12 Best Low Maintenance Perennials for Shade

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Shade garden
Cultivating plants in shaded areas can be quite challenging for a novice gardener. Sue Manus, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To make the most of your garden space, it would make sense to cultivate a wide assortment of plants and situate them in as thoughtful a manner as possible. This takes getting to know the unique needs of each species and grouping them according to their requirements. You can’t simply place hardy, sun-loving plants next to those with highly delicate, easily scorched foliage. When grouping plants, always consider their light, water, soil, and nutrient requirements.  

Fuss-free perennials are great additions to any type of garden as they can persist for years. While all of these require a certain amount of light to photosynthesize, some are able to thrive in low-light conditions. Many are also low-maintenance in the sense that they can be left outdoors through winter, will not require frequent pruning, and are unlikely to spread uncontrollably.   

Cultivating plants in shaded areas can be quite challenging to novice gardeners. In shade, water evaporation times may be delayed, low light levels can hinder flowering, air temperatures may be significantly lower, and low UV light levels can facilitate the spread of pathogens. The best plants for shade are hardy, low-maintenance species with vibrant foliage to brighten up the area. Those listed below tolerate varying levels of low light, with some that can grow in full shade.

1) Fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia)

Pink fringed bleeding heart
Fringed bleeding heart requires cool, moist conditions in shaded areas to sustain the growth of its flowers through the summer. Erutuon / CC BY-SA 2.0

Native to the eastern United States

The fringed bleeding heart is a fern-like perennial with a penchant for thriving in shaded flower beds and woodland gardens. This lovely plant has a compact shoot form that is generously adorned with highly textural foliage. The leaves are dissected into serrated, gray-green colored leaflets. Delicate and practically paper-thin, these leaflets may die back if exposed to intense sun and dry conditions in summer.

Cool, moist conditions in shaded areas are also necessary to sustain the growth of flowers through summer. Under intense heat, flowering may resume as late as fall. The heart-shaped blooms are formed by highly delicate, pink floral structures which appear to be oriented in a drooping manner. The blooms attract bees and hummingbirds. These ripen into plump pods which attract ants due to the presence of an elaiosome.

2) Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica)

Indian pink plants
Indian pink grows best in shaded areas in moist & fertile substrates. Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the southeastern United States

Able to tolerate partial to full shade conditions, this spritely perennial favors consistently moist and fertile substrates. It can also tolerate full sun as long as the soil is prevented from drying out completely. Best growth rates, however, are usually restricted to shaded areas. Capable of growing up to 18 inches (46 cm) tall and wide, S. marilandica spreads in clumps and is ideal for border plantings and urban gardens.

Pops of color can truly draw attention to shady areas. Despite its common name of ‘Indian pink’, this species produces markedly red blooms. Appearing in early summer, these are shaped like trumpets which distinctly flare open into a neatly-edged star. Yellow on the inside, the flowers occur in clusters and are known for attracting hummingbirds. Deadheading spent flowers tends to prolong the bloom period by encouraging the production of more floral stems.

3) Plantain lilies (Hosta spp.)

Hosta leaves
Plantain lilies come in a wide range of varieties, with many different colors, variegation patterns, and leaf shapes to choose from! Andy Mabbett, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Northeast Asia

If your shaded areas are in need of some eye-catching foliage, plantain lilies are your best bet. These lovely, low-maintenance plants can definitely bring brightness and tasteful texture to any part of the garden. They come in a wide range of cultivars with dozens of shades of green, variegation patterns, and leaf shapes. These features are best brought out by low-light conditions, which can make the leaves appear to glow with health.

Hostas favor well-draining substrates with a fertile profile. Their preference for light or shade is usually determined by the colors of their leaves. Those with golden hues tend to prefer some morning sun. As these plants can thrive when grown out of pots or containers, several varieties can be placed alongside one another to highlight their subtle differences. Optimal conditions allow these to add irresistible lushness to a shaded garden.

4) Asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus)

Asparagus fern houseplant
Asparagus fern is a popular houseplant that is used to low-light conditions. Traumrune / CC BY 3.0

Native to southern Africa

A popular houseplant, the asparagus fern is no stranger to the ambient conditions of densely shaded areas. Its evergreen foliage adds remarkable texture and rich color to lowlight gardens or spots with dappled shade. It is frequently grown out of hanging baskets, attractive containers placed on a veranda or patio, or pots arranged in the shade of trees. Despite its common name, it isn’t actually a type of fern. It is, in fact, a flowering plant that is more closely related to the asparagus vegetable.

The asparagus fern is distinguished by its photosynthetic cladodes, which are specialized stem structures that are often mistaken for the plant’s leaves. These may be quite sharp to the touch, so it is advisable to handle the plant with gloves. The stems should be kept away from direct sun as they can easily scorch. In optimal locations, they may produce inconspicuous white flowers which eventually develop into tiny, mildly toxic berries.

5) French hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)

Potted French hydrangea
You can leave hydrangeas outside all year if you live in USDA zones 6 – 9. Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Japan

The French hydrangea is one of the most common ornamental perennials in cottage gardens. This lovely plant is best known for its bouquet-shaped inflorescences, the colors of which are influenced by the soil pH. There are 2 main classifications of H. macrophylla varieties – mophead hydrangeas (also called hortensias) and lacecap hydrangeas. The former produces evenly-sized florets, whereas the latter has central clusters of smaller flowers.

Although these plants can thrive in full sunlight, they also favor partly-shaded conditions with regularly-moistened substrates. If they are exposed to intense sunlight, the leaves are likely to wilt unless the soil is kept consistently moist. In USDA zones 6 – 9, hydrangeas may be left outdoors throughout the year and should tolerate mildly cold conditions with a generous layer of mulch. Outside of these zones, they are quite susceptible to winter temperatures.

6) Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)

Boston fern in pot
The Boston fern can survive outdoors in full or dappled shade. Piotrus, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to tropical regions

Popularized as a classic houseplant, the Boston fern is a bushy, evergreen plant with remarkable texture. Its fronds can grow to a full length of 250 cm (98 inches) and spread to a width of 15 cm (6 inches). Mature individuals may thus appear quite majestic. Due to the orientation of the leaflets along each frond, this plant is also referred to as the fishbone fern.

With leaflets that are slightly serrated, the Boston fern may appear to have a crinkled appearance. Fertile leaves have sori that are neatly arranged along the undersides of their leaflets. As it naturally occurs in tropical forests and swamps, this species thrives best in humid conditions with partly-shaded or indirect light exposure. It can be cultivated in outdoor areas with full or dappled shade. Indoors, it may require a humidifier or regular misting to survive.  

7) Dwarf Chinese astilbe (Astilbe chinensis var. pumila)

Astilbe chinensis var. pumila
Dwarf Chinese astilbe is an attractive plant that can be used as groundcover in shaded areas. Radomil, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to eastern China, Japan, and Korea

A fern-like perennial with stunning inflorescences, the dwarf Chinese astilbe can be used as a groundcover plant in shaded areas. It can tolerate practically all shade levels as it is able to persist in full shade conditions. As it grows to a maximum height of about 10 inches (25 cm), it should look perfect along the forefront of planted borders and water features. Shoots are best grown in groups to accentuate their visual features.

This low-maintenance species produces showy plumes of feathery flowers from summer to fall. Magenta to purple-colored, they are fairly long-lasting. Even the spent inflorescences, which become a rich shade of brown, can add winter interest to a shade garden. The foliage is delicate, deep green, and fern-like, providing textural interest in the absence of blooms. The dwarf Chinese astilbe is a recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit.   

8) Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Purple coneflower plants in bloom
Purple coneflower prefers areas with full sun, but can survive in partial shade too. Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to eastern North America

Perfect for every wildflower garden, the purple coneflower favors conditions in prairies, woodlands, and barrens. Though it generally favors areas that receive full sun, it can persist under partial shade exposure. Once its roots have become fully established, it is able to tolerate a wide range of ambient conditions. This species is best used to attract pollinators to shade gardens and moist meadows. It is favored by butterflies and long-tongued bees.

Mature E. purpurea plants can grow to a maximum height of about 47 inches (119 cm). Its dome-shaped inflorescences, which consist of several tiny florets surrounded by a ring of purple petals, can have a full diameter of 6 inches (15 cm). Blooms may appear anytime from April to September. This species comes in many cultivars, with some (e.g. ‘Ruby Giant’, ‘Elbrook’) having received the RHS Award of Garden Merit as well. Note that these are highly likely to reseed in loamy, well-draining soil.

9) Bigleaf periwinkle (Vinca major)

Bigleaf periwinkle flower
Bigleaf periwinkles can be used as attractive groundcover plants. Victor M. Vicente Selvas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the Mediterranean

This evergreen plant is fully comfortable with stretching its roots and lengthening its shoots in deeply-shaded areas. More flowers tend to occur under full sun, whereas the plant becomes bushier in full shade. In the wild, its populations are largely restricted to consistently moist undergrowth and along the edges of freshwater bodies. It can thus be grown as an attractive groundcover plant for the shaded parts of rain gardens and pond borders. As it is a trailing plant, it tends to spread on its own, rooting from the nodes of stems that come into contact with soil.

The deep green leaves of this herbaceous perennial occur opposite one another along delicate stems. Non-flowering stems tend to grow in an outward manner, while flowering stems remain upright. Stem cuttings can be planted about 12 – 18 inches (30 – 46 cm) away from one another if you intend to have them cover a large area. To restrict their spread, grow them out of containers or pots.  

10) Coral bells (Heuchera spp.)

Heuchera plant
For most types of Heuchera, shade actually increases the vibrance of the plant’s pigments! Janusz Jakubowski from Warsaw, Poland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to North America

It’s a mystery why coral bells remain to be one of the most underused plants in personal gardens as they produce remarkable foliage and are low-maintenance to boot. Grow just a few colorful cultivars and you’ll be the envy of other plant lovers. Heuchera cultivars come in all sorts of colors. Some have strikingly bright foliage, whereas others appear more dramatic due to their deep-colored veins and somber hues.

Some types of coral bells are able to grow in full sun, but most favor partial to full shade conditions as their leaves are prone to scorching and moisture loss. In fact, shade increases the vibrance of their pigments. Though the foliage alone is enough to make a statement, the summer blooms certainly help draw attention. These may have colors that are similar to those of the leaves or are in complete contrast to the rest of the plant.

11) Foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia)

Foam flowers in bloom
Foam flower is a low-growing perennial with flowers that can last for up to 6 weeks. Wasrts, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to eastern North America

With inflorescences that look as though they were made for the likes of fairies, T. cordifolia is an eye-catching addition to border plantings, pondside areas, and woodland gardens. A recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit, it is a low-growing perennial that can be used as a groundcover or container plant. Its multi-lobed heart-shaped leaves are quite lush, but the flowers are the true star of the show.

In early spring, light pink flower buds begin to appear on lengthy floral stalks. These eventually open, toward the end of the season, to reveal white petals and delicate stamens. The racemes are significantly elevated from the foliage, making them stand out and remain starkly visible to potential pollinators. Flowers can last for up to 6 weeks in optimal conditions. Partial to full shade is necessary to bring out this plant’s best features as it favors mildly cool temperatures and moist soil.

12) Spotted dead nettles (Lamium maculatum)

Spotted dead nettle plant
Spotted dead nettles are a great choice for any partially-shaded or fully-shaded garden as they dislike high temperatures and cannot handle intense sun exposure. Robert Flogaus-Faust, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Europe and Asia

This flowering perennial is guaranteed to be a successful addition to any partial or fully-shaded garden. With delicate stems that grow to just 4 – 8 inches (10 – 20 cm) tall, it can be used as a groundcover or dwarf edge plant. Low light and shade are perfect for its cultivation as it dislikes high temperatures and tends to wilt under intense sun exposure. It can thus also be planted in the shadow of larger shrubs and perennials.

The bloom period of spotted dead nettles lasts from April to November. The flowers have an elegantly hooded appearance as the upper petals are shaped like a helmet and suspended above the tube. These occur in leafy verticillasters, which are a type of multi-leveled inflorescence where the blooms appear as whorls. This floral structure is common in the Lamiaceae family, of which this species is a part. Its common name is derived from the appearance of its hairy leaves, which resemble stinging nettles.

Angeline L
About the author

Angeline L

I'm a passionate researcher and scuba diver with a keen interest in garden plants, marine life, and freshwater ecology. I think there’s nothing better than a day spent writing in nature. I have an academic and professional background in sustainable aquaculture, so I advocate for the responsible production of commercial fish, macroinvertebrates, and aquatic plants.

Read more about Pond Informer.

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