Pretty Perennial Leaves for the Shade

Here are some foliage plants for the shade garden with pretty leaves. These perennials add beautiful texture, colour and shine to shady areas, even when not in bloom.

spring garden foliage
spring garden foliage

On the upper left is a combination of Asarum europaeum (European ginger) in front and Athyrium ‘Lady in Red’ (lady in red fern) behind. I especially like the pairing of shiny, rounded heart shaped leaves of the ginger with the feathery fern fronds. ‘Lady in Red’ has a fresh, light green colour, but the centre of each frond is red when they first emerge. The foliage pairing is appealing all season long, and both do well with very little light.

On the upper right is Heuchera ‘Green Spice’ (coral bells). Most of the Heuchera have great foliage, but ‘Green Spice’ stands out for its wonderful contrast of purple red veins on a light silvery green background. The darker green border around each leaf completes the colourful package. The large scalloped leaves look super next any plant with feathery leaves.

In the middle on the left are Tiarella ‘Jeepers Creepers’ (foamflower) leaves with deeply cut lobes and a dark contrasting line down the middle of each section. These perennial leaves make an attractive evergreen groundcover, topped by pretty spikes of flowers.

In the centre of the collage is a  Hosta ‘Patriot’ that is still unfurling. I like the creamy white bands around the margins of the leaves, since get you attention as you scan along in the darker areas of the shade garden. ‘Patriot’ adds a dappled effect in the shadows. The large leaves look good next to delicate or finely cut foliage.

On the right side of the centre row is Heuchera ‘Cinnabar Silver’ (coral bells ) with green and purple leaves that have pronounced vein marks. Not all Heuchera have showy flowers, but these get very attractive red flowers later in the summer. A leftover blue Scilla flower is draped over the ‘Cinnabar Silver’.

On the bottom left is Heucehra ‘Raspberry Ice’ (coral bells), which also has the complete package of both wonderful leaves and flowers. Like many Heuchera, the leaves can change colour through the season, depending on the temperature. You can see some of the silver and green leaves, as well as the purplish red ones. One perk with the Heuchera is that the evergreen leaves will decorate the shady garden all year.

On the bottom right is a closeup of the fantastic foliage of Asarum europaeum (European ginger). These shiny leaves have finally been spreading over the last few years to fill in and create a terrific groundcover. I highly recommend these short plants for the front of the border. Although they are a little slow to start spreading for the first few years, they will gradually fill in to great a really nice edging in even your shadiest areas. The high gloss finish adds some sparkle to the darker sections.

perennials with silver leaves
perennials with silver leaves

Above is a collage of  some silver perennial leaves, which are great for bringing highlights to a shady corner. Whether solid, spotted, or patterned silver, the light colour bounces back the few light rays to make it into the shaded sites under the trees, making them stand out and be noticed.

At the top is Pulmonaria ‘Samourai’ (lungwort) with mostly solid silver leaves. Each leaf is long and narrow, with a slender border of green and a central green vein. This make a light coloured background for the blue flowers. These silver grey ‘Samourai’ looks great next to solid green or dark leaves.

In the middle row on the left is Zantedeschia araceae ‘Golden Chalice’ (calla lily). I use these as a centre foliage plant in a planter for a very shady area. They don’t produce much in the way of flowers there, but the tall, silver spotted leaves are a great centre piece for the flowering annuals in the pot. I also have a calla lily in another part shade container, where they produce funnel type blooms.

In the centre of the collage is a Brunnera macropylla ‘Jack Frost’ (bugloss) leaf. This is the king of foliage plants for the shade. Everything about the leaves is perfect, from the beautiful silver colour, to the wonderful patterns of contrasting green along the veins. I always have to stop and admire them when puttering around the garden.

On the right side of the middle row is a Pulmonaria ‘Majeste’ (lungwort) leaf. ‘Majeste’ starts off as spotted silver in spring, and gets more of an overall silver colour later in summer. The freckles are cute, and keep the green foliage from fading into the background.

On the bottom left is a Heuchera ‘Mint Frost’ leaf. It is a light silver green, with darker green veins. These are highly variable perennials, as in the spring and fall they can have orange, red and purple leaves, too. However for most of the summer this is the standard colour.

On the lower right is the solid silver leaf of  Brunnera macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’. It produces large leaves, with slender green lines along the veins. This is a real knockout in the shade as it reflects a lot of light.

alocasia calidora elephant ear leaf
Alocasia calidora elephant ear leaf

Here is a very attractive giant leaf of Alocasia calidora (elephant ear). It’s large, wet, and just look at those patterns. The rubbery leaves are about 50 cm (20 in) long right now, and get bigger all summer. I have these Alocasia in a few of my planters in part shade, where they make super focal point for the centre. Elephant ears bring a wonderfully lush tropical look to a planter. In zone 3 they are treated like an annual, although you could overwinter the bulbs inside.  If you’re wondering what the green ‘worms’ are behind the leaf, those are the catkins that just fell from a willow tree.

These are some of the perennial leaves that caught my eye this week when I was out gardening. Although there are lots of spring flowers right now, the foliage of these plants will look great right through until fall. You can see more pictures of great foliage for your shady garden here, and even more photos of  shade plant leaves here.

19 thoughts on “Pretty Perennial Leaves for the Shade”

  1. Gorgeous collection of foliage, Patriot really shines in the shade. I added some Heuchera for the first time, I had somehow overlooked them before but finally had to add a few, it’s truly amazing how much colour variation there is between cultivars.

    1. Rebecca, I’ve added many more Heuchera over the last few years, since they look so good, even when they are not flowering. Additionally, seeing those evergreen leaves as soon as the snow melts in spring is a real spirit booster.

  2. Your Pulmonaria ‘Samourai’ was very beautiful. I have never seen that sort before. I have many of them here, but not with solid silver leafes. I love the silver foliage very much. Your Brunnera ‘Looking Glass’ is also very nice.

    1. Marit, ‘Samourai’ is really noticeable in the garden, because of the solid silver colouring. It gets lots of the blue flowers, too. I’ve found it to be very hardy and it grows large fairly easily. I got mine about 4 years ago, but I haven’t seen it offered around for sale since then.

      Douglas, there are lots of great plants for the shade. Many of the shade perennials bloom in the spring time, but the leaves really make the garden attractive, too. I have most of these plants growing right underneath the trees.

  3. Great collection of shade plant ideas. I am really involved in expanding the garden this year, so ideas like this are much appreciated. I have many mature trees, so anything that thrives in the shade would be a big help in the garden.

    1. Ms. S, the section of European ginger here is about 1 m (3 ft) by .5 m (1.5ft) and has filled in almost solid with leaves. There are 2 other sections in the garden that have not filled in quite as solid yet. This is a very appealing groundcover, and I would like to add more.

  4. You have a superb variety of shade lovers, demonstrating that gardening with foliage can be just as interesting and beautiful as gardening with flowers. I planted pulmonaria for the first time last year, and I am loving it. I also grow varieties of heuchera, ginger, and calla lily that are similar to yours, though I am several planting zones south of you. I love your brunnera – I think I may try it, too!

    1. Debdgarden, I grow two other types of ginger, but these seem to do the best, and have the shiniest leaves. My calla lilies are probably wishing that they were growing in your garden right now, as our temperatures haven’t been that warm. They do really well up until the fall frost, though. I’ve heard that in warmer climates, Brunnera doesn’t like to get too dried out.

      Sweetbay, I’ve been trying different types of Tiarella and Heuchera the last few years, and like all of them. ‘Samourai’ and ‘Jack Frost’ are stand outs in the shadowy areas with their light colour.

      Jenny, I grow the elephants ear in a pot about 45 cm (1.5 ft) across. There is room for some double impatiens, tuberous begonias and lobelia under the leaves. Another one has a fuchsia under it too. The Alocasia is in part shade. Last year I grew its relative, Calocasia (elephant ears, too), and enjoyed the foliage as well.

  5. You have a great collection of plants for foliage effect. I love Tiarellas and Heucheras and do not have enough of them. I especially like Pulmonaria ‘Samourai’ and Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’. They are beautiful.

  6. Thank you so much for todays list, perfect timing! I am wondering what size pot you grow your elephant ears in? I have a couple saved over from last year and don’t know how large I should go with a pot.

  7. I have a lot of those “worms” around my garden right now too. You always have the best shade plants and the ones you’ve featured are no exception. I just went on a garden tour over the weekend and saw some fantastic shade gardens. Makes me want more trees to garden the same way! I also like Elephant ears in containers. I bet yours do really well. I had success a couple years ago then the last two years they’ve flopped. Not sure what I’m doing differently/wrong? This year I splurged on ‘Blue Hawaii’ and two days after I got it home all the leaves were flopped onto the patio and have never recovered. So frustrating and too expensive for that to happen!

    1. Kathleen, on a hot day it is nice to be gardening under the shade of the trees. If you have lots of variety and texture in foliage, the garden beds can be visually appealing.

      I really like elephant ears in the pots, too, because their giant tropical leaves add a lot of substance to the group. It is unfortunate that your new one gave up so quickly. Mine haven’t made a lot of growth yet, since it has been fairly cool here, but they’re healthy. It is a good thing that they don’t know what is coming for them in the fall, or they might give up now.

  8. Hi,
    I have planted some plants you suggested. Thanks a bunch for your help.

    However,i think my front yard the pansies i planted before i spoke to you aren’t doing too well. The soil is too damp and i mixed some compost and fertilizer. They are growing but i find it too messy and often sloppy looking. They get only the morning light. So i am thinking of planting some Irish or Lilies like my neighbours. Is it too late ? To plant them ?

    1. Gina, you can still plant irises and lilies in Edmonton in June, just make sure to keep them well watered if it gets hot, until they settle in. Traditionally it is better to plant iris in the fall, but I’ve moved them in summer if I needed to, and they have done fine.

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