Shade planting: annuals, bulbs and perennials
Gardens shaded by trees and buildings are increasingly common as gardens get smaller. Although north- or east-facing gardens can be cool and shady for much of the year, they can present some creative opportunities with well-chosen shade-tolerant plants.
See the list below for some of our suggestions on annuals, perennials, bulbs, fern and grasses to grow in shade. A much wider range of plants including other cultivars of those listed, can be found at RHS Find a Plant.
(*) suitable for neutral to acid soils
(v) variegated foliage
(w) prefers moist or wet soil
AGM The RHS Award of Garden Merit
Note: Height and spread for each plant is approximate. Location, soil conditions and prevailing weather will influence ultimate height and spread.
Perennials for deep shade
Acanthus mollis: robust clumps of glossy large dark green leaves, flower spikes up to 70cm (28in) in summer bear white or pink-veined flowers with green-purple bracts. Height 1.5m (5ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Alchemilla mollis AGM: rounded lobed pale green leaves and tiny greenish-yellow flowers from early summer to autumn. Seeds freely.
Astrantia maxima AGM: (w) clumps of three-lobed leaves, flower-heads with broad, pinkish bracts surround tiny pink flowers in summer. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Campanula persicifolia: rosettes of bright green leaves and stiff stems carry open bell or cup-shaped flowers in various shades of blue or in white. Height 60-80cm (2ft-32in). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Epimedium × versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ AGM: (e) light to mid green leaves tinted reddish-copper, pale yellow flowers on leafy stems, mid spring. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread to 90cm (3ft).
Filipendula purpurea: (w) purple-tinted stems and lobed leaves, deep pink flowers in dense clusters in summer. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 60cm (2ft).
Geranium nodosum: 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).
Geranium phaeum ‘Lily Lovell’: rich purple-mauve flowers on branched stems in late spring and early summer. Height of flower to 80cm (32in). Spread 45cm (18in).
Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ AGM: blue-violet flowers in spring. Height 35cm (14in). Spread 45cm (18in).
Rodgersia pinnata ‘Superba’ AGM: large clumps of palmate, crinkled, heavily veined leaves, and tall panicles of small bright pink flowers from mid- to late summer. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Tellima grandiflora: rosettes of hairy leaves, greenish white flowers on tall stems from late spring to midsummer. Height with flowers 80cm (32in). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Tradescantia Andersoniana Group ‘Osprey’: large white flowers with blue stamens, over a long period in spring and summer. Height 50cm (20in). Spread 45-60cm (18in-2ft).
Tricyrtis formosana: dark-spotted lance-shaped leaves, clusters of star-shaped whitish flowers, heavily spotted purple in autumn. Height 80cm (32in). Spread 45cm (18in).
Perennials for lighter or dappled shade
Actaea racemosa AGM: tall branched, bottlebrush-like racemes of small, white flowers above bright green, divided leaves. Height 1.2-2.2m (4-7ft). Spread 60cm (2ft).
Anemone × hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ AGM: branched stems with single white flowers with golden stamens, late summer to mid-autumn. Height 1-1.2m (3-4ft). Spread indefinite.
Aruncus dioicus: fern-like mid-green leaves and creamy-white to greenish-white flowers in loose panicles, early to midsummer. Height 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft). Spread 1.2m (4ft).
Aster thomsonii ‘Nanus’: long-lasting star-shaped, lilac-blue flowerheads from midsummer to autumn. Height 45cm (18in). Spread 25cm (10in).
Astilbe 'Fanal' AGM: (m) dark stems bearing dark reddish-green, divided leaves and short dense spikes of deep crimson flowers in early summer. Height 50cm (20in). Spread 45cm (18in).
Astrantia major ‘Claret’: (w) distinctive dark-red bracts surround crimson flowers, early and midsummer. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' (PBR) AGM: 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: finely divided grey-green leaves and arching sprays of deep rosy-pink flowers in early summer. Height 35cm (14in). Spread 40cm (16in).
Geranium sanguineum var. striatum AGM: small pale rose-pink flowers during summer. Height 20-25cm (8-10in). Spread 40cm (16in).
Geum rivale ‘Leonards Variety’: free flowering copper-pink orange-tinged flowers mid and late summer. Height and spread 60cm (2ft).
Hosta 'Frances Williams': clumps of broadly heart-shaped, puckered and veined grey-green leaves with wide, irregular yellow-green margins. Pale lilac summer flowers. Height 75cm (30in). Spread 1.2m (4ft).
Iris ‘Flight of Butterflies’ (Sib): (w) grassy foliage and branched stems carrying flowers with drooping falls, bright blue and heavily veined. Very free flowering. Height to 90cm (3ft).
Kirengeshoma palmata Koreana Group AGM: large, rounded, lobed leaves, dark maroon stems bearing nodding, bell-shaped creamy-yellow flowers in late summer and autumn. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 75cm (30in).
Lamprocapnos spectabilis: (dicentra) arching fleshy stems produce racemes of heart-shaped flowers with rose pink and white petals in late spring. Height 60-90cm (2-3ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’: (w) large bronze-green leaves, purple beneath and showy orange daisy-like flowers from midsummer to autumn. Height to 1-1.2m (3-4ft). Spread 1m (3ft).
Meconopsis baileyi AGM: (Himalayan blue poppy) (*) (w) profuse, saucer-shaped, bright blue flowers with yellow stamens borne on bristly stems in early summer. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Phlomis russeliana AGM: hairy, mid-green heart-shaped leaves, hooded pale yellow nettle-like flowers from late spring to autumn. Height 75cm (30ins). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Primula beesiana: (w) rosette forming Candelabra type primula with stout flower stems producing reddish-pink flowers with a yellow eye in summer. Height and spread 60cm (2ft).
Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii AGM: hairy stemmed, free flowering daisy-like flowerheads of deep yellow with black centres in summer. Height and spread 60cm (2ft).
Saxifraga fortunei AGM: fleshy, rounded leaves, often reddish beneath. White flowers, in large open panicles from late summer. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Symphyotrichum cordifolium ‘Sweet Lavender’ AGM: (blue wood aster) upright stems carry arching branches of lavender-blue flowers in autumn. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Tiarella cordifolia AGM: heart shaped fresh green leaves and white to pale pink flowers in dainty upright spikes in spring. Height 20cm (8in). Spread 30cm (1ft) or more.
T. wherryi AGM: white flowers in late spring and early summer in spike-like racemes. Height 20cm (8in). Spread 15cm (6in).
Trillium grandiflorum AGM: almost stalkless dark green leaves to 30cm (1ft) long and in spring and summer white flowers with wavy petals produced above the leaves. Height 40cm (16in). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Trollius chinensis ‘Lemon Queen’: (w) pale lemon-yellow flowers in late spring on slender stalks. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Uvularia grandiflora AGM: slowly spreading stems carry up to four, rich-yellow tubular flowers in mid and late spring. Height 75cm (30in). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Ground cover perennials
Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’ (v): (e) silver-green leaves flushed red become darker later in the season. Height 15cm (6in). Spread 60-90cm (2-3ft).
Bergenia ‘Overture’: (e) broad, neat, glossy mid-green foliage, richly coloured dark red and bronze in winter and early spring and rich magenta flowers in spring. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Corydalis lutea: spreading clumps of divided bright green leaves and clusters of bright yellow flowers from spring to late summer. Seeds freely. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread indefinite.
Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae AGM: (wood spurge) (e) forms large drifts of groundcover, reddish-green stems, dark green leaves and greenish-yellow flowers in mid spring. Height 30-45cm (12-18in). Spread indefinite.
Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Czakor’: aromatic mid-green divided leaves have good autumn tints, magenta-pink flowers on reddish stems in late spring and early summer. Height 45cm (18ins). Spread 60cm (2ft).
Lamium maculatum ‘Beacon Silver’: prostrate stems bear silvery leaves with a fine green margin. Purplish-pink flowers in summer. Height 20cm (8in). Spread 90cm (3ft) or more.
Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ AGM: forms colonies of grass-like purple-black foliage in clumps and purple flowers in summer, followed by purple berries. Height 20cm (8in). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Persicaria affinis ‘Superba' AGM: (m) mat-forming dark green leaves, red-bronze in autumn, flower spikes of pinkish-red midsummer to mid-autumn. Height 25cm (10in). Spread 60cm (2ft) or more.
Viola odorata: (sweet violet) short stems and with tufts of heart-shaped bright green leaves, sweetly scented blue or white flowers in late winter or early spring self-seed freely. Height 20cm (8in). Spread 30cm (1ft).
V. riviniana Purpurea Group: (common dog violet) spreading heart-shaped dark green leaves flushed purple when young. Pale purple flowers in spring and summer. Height 8cm (3in). Spread indefinite.
Waldsteinia ternata: lobed bright green leaves and in late spring and early summer bright yellow flowers. Height 10cm (4in). Spread 60cm (2ft) or more.
Also see our page on hardy ferns.
Adiantum venustum AGM: (e) (Himalayan maidenhair fern) pinnate mid-green fronds with narrow fan-shaped segments on black stalks. Height 15cm (6in). Spread indefinite.
Asplenium scolopendrium AGM: (harts tongue fern) (e) crowns of arching, glossy, rich green, strap-shaped fronds. Height 45-70cm (18-28in). Spread 60cm (2ft).
Athyrium niponicum var. pictum AGM: (painted lady fern) (*) clumps of silvery-grey/green foliage and purple-red stalks. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Blechnum chilense AGM: (e) (*) pinnate dark green fronds have brown scaly stalks. Height 1m (3ft). Spread indefinite.
Dryopteris erythrosora AGM: tufts of triangular fronds copper-red when young, turning dark green. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 38cm (15in).
Very wet sites in shade
Dryopteris carthusiana ‘Cristata’: delicate pale green fronds. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Matteuccia struthiopteris AGM: (shuttlecock fern) erect rosettes of lance-shaped, bright green, sterile fronds surrounding shorter, brownish fertile fronds Height 1.5m (5ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Onoclea sensibilis AGM: (sensitive fern) (*) arching pale green fronds in spring, sometimes emerging pinkish-bronze. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread indefinite.
Osmunda regalis AGM: (royal fern) (*) robust, with tall fronds bearing rusty-brown spore-bearing pinnae at the tips; foliage turns attractive red-brown in autumn. Height 2m (6½ft). Spread 4m (13ft).
Dryopteris affinis AGM: (Golden male fern) (e) lance-shaped pale green fronds mature to dark green. Height and spread 90cm (3ft).
Polypodium interjectum ‘Cornubiense’ AGM: (e) excellent ground cover, vigorous dark green fronds. Height 30-40cm (12-16in). Spread indefinite.
Polystichum acrostichoides: (e) narrowly lance-shaped dark green fronds. Height 45cm (18in). Spread 90cm (3ft).
P. setiferum AGM: (soft shield fern) (e) soft lance-shaped dark green fronds. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Grasses for shade
Most grasses need good levels of sunlight to flower but many are tolerant of light or semi-shade. See our page on ornamental grasses for more details.
Anemanthele lessoniana AGM: (pheasant tail grass) (e) cascading mounds of colourful leaves in shades of green, orange and red, pendent panicles of purplish-green spikelets, late summer. Height and spread 1m (3ft).
Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Overdam’: clumps of upright bright green and white striped slender leaves, purplish inflorescences become greyish-pink, late summer. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 1m (3ft).
Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’: (e) clumps of bright green leaves margined white, green and brown flower spikes, late spring. Height 30cm (1ft).
Carex muskingumensis: (palm sedge) clumps of gently spreading, narrow light-green leaves, golden-brown flower spikes midsummer Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’: (e) tussocks of linear mid-green leaves, reddish-brown spikelets age to golden yellow. Height and spread 75cm (30in).
Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’: (blue fescue) (e) densely tufted blue-grey leaves, spikelets of violet-flushed blue-green flowers midsummer. Height and spread 30cm (1ft).
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ AGM:: (v) mounds of arching bright yellow leaves with green stripes, red flushed in autumn. Height 35cm (14in). Spread 40cm (16in).
Helictotrichon sempervirens: (blue oat grass) tufted mounds of metallic-blue leaves, straw-coloured spikelets, midsummer. Height 1m (3ft). Spread 60cm (2ft).
Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea’: (e) best in light shade to avoid scorching the bright golden-yellow leaves, small chestnut-brown flowers in panicles, early summer. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Luzula sylvestris ‘Marginata’: (e) 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).
Milium effusum ‘Aureum’ AGM: rich golden-yellow leaves, especially in spring may be pale green in deep shade, golden spikelets in nodding panicles, late spring. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Abundance’: dense mounds of narrow leaves, tall transparent panicles of silky pale spikelets, autumn. Height 1.5-2m (5-6ft). Spread 1.2m (4ft).
Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Edith Dudszus’: (purple moor grass) rich purple, almost black stems in dense clumps, purple spikelets on blackish stems. Height 1.5-2m (5-6ft). Spread 40cm (16in).
Sesleria caerulea: (blue moor grass) (e) tufted pale blue-grey leaves, bluish-purple spikelets mid spring-summer. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 25cm (10in).
Anemone blanda AGM: blue/white-pink flowers. Height 15cm (6in). Spread 15cm (6in).
Cardiocrinum giganteum: leaves to 30cm (1ft) across, and terminal racemes of fragrant, trumpet-shaped white flowers marked with purple within the mouth. Height 2m (6½ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Chionodoxa forbesii: star-shaped blue flowers with white centres in early spring. Height 10-20cm (4-8in). Spread 3cm (1¼in).
Convallaria majalis AGM: (lily-of-the-valley) creeping perennial producing scented, white flowers in late spring. Height 23cm (9in). Spread 30cm (1ft).
Cyclamen hederifolium AGM: heart-shaped patterned mid to dark green leaves and flowers in white and shades of pink with maroon markings mid and late autumn before the leaves. Height 10cm (4in). Spread 15cm (6in).
Eranthis hyemalis AGM: (winter aconite) 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) 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 (daffodil) cultivars such as N.‘Actea’, ‘N.Jenny’ and N. ‘Jack Snipe'. Height 20-45cm (10-18in).
Scilla sibirica AGM: linear basal leaves and racemes of bright blue flowers in spring. Height 10-20cm (4-8in). Spread 5cm (2in).
Annuals/biennials for shade
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