Take a walk around a suburban neighborhood, and you'll probably see sweeps of pachysandra or English ivy covering the ground under mature shade trees. A few spring bulbs might poke through early in the season, and a few shade annuals might adorn the front edge in summer.
As functional as these ground covers may be, shade gardeners don't have to settle for this uninspired solution to landscaping. Wouldn't most of us rather take a stroll through a garden that changes throughout the growing season? There are many perennials that shine in the shade. Consider adding some of these under-utilized perennials to your shady beds and borders.
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Hellebores, commonly called Lenten roses, bloom for a long time in a wide range of colors, from white to green and pink to purple. Their large, nodding flowers that rise above thick, glossy, dark green semi-evergreen leaves persist through spring -- opening on sunny days and closing at night. Plant Lenten roses in soil amended with compost.
Yellow corydalis is a lovely woodland perennial treasured for its reliable summer-long display of small, bright yellow flowers over mounds of fern-like foliage. It prefers rich, moist, well-drained soil and, if given optimal conditions, will reseed prolifically. Although it has reseeded in my own garden, it has never become a nuisance. I like how it finds its way into small crevices.
Masterwort (Astrantia major) is not included nearly enough in shade gardens. Distinctive star-shaped flowers in shades of white, pink and red are a favorite of florists. Its foliage resembles Italian parsley. The flowers of Star of Beauty are white tipped with pinkish-purple tips; Star of Fire boasts red blooms with white centers; and Venice has seductive wine-red flowers. Plant Astrantia in filtered or dappled shade.
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is dazzling in shade gardens with consistently moist soil. Tall spikes of scarlet red flowers begin blooming in mid-summer. Hummingbirds and butterflies will love this plant almost as much as you do.
Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) and monkshood (Aconitum) are late-season bloomers that also prefer moist soil but are less fussy than cardinal flower. Both have flowers that persist a long time.
Hot Lips turtlehead has tall, sturdy, reddish stems that show off bright pink flowers beginning in August. Flowers resemble the head of a snapping turtle giving Chelone its common name.
Tall, strong spikes of deep, purple-blue flowers delight gardeners who plant monkshood in their shade gardens. The flowers of this tough-as-nails perennial appear late in the season, when color is especially appreciated. Though all parts of this plant are poisonous, it deserves a place in gardens without young children or pets that may take a bite.
Anemone japonica, once established, will form spectacular colonies. Silvery buds open to flowers in shades of pink and white. They dance atop wiry stems from late summer into early fall. Plant anemones in partly shaded, sheltered locations in moist but well-drained soil. Honorine Jobert offers single, pure white flowers with yellow stamens; Party Dress sports very large, double, rose pink blooms; and Robustissima boats single, soft pink flowers.
Planting under tree roots requires additional considerations. Combat greedy tree roots that steal water from other garden plants by adding lots of organic matter to every planting hole. Install drip irrigation hoses. And add mulch! Mulch will help conserve water in the soil, whether it comes from rainfall or supplemental watering. If trees are casting too much shade, consider removing some of the lower branches to let more sunlight reach the garden floor.
Don't settle for the expected. Try some of these shady characters, and turn your landscape from plain and practical to surprising and spectacular.
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and the garden center manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040, ext. 2, or visit planterspalette.com.