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Shrubs for shade

Large white flowers on a shrub
Wild hydrangea
August 5, 2019

If you have a shady spot to fill in the garden, consider shrubs. A number of shrubs are relatively shade-tolerant because in nature they grow beneath trees in open woodlands or in the partial shade of forest edges.

Shrubs have a larger presence than perennials in the shade, with a variety of shapes, textures, leaf colors and sometimes flowers.
Here are some shrubs that do well in partial shade. You can find many more recommendations in the “Search trees & plants” page at mortonarb.org. You also can consult the Plant Clinic for expert advice.

Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii): Native to the Southeastern U.S., this shrub grows well in partial shade and stays compact and tidy, rarely exceeding three feet tall and wide. It is attractive all through the growing season, with bluish-green leaves, vivid orange fall color and fluffy bottlebrush flowers in early summer.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): Spicebush can grow six to 12 feet tall in part shade to full sun. Native to the Chicago area, it has subtle yellow flowers in early spring and its leaves turn pale yellow in autumn. If you have both male and female plants, the female may have red autumn berries. The leaves have a spicy-citrus fragrance when crushed.

Koreanspice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii): This shrub is best known for the spicy fragrance of its white to pink flower clusters in May. It does well in part shade or shade. The original Asian species is recommended for part shade and grows four to eight feet tall. Two newer cultivated varities that are more compact and tolerate nearly full shade are Sugar N’ Spice® (Viburnum carlesii ‘J.N. Select S’) and Spice Island® (Viburnum carlesii 'JN SELECT A'). Although some species of viburnum are vulnerable to the viburnum leaf beetle, Koreanspice viburnum is considered relatively resistant.

Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora): This Southeastern native is a large shrub that can reach the size of a small car, eight to 12 feet high and wide. If you have that much space in part shade, you'll get handsome dark green leaves, spectacular foot-long white flower clusters in midsummer, and yellow fall color.

Wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens): Native south and east of Chicago, smooth hydrangea is fully winter-hardy and prefers part shade. This shrub, native and east of Chicago, is fully winter-hardy. The cultivated variety Annabelle, with its large white globes of summer bloom on a plant that grows 3 to 5 feet tall and wide, is popular in Midwestern gardens. A newer cultivar with deep ruby-pink blooms is Invincibelle® Ruby (Hydrangea arborescens 'NCHA3'). Many other cultivars are available, including some that stay quite compact.

Panicled hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata): Also winter-hardy, this Asian species has white, elongated clusters of bloom in summer. In some cultivars, the blooms fade to shades of green or pink. The original species is a large shrub that can grow more than 15 feet tall, but cultivars are available in a wide range of sizes down to two or three feet.

Boxwood (Buxus species and cultivars): These small-leaved shrubs, classically used for formal hedges, can also be kept in their natural form to provide evergreen color in winter. Boxwood is shade-tolerant, but some species and cultivars are more winter-hardy than others. In harsh winters, boxwoods can suffer severe dieback.