5 Shrubs for Shade


My shade garden keeps developing, year to year. Since we bought our house in the woods, my wife and I have relished those large shade trees-but they make life interesting for a landscape designer. I have begun trialing plants in my garden to make recommendations for what we sell at work. These plants have already been accepted by the landscape industry as a whole, just not trialed specifically in Northeast Kansas. Our climate here decides for us what type of plants we can grow. For instance, we had below zero temperatures last December a week before severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.


All that being said, there are 5 go to shrubs for use in our shady landscapes. These are shrubs I can rely on, leave alone, or neglect altogether while paying attention to more needy plants. They are as follows, Slender Deutzia, Japanese Kerria, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Weigela, and Japanese-English Yew.


Slender deutzia (Deutzia gracilis) has become one of my favorite, spring flowering shrubs over the past 10 years. I first saw it when I was a student at Kansas State, then again in my work in Topeka. I came across the lime green leaved ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ when I took over maintenance for Grimm’s 6 years ago.  This little shrub does its best flowering in full sun, but is an excellent addition to the shade garden. It can take as little as 4 hours of sun per day and still produce a nice show of flowers. It grows 2 to 6 feet tall and wide, depending on cultivar. ‘Yuki Cherry Blossom’ has pink flowers on short stems that rarely need pruning and is a Proven Winner variety.


Slender Deutzia 'Chardonnay Pearls' in Sabetha, KS
Slender Deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ in Sabetha, KS

Japanese Kerria (Kerria japonica) is another longstanding favorite from my college days. I remember first seeing it growing by the steps of Waters Hall, and then again in landscapes in Manhattan and Topeka. This native of China has slender, green stems that hold their color year-round. Yellow blossoms can be single or double, depending on cultivar, and bloom in spring and with scattered blooms through the summer. It grows 4 to 6 feet tall and spreads with rhizomes into a thicket. Kerria grows well in full sun to part shade but the flowers may bleach in full sun, especially in Kansas.


Japanese Kerria in Topeka, KS
Japanese Kerria ‘Pleniflora’ in Topeka, KS

I have written about oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) before and so you should know well what they can do. A native of the United States, this hydrangea is the best one of its kind suited for shady areas. It is a multi-season interest plant, with peeling bark on older stems, large white blossoms in summer, and purple-red fall color. Depending on cultivar they may grow 4 to 10 feet tall and wide.


Oakleaf Hydrangea 'Alice'
Oakleaf Hydrangea ‘Alice’

Weigelas (Weigela florida) are often thought of as a purely sun loving shrub, but they do just as well in part shade conditions. I have planted many cultivars in shady spots and seen no less flower power or leaf color fading than in full sun. My mother-in-law has a pair of variegated weigelas in her yard, under the protection of a large honeylocust. If your weigela is getting shaggy or overgrown, cut it to the ground in spring and watch it come back with a flourish. It grows 3 to 10 feet tall and wide depending on cultivar.


Weigela 'Frenach Lace' at the author's mother-in-law's
Weigela ‘Frenach Lace’ at the author’s mother-in-law’s

The Japanese-English Yew (Taxus x media) is a cross between two long standing species of yew. The resulting hybrid has been a long used landscape plant across the world. There are many cultivars taken from this hybrid, with selections that are upright, spreading, or dense. The best known of these are ‘Hicks’, ‘Densiformis’, and ‘Wardii’. They can grow in sun or shade, but prefer part to full shade in Eastern Kansas and Nebraska. They may grow 3 to 8 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide, depending on cultivar.


'Densiformis' Yew in full shade conditions in Sabetha, KS
‘Densiformis’ Yew in full shade conditions in Sabetha, KS

I have can use any one of these 5 plants and their many cultivars throughout my extensive shade gardens at my house, as well as for my clients with their own shade gardens.


Happy planting!

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