What Grows Under the Willow Shade?

13 Pulmonaria Athyrium
13 Pulmonaria Athyrium

Here is a picture tour of the perennials that grow under my willow tree. All of these plants have done well in this shady spot with dappled light. There is a fence to the south and west, so the garden area gets sun in the early morning, and then some dappled light through the shifting willow branches during the day. These plants have managed to compete with the willow roots, and thrive in this area.

The walk goes clockwise, following along the edge of the bed, so mostly the pictures below just show the shorter plants in front. The photos overlap slightly, as you walk along. It starts with the blue flowered Campanula, which are just outside the edge of the willow leaves, and ends at the Epimedium.

There are lots of silver leafed plants here, because the silver colour adds some sparkle in the shadows. The light colour shows up well in the shade, and looks good next to the different shades of green. The main silver colour comes from the the Brunnera macrophylla (siberian bugloss) and Pulmonaria (lungwort). The Athyrium ‘Ghost’ (ghost fern) has silver fronds, and Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ (Japanese painted fern) has highlights of silver mixed in with green and purple. There are also glints of white from the variegated Hosta ‘Francee’. The darker green colours tend to fade into the background under the willow, so the groups of lighter colours make it much more interesting, and the darker colours show up well against them in the shade garden.

Some of the perennials, like the ferns,  have very light textures, and some, like the Hosta, have much heavier textures. The plants with the finest cut leaves are the ferns and the Aruncus aethusifolius (dwarf goatsbeard). The most robust ferns here are the Athyrium filix-femina (lady ferns). They send up new fronds all summer, and grow thick and lush. At the back, with just the occasional frond poking into the photos, are some Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich ferns). These ferns grow the tallest in my garden, and have a vase shape with fewer fronds. The Dryopteris expansa (spiny wood fern) is medium sized fern, and mostly keeps to itself. My smallest perennial here with finely cut leaves is the Aruncus aethusifolius. It is about 30 cm tall, and has done very well so far, planted very close to the willow tree trunk.

The perennials with the largest most solid leaves under here are the Hosta, Brunnera, Asarum and Pulmonaria. These look great next to the ferns, and keep the bed from being a solid mass of shapeless green.

The tallest perennials that I’ve been able to grow under the willow shade are the Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’ (white bleeding hearts), and the Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich ferns). The ostrich ferns are in some of the darkest corners, but the bleeding hearts are in a lighter part of the canopy. I’ve planted some Polygonatum commutatum var Giganteum (giant solomon’s seal), too. So far it’s only 60 cm (2 ft) tall, but I do have hope that it will take its name more seriously as it gets older. I tried Aruncus dioicus (tall goatsbeard) under here, but it didn’t do well, whereas it thrives in other shady spots.

Once you get to the Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’, you’re at the other edge of the willow canopy. All of these plants have thrived here under the swaying branches of the willow. I love this tree, which forms a wall of green in this corner of my garden, and I’m glad these perennials will grow underneath it to create a shady retreat.

16 thoughts on “What Grows Under the Willow Shade?”

    1. Joanne, this area has flowers in the spring, and then mostly foliage after that. In May and June it has white and blue flowers from the Brunnera, Pulmonaria, Polygonatum, Convallaria, and Dicentra. There are purple flowers on the Epimedium, and in July and August there are Astilbe. However the foliage carries through until the fall.

  1. You have a lovely collection of plants in that garden and they’re nicely laid out. It’s not always easy to have plants do well when they’re competing with tree roots. You’ve done well.

    1. Kerri, I’ve tried to plant the closest perennials in pockets between the large roots. The Brunnera and Aruncus have done well after being squeezed into some of the smaller spaces between willow roots.

  2. Hi Northern Shade:

    Very nice: I especially like the way your ferns and other lacy leaved plants tend to frame the silvery Boraginaceae and how the ghost and painted ferns form a transition at the edge of the bed. The foliage is very restful and pleasing and the flowers earlier in the year must be delightful.

    I planted a multistem Salix alba (probably ‘Vitellina’, but in any case one where the new growth stems are orange) against the East fence in 2004. When planted, it was like a nice little range dogwood. Now it is a 20 foot high wall! Since it gets baked in the afternoon sun and the willow sucks up most of the moisture, the understory is one of my problem areas. Nothing does well there, neither shade nor sun plants, and if it weren’t for the Spring bulbs, this bed would always look sad.

    1. Dave, I do like the calm atmosphere under the willow. One new perennial this year that doesn’t seem to mind the willow roots at all is the Aruncus aethusifolius. I usually water the new plants well the first year to get them off to a good start, but I didn’t always get around to the dwarf goatsbeard, and despite being planted in some very tight pockets, that I had to scrape out about 40 cm from the trunk, the foliage is very fresh looking still. I had to squish their roots in there, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the leaves. We’ll see how they do next season. Have you tried any Epimedium? They don’t seem to mind roots or a little dryness either. I’m not sure how they handle a western exposure.

      I have been thinking of the spring bulbs this week, as there is a good selection right now. I picked up a number of crocus, as well as more of my old favourites. Now I have 290 bulbs to plant tomorrow, so it’s a good thing they are all the small bulbs.

      Bangchik, some of these woodland plants get a little extra sunlight in the spring when they first come up, before the willow tree starts getting its leaves, and that seems to give them a head start. I’m grateful that these plants are adaptable to the low light levels under the tree. I will have to look for pictures of your shade plant, pucuk kaduk.

  3. Living under the shade is a specialisation not many plants can handle and be adaptable. I suppose its the amount of sunlight and the ability to make food out of photosynthesis, that remain as the determining factor. We have “pucuk kaduk” here, a lovely little plant that enjoy such shade…. ~bangchik

    1. Rebecca, these plants grow well in the site under the tree. I really like this willow, since it doesn’t give in to fall, and holds onto its leaves until long after all the others have dropped theirs. It is also one of the first to leaf out in spring.

      Sylvana, the Pulmonaria with all silver leaves is ‘Majeste’. I have another similar one with longer and more slender silver leaves called ‘Samourai’. They handle quite a bit of shade, and the leaves are very long lasting.

    1. Deborah, the all silver Brunnera is ‘Looking Glass’, and it has blue flowers in spring. The Brunnera with the silver leaves and green veins are ‘Jack Frost’ and ‘Mr. Morse’, with blue flowers and white flowers respectively.

      I’ve been fortunate, and I haven’t had too many problems with squirrels. I have a small patch of crocus now, but I’m adding a number of the large vernus, and the snow crocus, in yellow and purple. I should write a post on it. I’ll see if they manage to survive until next spring. I haven’t had squirrel problems with my Puschkinia, Scilla, Chionodoxa, Galanthus or Muscari bulbs, so perhaps I have more laid back squirrels.

  4. We must have the same squirrels, since mine haven’t been at all interested in my snow crocuses (purple & white), I’ve had them for 3-4 years. I’m thinking of adding some tulips this year, I haven’t grown them for quite some time. I am considering planting directly into the lawn in an attempt to naturalize, I suspect this might work better with species tulips and the cultivated ones should stay in the beds. I think the new bulb mix ‘Blue Bayou’ (blues and whites) is stunning, and I’m trying to find a spot for it. :)

    1. Rebecca, I’ve been tempted to try naturalizing some of the early small bulbs, Chionodoxa, Scilla or Puschkinia in the lawn, since their leaves die back quickly, so I wouldn’t have to delay mowing for too long. So far the squirrels seem more interested in the spruce cones than my garden.

  5. I bought some crocuses, galanthus and muscari with natuaralizing in mind. I might place some in beds and try a few in the lawn to see what happens. I’m a little hesitant with regards to the muscari since foliage appears again in fall and may pose a mowing problem. I also saw some fall crocuses in bloom and find them very tempting, they are like a little preview of spring. :)

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