Shade Perennial Combinations

Brunnera macrophylla \'Mr. Morse\' and Athyrium filix-femina \'Lady in Red\' (Siberian bugloss and lady in red fern)Here are some combinations of foliage and flowers in the summer shade garden. Silver leaves weave through many of the pictures. The silver looks good in the shade, brightening the shadows and catching the eye. The fine texture of the ferns looks interesting when combined with more solid, round or elongated leaves. Adding a variety of textures, shapes, and patterns makes the plantings look more appealing, with or without flowers.

The heart shaped leaves in the first photo are Brunnera macrophylla ‘Mr. Morse’ (Mr. Morse Siberian bugloss). The foliage of this perennial is almost identical  to B. macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, but the flowers are white instead of sky blue. Like other Brunnera, it is thriving in the shadows. It laughs at the maple tree that steals all the sunshine and tries to bombard it with keys. The Brunnera have been very successful at suppressing the maple seedling growth, making them great understory plants. Mr. Morse adds beautiful white flowers early in the year, but the foliage is a winner for the whole season.

Athyrium filix-femina \'Lady In Red\' and Pulmonaria x \'Samourai\' (lady in red fern and samourai lungwort)The fern behind the Brunnera is Athyrium filix-femina ‘Lady In Red’ (lady in red fern). It’s a lush looking fern with fresh green fronds that have red midribs. It puts out new fronds throughout the summer, so it’s still looking good in August. In fact, it’s looking much better than when I planted it in the spring. When I first got it in May, I put the round pot down in my backyard. Some very strong wind gusts blew it over and rolled it all along the the back path. Many of the fronds broke and eventually turned crispy brown. You would never know it now, since it has filled in so well.

The second photo shows another A. filix-femina ‘Lady In Red’, with all of the new fronds that have unrolled. The red midribs are most noticeable at the bottom and fade at the tips where the fronds narrow to a point. I like the lighter green next to other dark green foliage.

On the left is a clump of Asarum europaeum, with dark, round, glossy leaves. This great, low growing perennial looks like its leaves have been individually polished. I love the look of the ginger’s solid leaves contrasting with the finely cut foliage of the fern. Earlier in the year it had small brown flowers hidden under the leaves. This ground cover is definitely grown for its appealing foliage, rather than the inconspicuous flowers.

Behind the fern are the long silver leaves of Pulmonaria x ‘Samourai’ (Samourai lungwort). This perennial’s leaves have a matte surface. Although it had pretty blue flowers earlier in the year, it looks just as good without any flowers on it. I like the combination of fern, ginger and lungwort together in the shade.

Pulmonaria x \'Samourai\' and Asarum europaeum (samaurai lungwort and European ginger)

This photo shows three P. x ‘Samourai’, with part of a clump of Asarum europaeum (European wild ginger) in the shadow on the lower right. If you click to enlarge, you can see the little ginger better. There are ten Asarum planted altogether in this area. I’ll see how it fills in next year. These plants get an hour or so of direct light in the early evening, and a bit of dappled light now and then. They thrive in this shady location, and the leaves always look good.

Heuchera \'Mint Frost\' and Pulmonaria \'Samourai\' (heuchera and lungwort)

Here’s Heuchera ‘Mint Frost’ on a rainy day. The leaves are glistening with puddles of rain on them, and more drops landing. The mature leaves are a light silvery mint green with medium green veins. The newer leaves are a lighter, minty green with the same veining. You can click to enlarge, to see the red petioles holding out the dimpled leaves. If you are looking for a heuchera with a bit of pattern to the leaves, but not in the orange and red tones, this is a good choice. This is new to my garden this year, so I’ll be able to tell more about this cultivar’s hardiness next spring. On the upper right is another group of Pulmonaria x ‘Samourai’. The two look good together in this location that gets part shade.

Brunnera macrophylla \'Jack Frost\' and Athyrium \'Ghost\' (siberian bugloss and ghost fern)

This grouping of three Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ (Jack Frost Siberian bugloss) is in front of Athyrium x ‘Ghost’ (ghost fern). The Jack Frost clump is about 1 metre (3 feet) across. The silver patterned hearts show why  it’s one of my favourite perennials. The Athyrium x ‘Ghost’ fern behind echoes a similar silver colour, but with fine textured foliage. The shape and size of the fronds show look like one of its parents, Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern). The silver colour is a clue to its other parent, Athyrium niponicum (Japanese painted fern). Both of the ghost ferns are about 60 cm (2 feet) tall now. The silver foliage of the Jack Frost and the ghost fern combination looks good surrounded by darker leaves. To the right is a group of Campanula carpatica (Carpathian bellflower). These plants have been moved around this same area 3 times in 3 years. They’ve been very good sports about it, but they should fill in a little more, if I leave them alone for a while.

Athyrium \'Ghost\' and Campanula rotundifolia (ghost fern and harebells)

Here’s a closeup of a ghost fern frond with Campanula rotundifolia (harebells). The slender flower stalks of the harebell lean against other plants in the shade. I like the look of the little bluish purple bells here and there, weaving delicately through the garden floor.

You can see by the maple keys on the ground, that the maple tree and I have a disagreement about what makes a garden.  Acer believes in a maple monoculture, and drops thousands of keys every year to turn this into a maple paradise. So far in our game of garden domination, the score is maple: 1 tree standing vs gardener: 10 000 keys defeated.

Astilbe simplicifolia \'Hennie Graafland\' and Aruncus dioicus (astilbe and gostsbeard)

It’s not all foliage in the shade garden. This is Astilbe simplicifolia ‘Hennie Graafland’. The leaves are glossy, and the feathery plumes are pink. I wrote about some other astilbe that I grow in a previous post.  The foliage of Aruncus dioicus (goatsbeard) is in the background. Being 2 metres (6 feet) tall, the leaves of the Aruncus make a pleasing green backdrop to show off the flowers of other perennials.

I like to add interest by combining glossy leaves with matte leaves, round shapes with elongated ones, feathery textures with dense surfaces, and patterned leaves next to solid coloured leaves. You can see some other shade perennial combinations in this fall post.

Do you have any plant combinations for the shade that you particularly like?

16 thoughts on “Shade Perennial Combinations”

  1. Lovely shade combinations. I love the texture, shapes & colors that you have growing together. Ferns & Heuceras are some of my favorite shade-loving plants. Astilbe is such a pretty bloom, mine bloom here in the early spring.

  2. Howdy –

    Thanks for stopping by my site! My previous garden was almost entirely shade. It had a lot of the perennials you show in your lovely photos. I miss all that green/white variegation, now that I have almost TOO much sun!

    As for your question, I am sticking to the narrow focus of parking strips at the moment and my plan for my next post is to feature other gardens in the neighborhood (NE Seattle). There are some really great ones (much nicer than mine!).

    Happy gardening!

  3. Karen, sunnier areas do seem to call for more intense colour combinations. You wouldn’t have been able to bring many plants from your old garden with such a difference in light intensity.

  4. I paired lungwort with hostas and impatiens and the freckles of the lungwort added just pop for the shade. That plant is a keeper for me – it looked good all season long.

  5. Thank you for your nice comment on my gardening blog! My first comment ever which was not in Swedish!
    I am also very fond of both astilbe and heuchera. As they come in all colours and in different heights, they offer countless combinations. And both do quite well in the shadier part of the garden.


  6. Monica, my other astilbe plumes are fading now, but Hennie Graafland blooms a little later and is still pink. It’s nice to have the flowering times spread out a bit. The leaves are noticeably shinier than the other astilbe.
    There is such a rainbow of heuchera foliage colours available now. When I bought them, I debated between 4 different cultivars with green on green leaf colours, and chose ‘Mint Frost’ because it had the most silver and pronounced green veining.

  7. Northern Shade,

    The heuchera is a beauty and I do like the green and white, I grow several of the reds and purples but Globe Spice is a good looking green and white that I also have…. Jack Frost is a beauty I have long admired!

  8. My favourite heuchera is Creme Brule with lime-green foilage which seems yellowish-green when looking from above, and purple, almost red, when looking at it from underneath. When its a little bit windy, you can see both colours at once, and its really fascinating!

  9. Beautiful combinations. I love ferns and anything, but I’m especially fond of a grouping of ferns and hakonechloa and baby’s tears in my mom’s garden. It’s a great combination of textures.

  10. Megan, I had to look up some photos of hakonechloa, since I’m not familiar with it. Its long grass leaves, with fern fronds and the small, rounded baby’s tears foliage does sound like a good grouping of textures. I like ferns added to most combinations too.

  11. I learned a lot about foliage combinations from this post and its comments. In my first garden with actual sun patches, I’ve also learned that you can have times with lots of foliage-only displays even in a sunny garden. Shade gardens of course give themselves to foliage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.