On a recent Zillow report of my home, I saw a photo from when my husband and I bought our house over 13 years ago. It caught my eye because the trees were so small! It’s no wonder that some of the perennials I planted long ago are struggling under the now-larger trees, as they prefer full sun. It’s time to start transitioning some of my beds to shade gardens. Here are some perennials I plan to add to provide color to these now-shady areas.
‘Purple Palace’ heuchera
Heuchera micrantha ‘Palace Purple’, Zones 4–9
Heucheras come in a variety of foliage and bloom colors. I love the deeply purple, maple-shaped leaves of ‘Purple Palace’, which add color throughout the growing season. Above the foliage, thin stems become covered in tiny pinkish-white flowers in early summer. Be sure to deadhead to encourage reblooming. ‘Purple Palace’ grows 1 to 2 feet tall and 1 foot wide and takes medium irrigation. While this variety can take full sun, I find that it does better with some shade in our intense Mountain West sunlight, especially in the afternoon to prevent scorching or fading.
Polemonium caeruleum, Zones 4–8
This perennial is known for its cup-shaped blue flowers that bloom in late spring or early summer. I also love its clumping foliage of pinnate compound leaves, which look like ladders. Jacob’s ladder grows 1 to 2 feet tall and wide with medium irrigation and prefers partial to full shade. I deadhead this plant after it finishes blooming to enjoy the foliage for the rest of the season. This plant has minimal pest or disease issues. In humid climates, it is prone to powdery mildew, but that’s not a problem in our dry region.
‘Confetti Cake’ hellebore
Helleborus ‘Confetti Cake’, Zones 4–9
I first discovered hellebores when studying horticulture in California. I loved their dark, shiny evergreen leaves and the multitudes of flower colors available from different varieties. Most of these easy-care perennials bloom in late winter or very early spring. For the longest time I didn’t think they would grow in the Mountain West. I was wrong! More and more varieties are becoming available in the trade that are suitable for our region. ‘Confetti Cake’ has bright white double flowers that are sprinkled with burgundy flecks. It grows 1½ to 2 feet tall and wide and takes partial to full shade. It has low irrigation requirements and is drought tolerant.
With interest in hellebores growing, Colorado State University has been trialing varieties for the past few years. Check out some of their results of these trials here.
Anemone sylvestris, Zones 4–8
While many think of anemones as fall-blooming, this species blooms in the late spring or early summer. The fragrant, sunny white flowers with yellow centers will brighten any shady space. Snowdrop anemone grows 1 to 1½ feet tall and 1 foot wide in partial shade with medium irrigation. This species spreads via rhizomes and makes a nice ground cover. Give it enough space to naturalize.
For more great shade plants for Mountain West gardens, check out:
—Michelle Provaznik is executive director of the Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins, Colorado.