The Q&A Archives: Are there any colorful plants for partial-sun back yards

Question: My back yard is mostly shade. I had many trees removed so I am getting more sun but only partial in most spots due to the other trees across my property line. I like color, and I would like to have plants that will bloom every year. What plants should I go with. I would like some low-maintanence.

Answer: There are a variety of shade loving plants that make great accent plants or specimens in the garden. One of the best known is the group of hellebores. These European natives for large evergreen clumps to 1-2' tall x 1-2' wide. The most popular is the lenten rose (H. hybridus or H. orientalis). These reseeding clumpers offer a dazzling array of winter flowers in colors of pink, white, yellow, red, and purple. H. foetidus, unlike the lenten rose grows its green finger like foliage on a 2' stalk. The green bell like flowers, borne by the hundreds adorn the plant during the dead of winter. The other popular hellebore is the Christmas Rose, with it's late winter 1-2" flowers of clear white.

Another plant that has enjoyed a recent resurgence is the coral bells (heuchera). Thanks to the incorporation of our native H. americana into the west coast breeding programs, we can now color up our light shade gardens with wonderful foliage such as Heuchera Chocolate Ruffles, Ruby Ruffles, Velvet Knight, and Persian Carpet. Heucheras are short lived plants and do best if divided every 2-3 years.

Where would we be without another woodland great, the bleeding hearts. Most folks grow one of two bleeding hearts, the spring bloomer with the 3' arching spikes of pink heart shaped flowers that goes summer dormant (Dicentra spectabilis), or the spring and summer blooming types (D. formosa and D. exima) that rest their sprays of pink flowers on very cutleaf ferny foliage.

A close relative to the bleeding hearts are corydalis. The foliage appears quite similar, although the flowers are in entirely different color including white, tan, yellow, and blue. Many of the corydalis are spring bloomers including C. lutea (yellow) and C. Blue Panda (blue). Others such as C. ochroleuca bloom during the summer (white).

A couple of woodland plants that everyone tries to grow, but usually fail are bergenias and ligularias. The problem is our summer heat that often make molten piles of foliage from many northern favorites. The trick is to find the right species or varieties for our area. For bergenias, the only species that is reliable in our area is B.ciliata (hairy bergenia). For ligularias, the only sure success in our climate is Ligularia tussilaginea. L. tussilaginea comes in solid green leaves, yellow spotted leaves, and a crested green leaf.

I guess the plant that takes the most shade is a Japanese plant called rohdea or sacred lily. In Japan, rohdeas are collectors plants, with each different variation increasing the value of the plant, often into the thousands of dollars each. All of the rohdeas available in this country are the solid green leaf R. japonica. Rohdeas have been often described as an evergreen hosta.

For a taller plant for the woodland, don't forget the group of solomon's seal that include the genera of polygonatum, disporum, and smilacena. These arching perennials have predominately white bell shaped flowers in early spring.

You can fill in around these plants with colorful annuals.

Enjoy your garden!

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