9 Shrubs for Shade Gardens

The following shrubs are just a small group of many shrubs that work very well in shade gardens. However, these I would call pollinator powerhouses. 8 of them are native to North America and are beneficial to a wide range of pollinators and butterfly/moth larvae. Enjoy!


Hydrangea quercifolia, better known as Oakleaf hydrangea, is one of our best and most versatile landscape shrubs. At home in the southeast United States, this shrub does equally well in full sun or full shade. It is a multi-season shrub, meaning there is multiple peaks of interest. In early summer, white panicled flowers arise from the stems, and often turn reddish or pink as they age. Fall color is deep burgundy to purple with some red. Plant larger specimens near windows for their winter appeal is nice, cinnamon-peel bark. Cultivars abound and range in size from 3 to 8 feet tall and wide.

American bladdernut, Staphylea trifolia, is a commonly found understory shrub or small tree in the oak-hickory deciduous forests of North America. This under-sized and under-used native shrub grows well in part shade to full sun. The showy white flowers are especially attractive to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly which lays its eggs on nearby forest trees. The sectioned seed capsules that arrive in autumn are attractive for flower arrangements. Bladdernut grows 15 feet tall and wide. 

Clethra alnifolia, sometimes called pepperbush or summersweet, is another wonderful native from the southeastern U.S. While there are multiple species across the world, I prefer to use the native one. There are also many cultivars of this native, thicket-forming shrub. The fragrant flowers appear in mid-summer and can really add depth to the shade garden. It grows well in full to part shade and can be 4 to 8 feet tall and wide. 

Doublefile viburnum, Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum, is the only non-native on this list. While it has become slightly invasive in some parts of the United States, here in the Central Great Plains is rarely escapes the garden. I love the beautiful seedling grown one in my garden with its horizontal branches loaded with bright white flowers in late spring. While it is not very attractive to native bees and pollinators, it does do very well in part shade and has some nice interest for 3 seasons. Fall color is bronzy-purple and in winter the form is an excellent thing of beauty. Doublefiles grow 4 to 15 feet tall and wide, depending on selection. 


Fothergilla major, called just fothergilla or bottlebrush is another southeastern U.S. native shrub that does well in our Zone 5 shade gardens. This airy shrub has fragrant, bottlebrush shaped flowers that are white edged in green and yellow. It blooms in early spring, April to May in my garden and is a treat to the nose and eyes. The leaves are blueish-green in the summer in part to full shade. In autumn you get wonderful shades of red and orange foliage. Fothergilla grows 4 to 8 feet tall and wide, depending on cultivar. 


When I first discovered Corylus americana, the American Hazelnut growing in the woods near my house, I was truly excited to see this under-used native, woodland shrub. Hazelnut is used extensively in Europe for nut production as well as hedges, but we American do not use it nearly enough. For wildlife and food for us, I cannot think of a better shrub to plant as a screen, hedge, or specimen. It needs no special watering or fertilizer to get the pH of the soil correct, it does well in full sun to full shade, and gives you nuts! American hazel grows 6 to 15 feet tall and forms a large thicket over time which can be shaped into hedges or screen. Fall color is yellow. 


The Prickly-ash, Zanthoxylum americanum, is another eastern woodlands edge shrub. I can find it growing just 800 feet from my property line, near Mission Lake, in Northeast Kansas. Besides being able to handle full shade to part shade conditions, it forms a nice thicket of prickly stems. It could be used as a border along the neighbors to keep out pesky kids and animals. I like it for its reddish fruits in late summer and that it is a host plant for the Giant Swallowtail butterfly. It grows 4 to 10 feet tall and is thicket-forming. 


The common or eastern spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is another southeastern native shrub. See a trend here? The closest area to me where it grows native is southeast Kansas, Cherokee county. However, I have a couple of plant in my woodland edge garden and absolutely love the early spring flowers that seem to POP out just as winter waves goodbye. The spicy scented flowers are attractive to early bees and flies busy pollinating dandelions. Fall color is yellow, but the red, edible fruits are a delight to the eyes. Spicebush grows 4 to 6 feet tall and wide. 


Last but not least is the Eastern Wahoo, Euonymus atropurpureus. Wahoo is a fun name to say and I get excited when I find it growing nearby, too. If we could but rid ourselves of the invasive burning bush, maybe we could enjoy our native euonymus more. Wahoo grows 4 to 8 feet tall and wide and does well in part shade to full sun. The flowers are visited by small bees and flies and the fruit is utilized by our native birds and mammals. Plant wahoo in your shade garden today.


Happy planting!


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