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 the Midwest below and discover more shade-loving shrubs in this episode of the Let’s Argo About Plants podcast.
1. Buy a bottle brush.
Name: Aesculus parviflora
Size: 8 feet long and 15 feet wide
Conditions: partial shade; Permanently moist, well-drained soil
Local Range: Alabama, Georgia, North Florida
A bottle brush may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but when I see one in someone’s yard, I know that gardeners and I can be friends. It thrives as an understory shrub and appreciates constant, adequate moisture to live up to its full potential. It proportions the sucking bushes to a large continent of beautiful leaves that are crowned with large panicles of white flowers in early summer and decorated with cab – yellow leaves in autumn. Bottlebrush brings pollen to the buckeye yard, but be aware that its leaves and seeds can be toxic to pets. Deer stay away from it.
2. Kodiak® Orange Dervella
Name: Dervella × Magnificent ‘G2X88544’
Size: 3 feet long and wide
Conditions: Full sun to full shade; Average to dry soil
Local Range: A hybrid of North American species
I planted some Kodiak® Orange deervilla in one of the toughest spots we all have—the spot that forms under and around roof cracks, where sun and rain are usually a challenge. . It took a few years to establish, but what a good choice the location was. Highly drought tolerant, this low-profile shrub requires zero maintenance. It sucks, but with really good behavior, which was a nice surprise. New growth produces a purplish-red color, and hummingbirds enjoy the yellow flowers in early summer. The intense orange glow of its autumn color (pictured) is something to behold.
3. ‘Alice’ Oakleaf Hydrangea.
Name: Hydrangea corquifolia ‘Alice’
Size: 8 feet long and wide
Conditions: partial shade; Rich, evenly moist soil
Local Range: Southeastern United States
Here is a native cultivar that is easy to grow and extremely beautiful. There is a slightly cruder form of this that I call “organic flow”. Give ‘Alice’ a spot with rich, moist soil and she’ll keep you happy for three, if not four, seasons. In winter, the stems exfoliate to reveal an inviting texture. In summer, large panicles of fluffy white flowers bloom for months before darkening to a brilliant mauve in autumn. The fall flower color pairs well with the bronze leaves that are acquired after frost. It requires minimal pruning. If you decide to prune, it is best done shortly after flowering, as ‘Alice’ blooms on older wood.
4. American Hazelnut
Name: Corylus americana
Size: 10 to 15 feet tall and 8 to 10 feet wide
Conditions: full sun to partial shade; Average, well-drained soil
Local Range: Eastern and Central America, southern Canada
This wonderful understory shrub is native to the Chicago area but rarely seen. It makes me want to wear weird headwear and go door-to-door planting hazelnuts, like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed. American hazelnut will grow well in a shady spot, but needs full sun for maximum nut production. Speaking of nuts, you’ll compete with squirrels, blue jays, bobwhites and other critters to get your share of the hazelnuts you grow. If you collect the nuts (entirely enclosed in brackets) before they turn brown, you have a chance to win the race. Hazelnuts are wind-pollinated and not self-fertile, so planting in groups of at least three to five is beneficial for a bountiful harvest.
Amanda Thompson is a plant shop owner, horticulturist, garden designer, and writer living in the Chicago suburbs.