Shade Perennial Plant Selections (part 1)
In North Texas we love our shade. It provides much needed protection from our hot summer sun. But, “What can I get to grow under my tree?” is a question we often hear. Shade is a limiting environmental condition just like soil condition, moisture, and temperature. So, we must consider it when choosing plants for our shade gardens. In this first part of our favorite shade perennial selections, we’ll discuss some plant groups that offer shade success.
It’s important to determine what type of shade you have under your tree. At one extreme, we have full shade. Full shade lasts all day with little or no direct sunlight reaching the ground at any time. An example would be areas under decks or covered patios on a house’s north side. Part or medium shade exists when direct sunlight is blocked most of the day. An example of part shade would be an area under a mature shade tree that only receives direct sunlight in the morning or evening. Finally, light shade is present when an area is completely shaded for only a few hours each day or receives filtered sunlight most of the day. An example of light shade would be an area under a solitary, lightly branched tree. Once you know what type(s) of shade you have, you can make better plant choices.
Simply put, perennials are plants that come back or persist for many growing seasons. While some keep their leaves year round, many of them die back each winter and regrow from their roots the following spring.
Hellebores or Lenten rose are evergreen perennials that are one of the earliest to bloom. While not roses, their common name is appropriate because they can be seen blooming during Lent, when most plants are just starting to peak out of the ground. They grow very slowly at first, but are completely trouble-free once established. They reach a height of 24” with an 18” spread. And, they are available in a wide variety of bloom colors including pink, yellow, red, purple, white, and green.
Hostas are popular shade garden choices that come in an unbelievable number of varieties with a broad range of size, texture, and color. Their dense leaves cover the ground from late spring until winter. In North Texas they die back to the ground and emerge in early spring. Their only flaw is a susceptibility to slug and snail damage. Favorite varieties for our area include Honeybells, Sugar & Cream, So Sweet, and Francee.
Heuchera or coral bells are great perennials for outlining the front of a bed. They grow in low dense mounds of rounded or heart-shaped evergreen leaves that range in color from chartreuse to pink to terra cotta to bronze. Mature height is 18-30” with a 12” spread. Flower stalks emerge with beautiful, long-lasting bell-shaped flowers in pink, red, or white. To encourage continuous blooms, remove spent flowers at their stem’s base. Hummingbirds love these native flowers, and they have few pest or disease problems.
Ferns, as a group, love shade and add interesting texture. One of the best selections for dry North Texas is autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora). This evergreen fern offers striking seasonal changes. Its new fronds are coppery red. As they age, they fade to dark green. At maturity, the plant is 1-2 feet high with a equal spread.
Before making the trip to your local gardening center, please read our blog post “Prepping a shade perennial bed under a tree.” It will give you some great tips on getting that bed ready to produce beautiful perennials and protecting your valuable tree. And, remember to check out some native Texas shade plants in the second part of shade perennial selections.