B. Rosie Lerner
Purdue Extension


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Showy Foliage for Shade Gardens

You don't have to live in the tropics to have a stunning foliage display in your shade garden. Midwest gardeners have a wonderful foliage palette that can fill in areas among other perennials, or even star as the focal point.

Of course, everyone thinks of hosta for showy shade-loving foliage, and there are an awesome number of cultivars to choose from. They come in various shades of green and blue and accented with white, cream or yellow. There also is an amazing array of leaf textures to choose from, including ribbed, waffled, corrugated, glossy and wavy.

Ferns are another obvious choice for shade and are a diverse group of plants, when you consider their sizes and textures. Many ferns are quite hardy, although they thrive best when moisture is reliable. Hardy ferns for our area include maidenhair (Adiantum sp.); lady and Japanese painted (Athyrium sp.); ostrich (Matteuccia); royal and cinnamon (Osmunda sp.); and Christmas and holly (Polystichum sp.).

Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) forms a tidy 1-1.5 foot clump of heart-shaped leaves, and some variegated selections are particularly attractive. In early spring, their small, blue flowers -- similar to forget-me-not -- are a nice bonus.

The white-edged leaves of variegated Solomon's seal (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum') grow from upright, arching stems that can be up to 3 feet tall. White blooms are borne on the lower side of the upper stem in late spring.

Bethlehem sage (Pulmonaria saccharata)) forms a compact clump up to 1.5 foot tall and about 2 feet in diameter. This plant features dark green leaves dappled with white splotches and small pink flowers, which change to blue as they mature. Several cultivars are available, including 'British Sterling' and 'Excalibur' (both noted for silver leaves edged in green), and 'Janet Fisk' and 'Margery Fish' (both of which have larger white spots). 'Sissinghurst White' bears white flowers.

The spear-shaped leaves of the painted arum (Arum italicum 'Pictum') lend a rather exotic appearance and have dark green and cream marbling. The greenish-white flowers, similar to Jack-in-the-pulpit, appear briefly in late spring and are followed by tall stalks with orange-red berries in midsummer.

Speaking of exotic, the leaves of umbrella plant (Darmera peltata) reach up to 18 inches in diameter and form clumps up to 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide. The plant has large clusters of small whitish-pink flowers that bloom before the leaves emerge in early spring. This plant is best sited on the shady bank of a pond or stream, where the roots will stay moist and cool. It is actually native to northern California and Oregon but is more popular in English gardens.

Another plant that demands plentiful moisture is Rodgersia. Like umbrella plant, Rodgersia is best sited on the shady bank of a pond or stream. This plant's large compound leaves are made of five to seven leaflets, each up to 8 inches long. Its large clusters of white-to-pink flowers are an added bonus in late spring to midsummer, but the plant's foliage is quite interesting by itself. The bronzeleaf form is Rodgersia podophylla.

Although most ornamental grasses prefer full sun, Hakonechloa shows off best in partial shade and features bright yellow leaves contrasted by narrow green stripes. This is a very well behaved grass, forming a dense clump about 1-1.5 foot tall. Although it might be marginally hardy in some areas, it will survive in protected areas if sited in well-drained soil.



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Writer: B. Rosie Lerner
Editor: Olivia Maddox