The main season for colour from shade-tolerant plants is spring when, in their native habitats, the plants would bloom before the woodland canopy darkens the understory. The majority of summer interest comes from leaf shape, texture and foliage colour. A wide range of plants tolerating shade can be found at RHS Find a Plant. Below are some others.
This is a small selection. Other cultivars of the following plants are available and will also tolerate shade.
Camellia sasanqua 'Jean May’ AGM: A compact, bushy evergreen shrub with dark foliage and slightly fragrant, semi-double or double, shell-pink flowers in winter and early spring. Height 2m (6ft). Spread 2m (6ft). Acidic soil and sheltered position required.
Camellia 'Ruby Wedding' AGM: A compact, bushy evergreen shrub with dark foliage and peony bright red flowers in spring. Height 1.5m (5ft). Spread 1.5m (5ft). Acidic soil required.
Camellia japonica 'Brushfield's Yellow': An upright evergreen shrub with dark, glossy foliage and creamy-white, anemone-form double flowers which shade to light yellow in the centre. Height 2.5-4m (8-12ft). Spread 1.5-2.5m (5-8ft). Acidic soil required.
Fatsia japonica AGM: A medium-sized evergreen shrub of open, spreading habit, with palmately-lobed leaves to 45cm in width and small white flowers in round clusters followed by small, black fruits. Height 4m (12ft). Spread 4m (12ft).
Fuchsia magellanica ‘Hawkshead’ AGM: A bushy upright shrub with small, dark green leaves and from July to autumn, single white flowers, the broad sepals tinged with green. Height 90cm (3ft) and spread 50cm (20in).
Fuchsia ‘Mrs Popple’ AGM: A vigorous medium-sized upright shrub with small, dark green leaves. Flowers single, with bright red sepals and tube and violet-purple petals from July to autumn. Height 90cm (3ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Hamamelis × intermedia 'Barmstedt Gold’ AGM: A deciduous, shrub with open, vase-shaped habit. Fragrant deep gold flowers in winter to early spring. Height 3m (10ft). Spread 3.5m (11ft).
Hydrangea aspera subsp. sargentiana: An upright medium-sized deciduous shrub of open habit, with peeling bark and large, velvety ovate leaves. Large flat flowers of purple or blue, surrounded by white ray florets. Height 2m (6ft). Spread 2m (6ft).
Hydrangea macrophylla 'Madame Emile Mouillere' AGM: A small deciduous shrub with large oval leaves and rounded heads of white flowers in summer, sometimes tinged pink in full sun Height 1.8m (6ft). Spread 1.2 (4ft).
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ AGM: A robust, upright and spreading deciduous shrub with very dense panicles of lime-green bracts, turning pinkish at end of season. Flowering from mid-July to early October. Height 1.6m (5¼ft). Spread 2.2m (7ft).
Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’ AGM (oak-leafed hydrangea): A deciduous shrub with large panicles of white flowers, from summer to autumn , some becoming pinkish as they age. Good autumn colour. Height 2m (6ft). Spread 2.5m (8ft).
Ilex aquifolium 'Silver Queen' (m) AGM: A dense small evergreen tree with purple young shoots and pink-tinged young leaves. Mature leaves spiny, dark green with a broad cream margin. Flowers - small, white. Height 4-8m (12-25ft). Spread 2.5-4m (8-12ft).
Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty' AGM: A strong-growing, rounded, medium-sized deciduous shrub with ovate leaves and small, sweetly scented cream flowers on bare branches. Height 1.5-2.5m (5-10ft).
Skimmia × confusa 'Kew Green' (m) AGM: A small, spreading evergreen shrub with aromatic leaves to 12cm long and large clusters of small, fragrant greenish-yellow flowers in spring. Height 90cm (3ft) and spread 1.5m (5ft).
Skimmia japonica 'Nymans' (f) AGM: A small evergreen shrub of bushy, spreading habit, with dark green leaves and clusters of small white flowers in spring followed by bright red berries. Height 90cm (3ft). Spread 1.5m (5ft).
Mahonia nitens 'Cabaret' (PBR) AGM: A evergreen with holly-like glossy leaves. Red buds open to fragrant yellow flowers from September through autumn. Height 90cm (3ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Rhododendron 'Summer Fragrance' AGM: A compact medium-sized shrub with mid-green foliage turning yellow and orange in autumn. Summer flowering - fragrant, pale yellow, blotched with deep yellow. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 1.2m (4ft). Acidic soil required.
Rhododendron yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada' AGM: A compact, dome-shaped small shrub with silvery young foliage becoming dark green with a thick fawn tomentum beneath. Rounded trusses of white flowers open from bright pink buds. Height 90cm-1.5m (3-5ft). Spread 90cm-1.5m (3-5ft). Acidic soil required.
Rhamnus alaternus 'Argenteovariegata' AGM: A large, bushy evergreen shrub, with small, leathery, ovate leaves greyish-green with creamy-white margins. Inconspicuous yellow flowers followed by small berries, red turning black. Height 2.5-4m (8-12ft). Spread 2.5-4m (8-12ft).
Rubus tricolor: Apreading, arching groundcover shrub with shoots covered in red bristles.White flowers followed by raspberry-like edible fruits. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread indefinite.
Sarcoccoccca hookeriana var. digyna: A small, suckering evergreen shrub with green or purplish stems, mid-green leaves and in winter, clusters of small, creamy-white, fragrant flowers followed by black berries. Height 1.5m (5ft). Spread 2m (6ft).
Actaea racemosa AGM: A perennial to 1.5m, with long, branched, bottlebrush-like racemes of small, white flowers carried above bright green, divided leaves. Height 1.2-2.2m (4-7ft). Spread 60cm (2ft).
Astilbe 'Fanal' AGM: A compact perennial with dark stems to 60cm (2ft), bearing dark reddish-green,
divided leaves and short dense spikes of deep crimson flowers in early summer. Height 50cm (20in). Spread 45cm (18in).
Astrantia maxima AGM : An herbaceous perennial to 60cm, forming a clump of three-lobed leaves in summer, flower-heads with broad, pinkish bracts surround tiny pink flowers. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' (PBR) AGM: A perennial grown for its large, heart-shaped silver leaves edged and veined with green, and sprays of small blue flowers in spring. Height 45cm (18in). Spread 60cm (2ft).
Dicentra ‘Stuart Boothman' AGM: A compact herbaceous perennial, with finely divided grey-green leaves and arching sprays of deep rosy-pink flowers in early summer. Height 35cm (14in). Spread 40cm (16in).
Geranium nodosum: A sprawling perennial with glossy 3-lobed leaves and loose clusters of dark-veined, light pink flowers from late spring to early autumn. Height 30-50cm (1ft-20in). Spread 50cm (20in).
Hosta 'Frances Williams': Forms a clump of broadly heart-shaped, puckered and veined grey-green leaves with wide, irregular yellow-green margins. Pale lilac flowers in summer on compact racemes. Height 30cm (1ft), with flowers 75cm (30in). Spread 1.2m (4ft).
Kirengeshoma palmata Koreana Group AGM: A clump-forming herbaceous perennial with palmately lobed leaves and in autumn, dark maroon stems bearing nodding, bell-shaped creamy-yellow flowers. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 75cm (30in).
Rodgersia pinnata ‘Superba’ AGM: A clump-forming herbaceous perennial, with large, bronze-tinged, more-or-less pinnate leaves, and panicles of small bright pink flowers from mid- to late summer. Height 90cm-1.5m (3ft-5ft). Spread 0.5-90cm (20in-3ft).
Saxifraga fortunei AGM: An herbaceous perennial with fleshy, rounded, often reddish beneath. White flowers, in large open panicles from late summer. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Tellima grandiflora: A rosette-forming perennial with hairy leaves and from late spring to midsummer, greenish white flowers on tall stems. Height with flowers 80cm (32in). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Tierella wherryi AGM: A compact, slow-growing, clump-forming perennial. White flowers are borne in late spring and early summer in spike-like racemes. Height 20cm (8in). Spread 15cm (6in).
Tricyrtis formosana: A rhizomatous herbaceous perennial, with dark-spotted lance-shaped leaves and in autumn, clusters of star-shaped whitish flowers, heavily spotted purple. Height 80cm (32in). Spread 45cm (18in).
Ferns for shade
Asplenium scolopendrium AGM: An evergreen fern forming a rosette of arching, rich green, strap-shaped fronds. Height 30-75cm (12-31in).
Athyrium niponicum var. pictum AGM (Painted lady fern): A Deciduous, clump forming fern with grey/green foliage. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Matteuccia struthiopteris AGM (shuttlecock fern): A deciduous, spreading fern forming colonies of erect rosettes lance-shaped, bright green, sterile fronds surrounding shorter, brownish fertile fronds Height 1.5m (5ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Osmunda regalis AGM (royal fern): A robust deciduous fern forming a large clump of tall fronds to bearing rusty-brown spore-bearing pinnae at the tips; foliage turns attractive red-brown in autumn. Height 2m (6½ft). Spread 4m (12ft).
Grasses for shade
Carex muskingumensis: An evergreen, slow-growing groundcover grass. Height 50-60cm (20in-2ft). Spread 60-90cm (2-3ft).
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ AGM: A deciduous grass with yellow and green variegated leaves and arching habit. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 45-60cm (18in-2ft).
Luzula sylvestris ‘Marginata’: An evergreen, perennial forming a tuft of glossy leaves narrowly margined with cream, with open panicles of brown flowers in early summer height 30-60cm (1-2ft). Spread 30-60cm (1-2ft).
Anemone blanda AGM: A spreading perennial with blue/white-pink flowers. Height 15cm (6in). Spread 15cm (6in).
Cardiocrinum giganteum: A tall perennial with leaves to 30cm across, and terminal racemes of fragrant, trumpet-shaped white flowers marked with purple within the mouth. Height 2m (6½ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Convallaria majalis AGM (lily-of-the-valley): Creeping perennial producing scented, white flowers in late spring. Height 23cm (9in). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Eranthis hyemalis AGM (winter aconite): A perennial to 10cm in height, with cup-shaped bright yellow flowers from late winter, surrounded by divided leafy bracts. Height 5-8cm (2-3in). Spread 5cm (2in).
Erythronium dens-canis AGM (dog’s-tooth violet): A perennial with green leaves, heavily mottled with brown, and solitary, white, pink or lilac flowers with yellow and red-brown zones at base in spring. Height 10-15cm (4-6in). Spread 10cm (4in).
Galanthus nivalis AGM (common snowdrop): Native bulb to UK with white flowers in winter. Avoid summer drought. Height: 10-22cm (4-9in). Spread 5-8cm (2-3in).
Narcissus cultivars such as N.‘Actea’, ‘N.Jenny’ and N ‘Jack Snipe’. Height 20-45cm (10-18in).
If conditions are excessively dry, use pots to grow plants in moist, well watered soil. Use a John Innes No 3 compost. Any of the above plants can be grown in containers.
Enliven pots with a mixture of seasonal bedding such as Impatiens, Begonia, winter-flowering pansy and polyanthus (all reliable in shade). Zantedeschia (arum lily), though often tender, looks dramatic against an evergreen backdrop and can be overwintered under glass.