Shade Shrubs for the Southern Plains

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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 selections for the Southern Plains below, and explore shade shrubs in this episode of the Let’s Argo About Plants podcast.


1. Red buckeye

Red Book
Photo: Michelle Gervais

Name: Aesculus pavia

Zones: 4-8b

Size: 6 to 15 feet tall and wide

CConditions: partial to full shade; Mesic, well-drained soil

Local Range: Southeastern United States, eastern Canada

These inhabitants of forests, valleys, and riverbanks sport beautiful palmate, glossy foliage. Depending on the source, some refer to this widely branched plant as a multi-trunked small tree or large shrub. Red Buckeye thrives in soils that include deep sand, loam, and even clay. In our area you will see the leaves fall in mid-summer, until the new spring shoots appear, the shrub shop is closed for the rest of the year. This common “summer foliage” behavior is nothing to worry about, but you should keep this plant in your landscape. The dark red to pale pink cylindrical flowers sometimes appear peach to yellow in the western parts of the species range. Flowering time coincides with the spring migration of hummingbirds. Also, be aware that the young leaves and seeds are poisonous.

2. Spicebush

Spice bush
Photo: Nancy J. Ondra

Name: Lindara Benzoin

Zones: 4-9

Size: 6 to 12 feet tall and wide

Conditions: partial to full shade; Dry to moist soil

Local Range: Eastern North America

Foraging for wild foods undoubtedly connects one to the richness of the natural world. Spicebush leads the pack in delicious edibles with leaves, twigs and berries that are great when used in teas and seasonally in sweet or savory dishes. But the best aroma and spicy flavor comes from the bright red ripe fruit of the female plants, which grow in clusters after the small yellow spring flowers. A variety of wildlife eagerly feeds on the nectar and berries, and the green leaves of the kale support many species of swallowtail butterfly and silkworm caterpillars before turning yellow in the fall. Spicebush thrives in woodland settings but with more sun forms dense foliage and a more compact form.

3. Coral Berry

Coral Berry
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

Name: Symphoricarpos orbiculatus

Zones: 2–7

Size: 2 to 5 feet tall and 5 to 8 feet wide (or more)

Conditions: partial to full shade; Dry to mesic, well-drained soils

Local Range: Eastern half of the United States, Mexico

In mid- to late spring, tiny bees and butterflies visit the white or powder pink flowers that adorn the gracefully arching branches of coralberry. Once pollinated, the flowers develop into hard clusters of ¼-inch magenta-colored berries (technically called “drops”). The slender nature of this shrub allows for a full view of the fruit in winter. Berries persist for months along the branches. Wildlife generally ignores them due to their mild toxicity. However, many animals appreciate the cover and nesting sites that wire moss provides. If left unchecked, stems that touch the ground will spread roots and form extensive colonies. Keep plants tight and fresh by cutting them back to the buds every few years, and reduce powdery mildew by keeping plants dry and ventilated.

4. Elbow bush

elbow bush
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

Name: Forestiera pubescens

Zones: 6-8

Size: 6 to 10 feet tall and 5 to 8 feet wide

Conditions: partial to full shade; Dry to mesic, well-drained soils

Local Range: Southwestern United States

You can walk past this shrub without noticing unless you’re in the midst of hundreds of pollinator parties absorbing its yellow flowers. A diverse cast of characters, from hairstreaks to bees, wander among the flowers in February—a time when something else is producing vital nectar. Birds feed on the summer fruits of the elbow bush, which resemble tall blueberries and are produced only on female plants. Nesting birds and rabbits seek shelter under the dense, right-sided branches that inspire the common name. Although not outrageously obvious, this unsung hero is a true workhorse, Grows easily and reliably in most conditions with good drainage. Light green plants complement other plants in the garden well.


Andrea DeLong Amaya Ladybird is director of horticulture at the Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas.

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