme. 

The best choices for attracting Hummingbirds are:

The plants above will also attract many common yards bird species such as Cardinals, Bluebirds, and Robins. Dogwood is a favorite among backyard birds thanks to their appetizing berries. You can also plant shade-loving Holly Bushes to attract winter birds.

Attracting Butterflies with Shade Plants

Similar to Hummingbirds, butterflies are attracted to plants with bright coloring, specifically plants with vibrant reds, oranges, yellows, and other colors of the like. Butterflies are amazing pollinators and certainly welcomed garden guests that will help your plants thrive.

You’ll want to include brightly-colored, high-nectar plants such as:

With these listed plants, you’ll attract a variety of colorful butterflies, along with moth species, to keep your garden well-kept and pollinated.

Using Shade Plants to Attract Bees

It’s no secret that bees are some of the world’s most important pollinators, and while they prefer to pollinate sun-loving plants, there are a few shade-loving plant varieties that they can’t help but buzz right up to.

If you’re looking to lure in bumbling bees, you can try planting flowers with shades of yellows, whites, and blues. 

Some bee-loving plants include:

Shade Plants that Repel Destructive Wildlife

While some homeowners will utilize the above plants to attract large wildlife, like deer; and insects, others may want to use their greens to ward them off. Though not physically harmful to wildlife, these plants are surely unappealing and will do the job.

Repelling Deer with Shade Plants

Deer are magnificent animals that would make any backyard a beautiful scene. However, they aren’t exactly picky eaters and will take the opportunity to forage your lovely garden beds if welcomed to. 

Luckily, you can utilize a few shade-loving plants to deter flower-eating deer from your property (or that deer simply won’t touch). 

A few of these include:

And while the above plants are wonderful for keeping nibbling deer at bay (or rather, at forest), there are other shade-loving plants that work to repel the smallest and most dangerous garden visitor of them all. 

The mosquito.

Shade Plants that Repel Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are one of the worst, if not the worst, garden guests’ plants can attract. Luckily, like you can utilize them to attract wildlife, you can also use them to shoo off wildlife. 

Because mosquitoes have such sensitive sensory organs and are drawn to dark, moist places, you’ll want to plant plants that are both adapted to little sunlight and have a strong smell – namely, herbs.

The best herbs include mints and culinary herbs such as:

You can also include balms and some alliums in your garden to repel mosquitoes. Like the previously mentioned Lemon Thyme, balms and alliums have intense fragrances that are distasteful to mosquitoes, thus making them excellent repellents. 

These include:

The citrusy smell of these plants will not only ward off blood-sucking bugs but will also ward off other pests like flies and gnats – not to mention they’ll make your backyard smell sweet and clean. And, eventually, the planted onion and garlic bulbs will begin to blossom into large stalks of green with white, eye-catching, domed blooms.

Garden Safety

As with all types of plants, there are a few shade plants that we’ve listed that can be detrimental to the health of small children, pregnant women, and pets. If you decide to plant Lemon Balm, Lemon Thyme, Garlic, and Onions, please use caution when pets or children are outdoors.

Lemon Balms and other “Lemony” plants have been shown to cause complications in pregnant women and children when consumed and may cause physical irritation when a person’s bare skin comes in contact with the leaves. Never use these plants on the skin as a mosquito repellent when you’re outdoors. The scent they give off is enough to deter pests.

Additionally, Garlic and Onions are highly aggravating to a dog’s digestive system and may result in extreme sickness or death when consumed in decent quantities. 

Always be vigilant when outdoors, even if it’s in your backyard, and discourage any children from consuming plants that are unsafe or plants that you’re unsure if they are safe.

Final Thoughts

These are plants that can tolerate low-sunlight conditions and thrive. They’re hardy and consist of a variety of appearances, colors, and textures, perfect for filling in the empty spaces in your garden or creating a ground cover for barren shady areas in your yard. 

Shade Plants are generally placed in two categories: part-shade and full-shade. Part-shade plants will need 3 to 6 hours of morning sun per day, while full-shade plants will need 3 or fewer hours of morning sunlight. Most shade plant species cannot tolerate midday sun or high, direct temperatures.  Overall, they are beautiful, purposeful, perfectly-adapted plants that can do anything from making your yard prettier to attracting (or repelling) certain wildlife and even making the overall scent of your garden cleaner. 

Eyerly Family

The Eyerly Family is a family of 8 that loves gardening. Over the past several years we have been applying what we learn about gardening to our own 16x16 raised back yard garden. Our garden is very prolific and we grow a wide variety of vegetables which we love to eat! Click here to learn more about the Eyerly Family.

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