Finding interesting plants for shade can be a struggle, but when you add in that plant’s desire to be a woody shrub, the list becomes even narrower. But these textural wonders are essential to give depth and real presence to our shade beds and borders.
Whether you’re looking for colorful foliage, spectacular flowers, or an out-of-this-world texture, there’s sure to be at least one shade-loving shrub that fits the bill. To help us find these attractive garden treasures, we asked area experts to pick their four favorite shrubs for shade. Check out some sensational choices for the Northeast below and discover more shade-loving shrubs in this episode of the Let’s Argo About Plants podcast.
1. ‘Venus’ sweet bush.
Name: Callicanthus ‘jewel’
Size: 7 to 12 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide
Conditions: full sun to partial shade; Rich, moist, loamy soil
Local Range: Hybrid
It is a complex hybrid between two native North American species (C. Florida And C. occidentalis), with a species from western China (C. chinensis). A fast grower, ‘Venus’ will eventually form a large multi-stemmed shrub, so give it plenty of space, especially if grown as an understory plant under a tall canopy of deciduous trees. It is often wider than it is tall, which sometimes baffles gardeners. One of the best reasons to plant ‘Venus’ is its fruity scented flowers, which to me smell like strawberry bubble gum. Expect most of the bright white flowers to appear in late May to mid-June. However, my plants produce sporadic flowers here and there during the summer. The 10-inch leaves turn golden yellow in fall, adding to the attractiveness of this shrub. As a bonus, it is also soil tolerant.
2. ‘Golden Guinea’ Caria
Name: Caria japonica ‘Golden Guinea’
Size: 5 to 8 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide
Conditions: full sun to partial shade; Average soil
Local Range: Japan
I’ve had drivers stop and strangers drive by my yard just to ask, “What’s that bush growing in the corner of your driveway?” ‘Golden Guinea’ Caria is just one of those plants that will garner lots of comments when in full bloom. There is a double version of this wonderful shrub called ‘Flora Plano’K. japonica ‘Flora Plano’) which is perhaps a bit too good a thing. ‘Golden Guinea’, on the other hand, hits the perfect tone: tasteful, and resembling a single rose, with bright yellow flowers. To keep this fast-growing shrub neat and tidy, remove one-third to one-half of the branches completely to the ground each year after blooming. Deer resistant, it looks best when planted in informal settings such as woodland borders or when included in a mixed bed with other shrubs.
Name: Viburnum lanthanoides
Size: 12 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide
Conditions: partial shade; Well-drained, average soil
Local Range: Northeastern North America
As more of us are incorporating native shrubs and exploring more natural planting schemes, hobblebush is being re-evaluated by gardeners, especially here in the Northeast. It is a viburnum, but may be mistaken for lace cap hydrangea when blooming during May. Its simple appearance adds the perfect note to a woodland garden if you’re looking for a touch of authenticity. Hobblebush is often the missing note among maple trees (Acer spp. and cvs., zones 3–9), ferns, and native shade blue (Amelanchier canadensis, zones 4–8). Arching stems that touch the ground often develop roots that can trip or “hobble” a hiker—hence the common name. You’re unlikely to find a hobblebush in your average garden center. Look for it at specialty nurseries, mail order sources, or wildflower centers.
4. Swamp Azalea
Name: Rhododendron viscusum
Size: 3 to 5 feet tall and wide
Conditions: partial shade; Acidic, moist, well-drained soil
Local Range: East and South America, Atlantic coast of Canada
Whenever I have time to climb a mountain in Vermont or New Hampshire in early summer, I tend to this deciduous rhododendron, yet rarely do I think to add some to my garden. Is. But why not? Why wouldn’t I want the spicy fragrance that wafts along summer hiking trails with white to pale pink flowers? Now I am totally addicted to the idea of adding this useful, salt tolerant, native species to my beds. There are also some notable cultivars, including ‘Delaware Blue’ (with blue-green leaves and stunning deep pink flowers) and ‘Betty Cummins’ (with candy-pink, tubular flowers). But in my opinion, the species is hard to beat.
Matt Mattus is a regional reporter for FineGardening.com. Author of two gardening books, he gardens in Worcester, Massachusetts.