Shade plants’ time to shine

  • These shy Hellebores bloom on the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls. FOR THE GAZETTE/PAT LEUCHTMAN 

  • Tiarella is a charming and energetic ground cover with early spring blooms. FOR THE GAZETTE/PAT LEUCHTMAN

For the Gazette
Published: 3/5/2020 11:03:56 AM
Modified: 3/5/2020 11:03:46 AM

Almost every garden has a shady spot where a shade-loving plant or two is required. Last summer, we put up a 6-foot fence. One side of that fence will be sunny for most of the day, but the other side will have shade for most of the day. I am planning a narrow bed along the shady side of the fence. Currently, I am deciding which shade-loving plants would be useful and appealing.

Heucheras, or coral bells, are beautiful flowers for a shady spot. Many varieties in stunning colors are available at most garden centers. I will definitely make a trip to Gardener’s Supply at the Hadley Garden Center this spring. I have a soft spot in my heart for Gardener’s Supply because the Gardener’s Supply Company was born in Burlington, Vermont, and I spent part of my childhood in Charlotte, nearby. I bought a Gardener’s Supply garden cart about 25 years ago, and it is still in operation.

I am sure Gardener’s Supply at Hadley Garden Center will have coral bells, although I don’t know which varieties (possibly from Terra Nova, a nursery that specializes in heucheras). I have seen the shade of Electric Lime, and think it would be a good choice because it is such a brilliant green and tolerates deep shade. It makes a healthy clump 12 inches high by 28 inches wide with white flowers on 16-inch stems.

Marmalade foliage is warm and shiny in shades of umber to deep sienna with pinky undersides and white flowers. It is slightly smaller than Electric Lime but would still provide a warm brightness in the shade. Both of these heucheras will bloom in May into June.

Another, Lady’s Mantle, otherwise known as Alchemillia mollis, is not as showy as coral bells. It is an energetic ground cover with beautiful scalloped foliage. I love this plant not only because of its slightly frilly foliage but also because that foliage collects raindrops. I just recently learned that butterflies make use of these drops when they are thirsty. I confess, I never gave much thought to butterflies needing water, but now I realize how important Lady’s Mantle is. It also produces languid, green-gold flowers over a very long season. Usually, I don’t pick the flowers, but they do make good filler in bouquets.

Tiarella, foamflower, is another wonderful but less showy ground cover with runners that will spread the plant rapidly. It can take full shade but doesn’t mind some sun. It also welcomes a damp spot with humus-rich soil. In fact, it is a dry spot that will cause hardship. The foliage stays close to the ground all season, with flower spikes in pink or white that will stand almost a foot tall in May. Some people deadhead tiarellas, but I have found that by the time the flowers are finished, there is so much else going on in the garden that the dead spikes are not noticeable, and they will eventually disappear. I think this a useful plant because it densely covers the ground and does a really good job keeping down the weeds.

Hellebores that bloom in early spring are both exotic and shy at the same time. The common name is Lenten Rose, and the flowers come in many shades, from pale to dark, often single but sometimes double. Their blossoms are actually sepals surrounding the very shy real flowers, which are always bowing their heads. Those sepals are what give hellbores a long bloom period.

Breeders are always trying to create hellebores that will look up at you. There has not been much success. Therefore, some gardeners have found a slope is an ideal place to plant them. I don’t have a slope, but I do have a desire to try a hellebore.

Astilbes are also wonderful garden plants. Astilbe x arendsii is the most common family to be found in garden centers. They bloom in many colors from white to pink to lavender, with spikes of flowers up to 3 feet tall. Rhineland is a pink variety that blooms very early in the spring, with feathery spires nearly two feet tall. Fanal is one of the few good red astilbes, usually little more than a foot tall. Superba Chinese Astilbe is one of the most stunning astilbes with 4-foot-tall magenta flower spikes on sturdy stems. On the other hand, Astilbe chinensis Little Vision in Pink is only about 15 inches tall. I have nameless astilbes left by the previous owners of our house. Now, I have my eye on Astilbe thunbergii Ostrich Plume with 30-inch tall nodding plumes. All the astilbes attract butterflies and hummingbirds and tolerate dampness in the shade.

Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum odoratus, is a scented woodland plant that works beautifully in a shady garden. It has graceful 2- to 3-foot arching stems. Often the light green leaves are edged with white. Delicate greenish-white tubular flowers hang from the stems. Solomon’s Seal spreads slowly by rhizomes, but once established, it will form a good colony. This is a pest-free plant that requires very low maintenance (but watch out for snails).

You will find all of these shade-loving plants at garden centers. You will also find them at spring plant sales like the Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale in Shelburne Falls, which is on May 16 this year. Mark your calendar.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980. She now lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her website at

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