Shade Shrubs for California



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 picks for California below, and discover more shade-loving shrubs in this episode of the Let’s Argo About Plants podcast.

1. ‘Mountain Fire’ Andromeda

'Mountain Fire' Andromeda
Photo: Michelle Gervais

Name: Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’

Zones: 5-9

Size: 4 to 8 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide

Conditions: Partial shade, moist, well-drained soil

Local Range: China, Taiwan, Japan

Although this evergreen workhorse looks good year-round, spring is when ‘Mountain Fire’ Andromeda really shines. Beginning in mid-spring, small white flowers borne in drooping clusters are complemented by newly emerging red leaves. As the season progresses, Leaves turn green with some white tinge. Somewhat irregular in habit, ‘Mountain Fire’ can be pruned into a more formal shape with some effort but looks best in a relaxed setting where its quirky, sculptural form is allowed to shine. . Culturally, andromedas have similar needs to azaleas (Rhododendron spp and cvs., zones 3-9), and both make good companion plants in filtered shade. Be sure to have the right soil – acidic and well-drained yet well-drained.

2. Various types of gold dust plant

Different types of gold dust plant
Photo: Nancy J. Ondra

Name: Akuba japonica ‘Variegata’

Zones: 6-9

Size: 4 to 8 feet tall and wide

Conditions: partial to full shade; Well-drained soil

Local Range: China, Taiwan, Japan

If the gold dust plant variety were up for an award, it would definitely win in the “low maintenance superstar” category. This medium-sized, shade-loving shrub sports glossy green leaves lightly flecked with gold. It maintains a bushy, somewhat tropical appearance throughout the year. With virtually no mowing or shaping required and low to average water requirements, it is an excellent option for hard-to-reach areas at the back of the border where maintenance tasks are more difficult. Sometimes grown as a houseplant elsewhere, it’s a great choice for a container on a shady front porch in mild climates like ours.

3. Aromatic sweet box

Aromatic sweet box

Name: Sarcoccocca russifolia

Zones: 7-9

Size: 3 to 5 feet tall and wide

Conditions: partial to full shade; Well-drained soil

Local Range: Western China, Tibet

Fragrant sweet box makes a wonderful easy-care shrub for shady locations. Featuring deep, glossy green leaves on tough, slightly arching stems, this evergreen shrub adds year-round texture to any planting. Intensely fragrant white flowers bloom in late winter, when most of the garden is dormant. If possible, plant this shrub near a window or door to enjoy the fragrance even in cold weather. After the flowers have spent, the small red berries add subtle interest. Aromatic sweet box has low to medium water requirement. It can have a gangly growth habit when first planted, as new branches shoot out all the way. This slow-growing shrub requires some patience and selective pruning to maximize its good looks.

4. ‘Mound San Bruno’ coffee berry

'Mound San Bruno' coffee berry

Name: Rhamnus californica ‘Mound San Bruno’

Zones: 7-10

Size: 4 to 6 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide

Conditions: full sun to partial shade; Well-drained soil

Local Range: Western United States, Baja California

Depending on the conditions, ‘Mound San Bruno’ coffee berry can handle quite a bit of shade and is often planted under native oak trees (Quercus spp and cvs., zones 4–10). Its shape and color will depend on how much sun it gets. When planted in shade it can be low and spreading with large green leaves, and when planted in sun it can have a large, bushy form and small, gray-green leaves. New spring growth has red stems and small white flowers that are attractive to pollinators but not particularly showy. Berries in shades of green, pink and red gradually darken in autumn. Coffee berry is a great choice for those looking for a low-mess addition to the native pollinator garden.

Susan Morrison is a landscape designer and writer in Concord, California.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here