Golden Lights for Shady Sites
As we move toward the heat of real summer, retreating into the shade seems a sensible option. Away from the glare of full sun and the bright hues of summer flowers, our eyes can rest a bit and enjoy the many shades of green even the simplest garden has to offer. And we can increase that range of tones, and add some liveliness to shady spots, by planting some of the many cultivars that feature golden, chartreuse or yellow-green foliage.
In recent years there's been a big increase in the number of plants offered in this palette. It seems just about any perennial, shrub or tree can now be found in a "golden" version. There are lots of annuals in these shades too, but in this post I'll feature a few hardy plants I know well and find useful to give variety and a little sparkle to your shade plantings.
One of the earliest perennials to emerge is always Dicentra spectabilis, the old-fashioned Bleeding Heart. 'Gold Heart' is a new twist on this old favorite, with rosy stems and green-gold foliage flushed with tones of peach, followed by the usual bright pink pendant hearts. The foliage matures to lime green and stays attractive much longer than the common sort, especially when grown with consistent moisture.
Grassy textures are valuable in the shade as counterpoints to Hostas, Hellebores, Rodgersias and other shade lovers with bold foliage. One of my favorites (though hard to find in nurseries) is Carex elata 'Aurea', aka Bowles' Golden Sedge. Like all sedges it thrives best in a moist spot, and its delicate texture and graceful habit are as pleasing as its bright coloring.
There are hundreds if not thousands of cultivars of Japanese Maple, and although most people are only familiar with the commonly seen dark red 'Bloodgood', there are many more that can be grown here in Zone 5, especially if given some protection from winter wind. 'Orange Dream' is so-called because the emerging foliage is peachy-coral, and its fall coloring is flaming orange. But during the summer this dense, shrubby grower lights up the shade with delicate palmate leaves of fresh lettuce green. It needs protection from the hottest afternoon sun but will take morning sun or dappled light under high trees with no problem.
Winning my prize for my favorite new plant of the last couple of years (and that's not easy... I fall in love continually) is Aralia cordata 'Sun King'. This is the third season for my plant, and it's achieved about three feet in both height and spread, although some references claim it will reach six feet in height. Nonetheless it's vigorous, hardy, bold and untroubled by any pests so far, even deer. Site this beauty where you can see it while enjoying your evening cocktail, as it has a flourescent quality that absolutely glows in the twilight.
Spiraea thunbergii 'Ogon' (Ogon means "gold" in Japanese) is a chartreuse version of the old-fashioned Baby's Breath Spiraea, Spiraea thunbergii. The white sprays of early spring blossom are indeed very dainty, but of less interest than the delicate willowy foliage that stays bright yellowish green all summer, providing wonderful textural contrast to coarser leaved shrubs and perennials. 'Ogon' is a bit slow out of the gate, but once growing it stays in the three to four foot tall range when mature, a trait that makes it valuable for planting schemes where a more rampant shrub would be overwhelming.
Filipendulas (also known as Meadowsweet or Queen of the Prairie) can be aggressive growers, but Filipendula ulmaria 'Aurea' is much shorter and hasn't been the least bit troublesome for me. The compound leaflets are decorative all season, and the feathery white flowers are pleasing though not terribly showy, so I cut the flower stalks right down to the ground after they finish and enjoy the greeny-gold foliage for the rest of the summer. The photos show my planting beginning to mingle with its neighbor, the charming but rather thuggish Anemone canadensis.
Hostas are an obvious choice for shade, and there are many from which to choose. Although Hostamania is no longer the virulent disease it was ten or fifteen years ago, there are still dozens of new cultivars flooding the market every year. I'm content to stick with tried and true workhorses, like 'Paul's Glory', pictured above, but other reliable choices for adding golden highlights would be the smaller 'June' or the giant 'Sum and Substance'.
A good shrub for using under deciduous trees is the golden form of Red-twigged Dogwood, Cornus alba 'Aurea'. You get the deep red stems in winter, plus a graceful summer filler in this zippy shade of bright green. Very pretty next to a shady pool or stream where it can get its roots down into consistently moist soil.
Hakonechloa is the queen of shade grasses, and there are several beautiful cultivars available. These Japanese Forest Grasses adapt well to our climate and are unequaled for grace and poise. If you're trying them for the first time, I suggest you start with this variety, 'All Gold'. It increases at a steady rate and is seldom bothered by pests (except for my cat Alice, who likes to nibble it, and then throw up). Shown in the photo at the beginning of this post is another fine cultivar, 'Aureola', striped green and gold, and with an extremely elegant pendant habit.
Catalpas are common trees hereabouts, but the golden version, Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea' is worth seeking out for its bold chartreuse leaves that unfold flushed with bronze. My plant, shown here, is two years old and well established now, so starting next spring I'll stool it to the ground annually to get the largest, most tropical looking foliage possible.
For yet another grassy texture in shade, try the Golden Spiderwort, Tradescantia 'Sweet Kate'. It needs bright shade to achieve its best color, so I grow it at the edge of my shady shrub border where it gets some filtered sunlight. Flowers are deep violet, opening over a long period in June and July. After that I cut it all the way down to the ground and it regrows another compact tuft of bright foliage that stays decorative until hard frost.
If you think Yews are boring and suburban, check this one out: Taxus cuspidata 'Dwarf Bright Gold'. It's a stunner that needs protection from the hottest afternoon sun but will really light up a shrub planting, or can be used among perennials to give some form and substance. Or clip it into whatever shape you desire!
Finally, for those truly brave gardening souls, how about a Dwarf Greenstripe Bamboo, Pleioblastus viridistriatus. Very aggressive, but if you're able to contain it or have a lot of space, this makes a gorgeous tall groundcover. Best cut to the ground every spring to force a new flush of fresh foliage that will top out at 2-3 feet. Or to be on the safer side, it makes a lovely specimen grown in a large pot in shade.
Every garden has some shade, even if it's just the north side of a building, and these are just a few of the many, many selections available to liven up those areas... so there's no excuse for boredom in the shade anymore... for plants or for gardeners!
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Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.