Most gardeners will agree that finding plants that will bloom in shady areas has been difficult. The traditional nursery has offered us a scant few annuals, perennials, and flowering shrubs that provide color in the shade. This has led to the common belief that the shade gardener must rely heavily on groundcovers and foliage plants to be successful. Not so, says mother nature.
A casual stroll through any natural wooded area will reveal a rich diversity of plants that enjoy the shade. Make this stroll often enough and you will likely find that many of these shade-loving plants do produce appreciable blossoms. Some in fact are quite spectacular. As we have been rediscovering the beauty and practicality of using the plants that are native to our state in our home landscaping, we have found a good number of flowering perennials that are made for shade. These plants can be purchased at nurseries that specialize in native plants. A few are even beginning to show up in the garden centers of mass merchandisers as well.
To help you select these plants for use in your landscape, we will describe shade in three different ways. Full shade is a place where the sun never shines. Dappled shade is a place that receives broken light such as under a tree. Part shade is a place that receives some direct sun at different times of the day but is still mostly shady.
Fern acacia (Acacia angustissima) is thornless and can be grown throughout the state in any soil type. The fuzzy white flowers are small (1/2 inch) but appreciable during the summer months. Spreading from underground rhizomes, the soft shrub grows only two to three feet tall. Being a member of the legume family, fern acacia also produces nitrogen in the soil. Great for cohabitating with trees and other plants! Can be grown in dappled to part shade.
New Jersey tea
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a spreading perennial to about two feet tall. White flower clusters appear in spring. Native to wooded areas of central and eastern Texas, plant it in dappled to part shade in well-drained soil.
Widows tears (Commelina spp.) is found throughout the state. Commelina can be grown in any soil. Flowers appear from spring to fall in shades of blue to occasionally white. Spreading and invasive, commelina makes an excellent groundcover in dappled to part shade.
Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus drummondii) can be grown anywhere in almost any soil with the exception of the Panhandle. Bright red flowers are followed by red berries from summer to fall. This plant is a must for bird lovers. Reaching only three feet tall in north Texas, Turk’s cap can get quite large in southern parts of the state. A white-flowered variety is also available in the nursery trade. Full shade, dappled shade, to part shade.
Frog fruit (Phyla nudiflora)flowers of this low (3 to 4 inch) growing member of the verbena family is small but worth mentioning because butterflies just love them! This aggressive spreading groundcover is great for problem areas since it will grow in any soil, wet or dry, anywhere in the state. Full shade, dappled shade to part shade.
Pidgeonberry (Rivina humilis) is another great bird plant. The short (12 to 18 inch) perennial native sports pink blossoms and clusters of bright red berries from spring to fall. Pidgeonberry is at home in all parts of Texas. Grow it in well-drained soils in dappled to part shade.
Lyre leaf sage
Lyre leaf sage (Salvia lyrata) While most of our native salvias will grow in partial shade, this one likes it all the way into deep shade. Beautiful evergreen leaves are streaked with purple highlights. Pale blue flowers are held on short (generally less than 12 inches) spikes in early spring. In most parts of the state, this salvia will grow in any soil in full to part shade.
Cedar sage (Salvia roemeriana) is another salvia that is made for shade. Cedar sage is named for its habit of growing under cedar trees where few other plants can survive. The bright red flower spikes are especially visible in dark places. The plant will be evergreen in most parts of the state. Height is generally about one to two feet. Full to part shade.
Violets (Viola spp.) are old favorites, but did you know that there are several species of violets that are native to Texas? Visit nearby wooded areas to discover the ones that live closest to you. Full to part shade.
Columbine (Aquilegia spp.)is another well-known plant but once again we need to rely on native species if we want to have better chances at success. Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is found in the wooded areas of our Texas hill country. There are several yellow columbines (notably A. chrysantha, A. hinckleyana, A. longissima, and A. chaplinei) that are native to the mountainous areas of the Trans-Pecos. All of these columbines will hybridize freely and named cultivars can be found in local nurseries. Native columbines are among the most spectacular spring bloomers we can use in deeply shaded areas. Shade, dappled shade or part shade.
Fall aster (Aster oblongifolius) is found pretty much throughout the state and is one of the more spectacular fall-blooming perennials. Blue to lavender daisies with yellow centers cover the plant profusely from September until the onset of winter. Shade, dappled shade, or part shade.
Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata) is usually found on rocky hillsides, and this evergreen wildflower will tolerate dappled to partial shade. Winecup blooms best in late spring. The brilliant magenta blooms are excellent mixed with other flowers. The plant itself is less than six inches tall and can be grown throughout the state.
Golden groundsel (Senecio obovatus) is a spreading groundcover with bright yellow daisy blooms. The foliage stays low (3-4″) while the blooms are held above at 12″. Golden groundsel will bloom throughout the spring months. The foliage is evergreen in full, dappled, or part shade.
Coneflower (Echinacea spp.) are usually found in sunny locations, but they will do fine in dappled shade. There are several species that are found throughout the state. Purple coneflower (E. purpurea) is the one most commonly sold in the nursery trade, but other species can provide colors of white, pink, and yellow.
Mistflower (Eupatorium spp.) is also called wild ageratum or boneset in different parts of the state. Flowers are generally either white or blue with the most spectacular bloom occurring in the fall. Several native species of mistflower can be found throughout Texas. Most plants will average about two feet tall while some species may grow to over four feet. The nectar of these plants is favored by all butterflies. This is a “must-have” plant for the butterfly enthusiast for shade, dappled shade, or part shade.
Guara (Guara lindheimeri), also called pink butterfly, sports attractive pink, white, or pink and white blooms that resemble small butterflies. Guara blooms well in spring, summer, and fall depending on seasonal rainfall. The 2 to 3-foot plant will adapt to most parts of the state and will grow in any soil. It prefers the gumbo clay of the eastern and central prairies. Dappled to part shade.
Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis) with its bright red flower spikes are a favorite of hummingbirds. Usually, about two feet tall, this plant can bloom spring, summer, and fall and can be found in all parts of the state growing in wet places. Shade, dappled shade, or part shade.
Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), only found growing wild in east Texas, will adapt too much of the state. It likes wet feet, so a moist shady location is preferred. Also called bergamot, this plant can colonize by rhizomes. Averaging 2 to 3′ tall, the fragrant leaves and white, pink, or lavender flowers are worth it. Dappled to part shade.
Rock Rose (Pavonia lasiopetala) is a semi-woody shrub found in western Texas. This showy cousin to the hibiscus doesn’t mind a little shade. The 2″ pink blossoms occur in profusion from late spring through fall. Rock rose averages 2 to 3′ tall and spreads to 6′ in its native habitat. However, it may respond to wetter climates by getting quite large. Give it room and keep it dry! Dappled to part shade.
Gulf penstemon (Penstemon tenuis) There are many species of penstemon across our state and most will adapt to partial shade, but Gulf penstemon seems to prefer it. Beautiful blue flowers on 18″ spikes occur in spring. The evergreen foliage remains attractive year-round. Dappled to part shade.
Louisiana blue phlox
Louisiana blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) is native to East Texas and made for shade. This low-growing phlox does best in dappled shade for early spring color. Then rely on its cousin fragrant phlox (P. pilosa) for pink blooms later.
Obedient plant (Physotegia spp.) There are at least ten species of physotegia native to Texas. Most are found in wet places, but some can tolerate dry conditions as well. Obedient plants can bloom in spring, summer, or fall with showy flower spikes in blue, pink, lavender, or white. Fall obedient plant (P. virginiana) is a favorite for many gardeners and one of the most versatile species. Obedient plants will form colonies from underground rhizomes in dappled or part shade.
Mexican petunia (Ruellia spp.) is another perennial that has many native species from the low growing creeping ruellia (R. malacosperma) to the named variety “Katies” dwarf ruellia (R. brittoniana) up to taller species like Ruellia nudiflora. The name Mexican petunia comes from the close resemblance that the flowers have to the common annual petunia. Colors range from lavender or purple to pink or white. The bloom period generally begins in spring and can last until late fall. Mexican petunias do well in dappled to part shade.
Simpson’s rosinweed (Silphium simsonii) is a bright yellow daisy that will grow in shade. Simpson’s rosinweed looks a lot like our native sunflower only shorter. The bloom period, also like its relative sunflower, is during the heat of summer when most plants tend to go dormant. Hard to find in the nursery trade, but worth it. Simpson’s rosinweed is made for shade.
Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) is found nearly throughout the state. They can be seen holding their unique blue to lavender flowers above elegant grassy foliage. There are several named varieties of tradescantia in the nursery trade. Of course your local native will be the best choice for your particular area. Spiderwort will average about 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall and bloom from spring to early summer in dappled to part shade.
Zexmenia (Wedelia hispida) is a native of south, central, and west Texas and looks like the kind of plant that would require full sun. This semi-woody perennial has a compact growth habit (generally 2′ tall by 4′ wide) that makes it appealing as a shrub planting. The yellow one-inch daisies can appear from spring through fall and at times will be so profuse they cover the plant entirely. Although it flowers better with more sun, zexmenia does well in dappled to part shade.
These are just a few blooming plants that love shade. If we were to include woody shrubs, vines, and grasses, the list of shade plants could go on and on. Take a walk in the woods and observe nature’s bounty. Then visit your local native plant nurseries and put some color in your shade garden!