Must-have Shade Plants for North Carolina Gardens

Must-have Shade Plants for North Carolina Gardens

Our favorite dry and wet shade perennials for Zone 7b

By Published April 11, 2014 Updated July 31, 2023

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The following article is part of a series geared toward entry-level gardeners. For deep dives into a variety of perennials that we have sold over the decades, visit our archive of in-depth perennial articles written by Tony Avent, Dr. Patrick McMillan, and other Plant Delights and JLBG experts. We also have transcripts of our Gardening Unplugged videos, recorded during our Open Nursery and Garden Days, that have great information for gardeners of all experience levels.

North Carolina's diverse climate gifts gardeners with a unique opportunity to cultivate an array of shade-loving perennials that thrive in the state's varying conditions. Whether your garden is nestled in dry or wet shade, there are numerous delightful options to bring color, texture, and allure to even the most shaded corners of your outdoor sanctuary. In this comprehensive guide, we unveil some of the best shade perennials that flourish in North Carolina, catering to both dry and wet shade environments.

Perennials for Dry Shade

Dry shade environments pose unique challenges for gardening enthusiasts, as these areas typically lack consistent moisture and receive limited direct sunlight. However, nature offers an array of shade-loving perennials that are well-adapted to thrive in such conditions. If you have a dry shade area in your garden, consider these examples of perennials that can bring beauty to the most challenging spots:

Dry Shade Environment Examples:

Underneath Trees: Many gardens feature large trees that cast dense shade and absorb moisture from the surrounding soil. The areas beneath these tree canopies are prime examples of dry shade environments.

North-Facing Walls: Walls that face the northern direction receive minimal direct sunlight, leading to dry and shaded conditions.

Building Overhangs: The areas underneath building overhangs or structures where sunlight is limited are common dry shade spots.

Rocky and Sandy Soil Patches: Certain areas in the garden might have sandy or rocky soil that drains quickly, leading to dry conditions even in shaded areas.

In such challenging environments, selecting the right perennials that are resilient to drought and partial shade becomes paramount to a successful and thriving garden. Now, let's explore the perennials that can flourish in dry shade conditions:

1. Ajuga (Bugleweed): Renowned for its dense, colorful carpet-like foliage, Ajuga is an excellent choice for dry shade gardens. This hardy perennial showcases spikes of blue, pink, or white flowers that rise above its attractive foliage, creating a stunning visual display. Ajuga's ability to thrive in dry conditions makes it a resilient and low-maintenance addition to your shade garden.

2. Pulmonaria (Lungwort): With their striking foliage adorned in contrasting silver spots, Lungworts are an excellent choice for dry shade. These low-maintenance perennials brighten up shaded areas with their dainty, tubular flowers that bloom in shades of pink, blue, and purple. Lungwort's charming appearance and adaptability to dry soil make it a reliable and eye-catching choice.

3. Dicentra spectabilis (Bleeding Heart): A timeless classic, the Bleeding Heart boasts heart-shaped, pendulous flowers in shades of pink and white. This shade perennial prefers fertile, well-drained soil and adds a touch of romance and nostalgia to any garden. With its graceful blooms and elegant foliage, the Bleeding Heart is sure to capture the hearts of all who encounter it.

4. Athyrium niponicum (Japanese Painted Fern): Embrace the ethereal beauty of the Japanese Painted Fern, featuring silver-gray fronds adorned with delicate purple veins. Thriving in dappled shade, this fern brings an air of sophistication to shady corners. Its unique foliage and adaptability to partial shade make it a captivating addition to any woodland or shade garden.

Remember to prepare the soil adequately, provide regular mulching to retain moisture, and consider watering as needed to support these shade-loving perennials in dry environments. With proper care and the right selection, your dry shade garden can become a lush oasis of resplendent beauty.

Perennials for Wet Shade

Wet shade environments present a set of challenges for gardeners, as they combine limited sunlight with consistently moist or waterlogged soil. These conditions can be found in various areas of the garden where the natural landscape or nearby water sources contribute to the presence of moisture. If you have a wet shade area in your garden, consider these examples of perennials that are well-suited to thrive in such conditions.

Wet Shade Environment Examples:

Low-Lying Areas: Depressions or low-lying sections in the garden tend to collect water, creating consistently moist conditions that can be challenging for many plants.

Nearby Water Features: Gardens located near streams, ponds, or lakes often experience higher humidity levels and consistently moist soil due to proximity to water sources.

Rain Garden Zones: Purposefully designed rain gardens, meant to capture and retain water, create ideal environments for wet shade-loving plants.

Drainage Issues: Areas with poor drainage or heavy clay soils may retain water, leading to perpetually moist conditions, especially in shaded spots.

In these damp and shaded corners, selecting shade perennials that thrive in consistently moist soil becomes crucial to the success of your garden. Now, let's explore the perennials that can flourish in wet shade conditions:

1. Hosta (Plantain Lily): Known for their robust and vibrant foliage, Hostas are excellent choices for wet shade areas. These shade-loving perennials come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, adding texture and interest to the landscape. Hostas' remarkable ability to flourish in moist conditions, combined with their striking appearance, makes them a staple choice for shaded and water-rich gardens.

2. Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal Flower): With its striking spikes of vivid red flowers, the Cardinal Flower thrives in moist, shady conditions. This native perennial attracts pollinators, making it a beautiful and ecologically beneficial addition to any garden. The Cardinal Flower's vibrant blooms and role as a magnet for hummingbirds make it a dynamic and eco-friendly choice for wet shade areas.
Image of Lobelia cardinalis
Lobelia cardinalis

3. Podophyllum (Mayapple): A fascinating addition to wet shade gardens, the Podophyllum peltatum, commonly known as Mayapple, offers umbrella-like leaves and a hidden, delicate white flower beneath its foliage. This unique perennial lends an air of mystique to your garden, making it an intriguing and unexpected presence in shaded, moisture-rich spaces.

4. Thelypteris (Maiden Fern): Celebrate spring with the enchanting display of Thelypteris. These delicate ferns add a lush, feathery texture to wet shade areas, creating a mesmerizing and refreshing atmosphere. Thelypteris' ability to thrive in moist environments, along with its delicate appearance, adds a touch of natural elegance to any shady spot.

To create an ideal wet shade environment for these perennials, consider improving drainage in excessively waterlogged areas, and supplement with organic matter to enhance moisture retention. By catering to the specific needs of these shade-loving wonders, you can transform your wet shade garden into a lush and captivating oasis.

General Shade Perennials

A typical shade environment in North Carolina's Zone 7b offers a balanced level of light, with partial sunlight filtering through the canopy of trees or surrounding structures. In these areas, a diverse range of shade perennials can thrive and bring enchantment to your garden. Consider these examples of shade perennials that flourish in a normal shade environment:

Normal Shade Environment Examples:

Woodland Areas: Areas with a mature tree canopy that provides partial shade throughout the day create a typical shade environment. Woodland gardens are perfect for shade-loving plants that can handle dappled sunlight.

North or East-Facing Gardens: Gardens located on the northern or eastern side of buildings or structures receive limited direct sunlight, creating a favorable environment for shade-loving perennials.

Under High-Branching Trees: Trees with high branches that allow filtered sunlight to reach the ground below establish a normal shade environment for shade-loving plants.

Shaded Patios or Courtyards: Outdoor spaces with overhead structures or pergolas that cast partial shade during the day provide an ideal setting for shade-loving perennials.

In these delightful normal shade spots, a carefully selected variety of shade perennials can thrive and create a serene and inviting garden ambiance. Now, let's explore the perennials that can flourish in these normal shade conditions:

1. Heuchera (Coral Bells): A versatile perennial, Coral Bells thrive in both dry and wet shade. With their striking foliage in a myriad of colors, including burgundy, lime green, and silver, they provide year-round interest and beauty. Coral Bells' adaptability to different shade conditions and ever-changing appearance make them an essential choice for a shade garden with dynamic visuals.

2. Arisaema (Jack-in-the-Pulpit): Graceful and intriguing, Arisaema features unique hooded flowers that resemble "pulpits" sheltering a "jack" inside. These perennials perform well in various shade conditions and add an element of surprise to your garden. Arisaema's captivating and enigmatic presence makes it a conversation-worthy addition to any shade garden.

3. Hellebore (Helleborus, Lenten Rose, Christmas Rose): Celebrate winter with the elegant blooms of Hellebores. These hardy perennials boast cup-shaped flowers in various colors and patterns, adding a touch of enchantment to shaded landscapes. Hellebores' resilience and ability to bloom during cooler seasons ensure a splendid display of color and life when other plants lie dormant.

In a normal shade environment, providing adequate moisture and ensuring proper soil preparation will allow these perennials to thrive and grace your garden with their captivating beauty. By incorporating these shade-loving wonders into your garden, you can create a harmonious and tranquil retreat that celebrates the magic of shaded landscapes.

As you embark on your shade gardening journey, remember to choose perennials that are well-suited to your specific shade conditions and complement each other in terms of color, texture, and bloom times. With proper care and consideration, these shade-loving wonders will transform your garden into an oasis of beauty and serenity, providing you with year-round delight for many seasons to come. Happy gardening!

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