Shade Tolerant & Shade Loving Plants for In and Around Ponds [Updated]
As a gardener and/or pond owner, you likely know all about plants that grow well in the sun. But what about the shaded areas of your garden and pond? It can be difficult to find plants well-suited to your particular climate and light situation, but we’re here to help break it down for you.
Plants, whether in water or on land, perform countless essential ecosystem benefits, including filtering pollutants and toxins out of soil and water like excess phosphorous and ammonia, preventing erosion, providing food and habitat for fish, birds, and invertebrates, and releasing oxygen into the air and water. While many of the plants we’re most familiar with do best with at least half a day of full sun, if your garden or pond is in a shaded area there are still ways to obtain these essential benefits from plants – you just need the right ones!
Below are some of the top shade-loving plants for ponds and gardens, including submerged, floating, marginal, and fully terrestrial plants. Most of these prefer having access to plenty of moisture regardless of their habitat and growth type; we’ll specifically mention if a plant does well in drier conditions. We’ve also noted where each plant is native; please do not purchase or grow plants that are invasive to your area! A quick online search can help you find out if a plant is native or illegal/invasive in your region.
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Best Submerged Shade Loving Pond Plants
1) Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides)
Water sprite grows entirely underwater and is considered a water fern. Due to its lack of a properly developed root system, it’s an excellent water purifier as it must obtain its nutrients directly from the water. Its delicate roots require two to three inches of gravel or a similar rocky substrate to anchor it down, though water sprites will also do just fine if left to float about.
A very versatile plant, water sprite grows just as well in full shade as it does in the sun, with a pH range of 6 to 8 and water temperatures between 20 and 26.6° C (68 to 80° F). Due to its fast growth rate, you’ll have to gently trim the stems, being careful not to pull at the plant as their leaves and roots are delicate. A boon of growing in the shade, however, is that this growth rate is slowed somewhat. Another important note is that water sprite should not be incorporated into ponds with goldfish, as they find these little water ferns to be quite tender and tasty.
2) Hornwort (Class Anthocerotopsida)
Wonderful natural oxygenators and water purifiers, hornworts provide shade and habitat for fish while also improving water quality. They can grow equally well in either sun or full shade (provided they still get some indirect light), and are incredibly hardy, tolerant of substantial light and temperature fluctuations between 15 to 30° C (59 to 86° F). The pH should be kept between 6 and 7.5 for most species, though.
Many hornwort species can grow up to 2 feet tall, so this should be kept in mind when choosing plants as you’ll need to make sure that your pond is large enough to accommodate them. Most fish won’t be interested in eating hornworts, but more curious koi might nibble on them – their durable nature and fast growth rate, though, mean that this won’t be an issue.
3) Anacharis (Elodea densa)
While some sources list anacharis as being a sun-loving plant, this isn’t entirely true – anacharis is quite prone to getting sunburned, and is healthiest when kept in shade or indirect light rather than full sun. At most, they should be kept in partial sun, though full shade is best. You’ll know if your anacharis is getting too much sun if the leaves start to turn yellow, brown, or become slightly crispy even though they’re underwater.
Anacharis is yet another plant that provides substantial oxygenation and purification benefits, while also providing a natural food source for fish. With a fast growth rate, being munched on by fish won’t hurt this plant and will likely be appreciated as it reduces the likelihood of you having to manually trim the plant. Anacharis is a forgiving plant and tolerates a wide range of conditions but does best with temperatures between 15 to 30° C (59 to 86° F) and a pH range of 6.5 to 7.5.
Best Floating Shade Loving Pond Plants
4) Water Clover (Marsilea vestita/quadrifolia)
Though water clover does indeed prefer full-sun, it grows just fine in the shade. In fact, its rhizomes enable it to spread quickly (particularly if growing outside of its native range), so growing water clover in the shade helps to slow this growth and prevent it from overtaking areas. Partial shade works best, as full shade might stunt growth too much to allow for a healthy plant.
Water clover grows best when either rooted in substrate or weighed down to the bottom of the pond; plant them in no more than 1 foot of water (a few inches is best), and the leaves will float prettily atop the water once the plant has grown tall enough to reach the surface. This spread of leaves provides shade and habitat for fish and aquatic invertebrates alike (the latter of which provide a natural food source for your fish). Keep pH between 6 and 7.5 for optimum growth.
5) Water Lettuce (Pistia stratiotes)
Water lettuce, so named for its resemblance to lettuce as it floats atop the water, is a natural water purifier and helps to keep algae at bay. Though it can be planted in full sun, water lettuce is quite prone to its leaves getting sunburned if you live in an area that is hot or has intense sun. Particularly if you live in zone 8 or above, water lettuce does best with partial to full shade and indirect light. Sun is tolerated best by water lettuce in the morning hours when it’s less intense, so plant where midday and afternoon shade is available.
It grows best when temperatures are 15.5 o C (60 o F) and above with a pH between 6.5 and 7.2. Water lettuce has a tendency to grow out of control in warm regions; in cooler regions with seasonal temperatures that drop below its preferred range, this isn’t an issue as the cooler weather will naturally kill off the water lettuce. Its floating nature and broad leaves help to shade the water and protect fish from direct sunlight and hot temperatures, while oxygenating the water.
6) Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)
A much-beloved plant, creeping jenny is a very charming little plant that can creep over the ground, rocks, logs, or even waterfalls to cascade and float atop the water. It’s not a difficult plant and does well in either sun or shade, but if planted in shade its growth will be easier to manage. Additionally, slower growth in the shade means that you will have an easier time training creeping jenny to go where you want it to, be it trailing over the water, your garden, or across a trellis from a hanging pot!
Its bright green leaves and vibrant, small yellow flowers draw in bees and butterflies, while providing shade for fish if grown to float atop the water. It grows in hardiness zones 2 and above, becoming evergreen in zones 7 and above but still a lasting perennial below that.
7) Fairy Moss/Mosquito Fern (Azolla filiculoides)
Technically a water fern (not a true moss), fairy moss (also known commonly as mosquito fern) can be placed on rocks, logs, or substrate where it will slowly expand and is able to float on the water. It can be placed vertically, as well, to add some green directly to your waterfall. It prefers milder waters, but in the winter fairy moss can freeze over and will simply unthaw once temperatures warm back up.
Like many ferns, mosquito fern does fantastically when placed in the shade and will be bright green; if planted in the sun, it will still grow well but its leaves tend to turn a more purple or red hue. It’s found naturally in moist woodlands where it has access to sun or partial shade with a couple of hours of sunlight. It grows well in slow-moving or still water, such as that of streams and ponds, where it can stretch out over the water and even trail over waterfalls. It’s able to double its area in just a couple of years. As such, fairy moss will need to be manually thinned out every two to three years.
Best Marginal Shade Loving Plants
8) Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
Another of our favorites, marsh marigold is found naturally in moist woodlands, bogs, and slow-moving streams and ponds where it has plenty of access to water and at least some sun. This charismatic plant will grow just fine in full or partial shade, too, but will just have fewer flowers, though blooming will still occur. You can encourage more blooming even in the shade by snipping flowers just before they die.
It’s quite a hardy plant, able to overwinter without issue in hardiness zones 3 through 7. It can tolerate a broad pH range of 4.8 to 7.5, but does grow best when kept in more acidic soils. It’s of fantastic benefit to a large variety of pollinators, while its fibrous (but not aggressive) roots make it a highly-sought after plant in remediation projects seeking to clean water and soil, prevent algae growth, and provide fish habitat.
9) Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
A beautiful plant with striking, vibrant red flowers (it’s named after the cardinal bird), cardinal flower can be found in nature along shaded stream and riverbanks, moist woods, damp meadows, and really anywhere else it has access to moist soil with nutrients. It does well with partial to full shade.
Although a favorite of many gardeners, cardinal flower is often used by environmental professionals, too! Its bright flowers make it beloved to hummingbirds, while it also provides moderate soil and water filtration via its roots, making it a pretty and beneficial plant in wetland restoration projects. Plant in either damp soil or up to two inches of water, with a pH between 6 and 7.5. Hardiness zones 2 through 9 suit this perennial just fine.
10) Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)
Obedient plant is not an incredibly well-known plant, as it’s been outshined by its close relatives, the snapdragons. However, snapdragons are not native to the US; if you live in the US, plant obedient plants, which look and function much the same as snapdragons; if you live in Europe or Asia, please plant snapdragons as this is their native range. Note that snapdragons are more terrestrial than marginal, as they prefer moist, but not saturated, soils.
Alright, now back to obedient plant! As mentioned above, they have unique flowers with striking coloring that are much the same as snapdragons, and attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds alike. They grow well in either full sun or partial shade, with the latter being particularly beneficial if you live in a hot region above hardiness zone 7. Below this, obedient plant does best in the sun. As a bog plant, they prefer slightly acidic soils with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. Their stolons enable them to be somewhat useful in filtering pollutants out of soil and water.
Best Terrestrial Shade Loving Plants
11) Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum)
Cinnamon fern is readily found in the rich, moist soils along the shaded edges of streams, rivers, and bogs, as well as damp woodlands and shade pond and lake edges with rich soil. When grown in zones 3 through 10 with ample shade, moisture, and semi-acidic soil with a pH of 4.5 to 7.5, this fern will return year after year. Cinnamon fern can be grown in a couple inches of water if desired, but does best in moist soils.
Do keep in mind that cinnamon fern can grow quite large – up to 6 feet tall, with an average size of 3 feet in height and a 5 foot circumference (though this takes several years to achieve). Their large size enables them to provide essential habitat for sensitive species like veeries and brown thrashers, while tender fiddleheads in the spring provide an early food source for a variety of animals like the ruffed grouse. Its unique, one of a kind central fronds resemble cinnamon sticks and make it a striking addition to any garden or pond.
12) Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum species)
Maidenhair ferns come in multiple different species. The northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedantum) is native to North America, and is typically found in zones 4 to 8. Its counterpart, the southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), is native to the southern US, South America, Eurasia, and Australasia, making it a good choice for most of the world. These both do well in fully or partially shaded areas with moderately acidic, damp conditions, either in damp soil, in water, or growing directly from cracks in rocks and walls.
13) Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Though not an incredibly common plant around backyard ponds, red columbine can still make a great (and beautiful) addition to your pond or garden! It’s considered a facultative wetland plant, meaning that it’s just as likely to be found in wetlands, along riverbanks, and in other damp habitats as it is in non-wetland habitats like upland woods, meadows, and the like.
We’re here to argue that red columbine is actually a wonderful addition to ponds and gardens! It’s a hardy and non-picky plant, able to grow in full shade as well as full sun, tolerates dry soils, moist soils, sandy soils, or even rocky soils, and periods of high moisture as well as periods of drought. This is why it can be found naturally across much of North America, from the mountains in Oregon to the forests of Canada to the sandy, moist lakesides of Michigan.