19 Colorful Plants for Shade Gardens

Plant some of these beauties for great garden color, even in shade

Kathleen N. Brenzel
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Astilbe hybrids

Feathery, plumelike flowers have an airy quality; they come in shades of pink, salmon, lavender, red, and white above fernlike foliage. A mainstay of shaded perennial borders, they’re also great beside garden pools, along shaded paths, and in pots. Give them moist, rich soil.

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Amethyst flower (Browallia hybrids)

If you love blue flowers, this annual is a must. Amethyst flower has star-shaped blooms of brilliant blue and sky blue, as well as violet and white; they nearly cover the 1- to 2-foot-tall plants. Put them in hanging baskets or containers, then make them really happy by displaying them in a location that gets warm shade or filtered sunlight. Leaves are small, roundish, and green.

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Begonia (Tuberous)

For sizzling color in pots and hanging baskets, it’s hard to beat these perennials—each blooms as flouncy and vibrant as a Mexican dancer’s skirt. Flowers come in every shade but blue. Hanging types bloom more profusely, but upright strains have larger flowers—you choose. These begonias grow best in filtered shade and rich soil; water them enough to keep the soil moist but not soggy, and mist regularly.

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Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides)

This perennial's brilliantly colored leaves range from ruby red and yellow to pink, orange, and blends. But for a lightly shaded patio, we’re partial to lime green hues like ‘Dappled Apple’, sunny yellow ‘Lemon Twist’, or brown and lime ‘Chocolate Drop’. Either one would look refreshing in an apple green glazed pot; they’re so striking, they can hold their own! Pinch the tips to encourage vigorous growth.

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Copper plant (Acalypha wilkesiana)

Bronze-green, red, and orange hues splash these long oval leaves like watercolors that have run. More colorful than many flowers, copper plant is hardy only to 40°, so it’s often used as an annual. But we grow it in a big caramel-colored pot that basks on a lath-covered patio in summer, then gets moved indoors for winter. The tender evergreen shrub has thrived in its 16-inch-diameter container for about three years now—pretty good for Menlo Park, California, where winter temperatures regularly dip into the 30s. It grows 18 to 36 inches tall.

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Dead Nettle (Lamium maculatum)

There’s nothing “dead” about this beauty; the leaves of its many varieties have a silvery sheen that nearly glows in shade. ‘Ann Greenaway’ has green leaves edged in yellow, with a silver stripe down the center, and pink flowers. ‘Beacon Silver’ has silvery gray leaves with green edges, and pink flowers. ‘White Nancy’ has silvery gray-green leaves with green edges, and white flowers. Spreading to 3 feet wide, this perennial is great in hanging baskets and as pot edging.

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Fancy-leafed caladium (Caladium bicolor)

Translucent as stained glass, caladium’s large arrow-shaped leaves on long stalks are banded or blotched with various combinations of red, rose, pink, white, silver, bronze, or green. Outside the tropics, grow these tender perennials in rich, well-drained soil in big pots to display on a shaded patio in summer. We love the combo pictured: The green and white caladium grows in a 6-inch plastic nursery pot nestled inside a big green pot to jazz up the striped amaryllis that lives there year round (but goes dormant in winter).

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Flowering maple (Abutilon hybrids)

Bell-shaped blooms of yellow, white, pink, orange, or red dangle in clusters among maple-like green leaves that are sometimes variegated with white. The evergreen shrub grows about 8 feet tall, but we love the dwarf varieties for pots and small spaces; coral salmon ‘Melon Sorbet’ grows just 18 to 36 inches tall. The white and yellow forms flower almost continuously. Give the plant part shade in the hottest climates.

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Garden hydrangea

For light shade, it’s tough to beat Hydrangea macrophylla. The shrub is easy to grow, needing little fussing beyond watering, occasional feeding, and light pruning once a year. Yet it pumps out big mophead flower clusters—in shades of pink, blue, and white—that can reach 10 or more inches across. For really large clusters, grow H. arborescens ‘Incrediball’, which has 12-inch heads that open lime green, turn snowy white, then age to pale green on plants to 10 feet tall.

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Geranium cranesbill

True geraniums—which make fluffy little mounds of foliage and small flowers in white or shades of pink or blue—thrive in the light shade of high trees. At Sunset headquarters, we grow G. x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’, which has white blooms with a pale pink blush in late spring and early summer, in a bed under a shapely oak (it doesn’t need much water). Other pretty choices include G. cinereum ‘Ballerina’ (pink flowers), ‘Brookside’ (blue flowers), and ‘Jolly Bee’ (blue flowers).

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‘Electric Lime’ heuchera is the perfect accent for a mostly green garden; its big maple-like leaves add a pop of bright lime that’s guaranteed to wake up darker green shrubbery. Cluster several plants at the front of a border for striking contrast. Or try ‘Southern Comfort’ (a warm caramel color, like its namesake) beside peachy colored impatiens. Heuchera takes sun only in coolest climates, and grows to 28 inches tall.

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Heart-shaped leaves on clumping plants 5 inches tall and 1 foot wide come in many beautiful colors. We especially love ‘Stoplight’ for its lime green leaves splashed with red, and the new ‘Sweet Tea’, which has orange caramel-colored leaves with huge cinnamon-hued stars in the center. Small spring flowers are a bonus. Grow this little perennial beauty in a shaded rock garden or as a groundcover in a woodland corner. It needs humus-rich, well-drained soil.

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Hosta hybrids

Hostas come in a virtual wardrobe of shapes, textures, and colors. Depending on variety, their leaves may be heart-shaped, round, oval, or lance-shaped; glossy or dull; smooth or quilted; blue, green, or yellow. We especially love the cool, bluish green ‘Sagae’ (pictured); it grows 2 feet tall, and makes a stunning accent in a blue-green glazed container. The perennial also sends up white flowers in late summer.

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Of all the impatiens out there, in a dizzying array of color choices, we’re partial to the New Guinea hybrids for their large leaves and 3-inch-wide flowers of pink, lavender, purple, red, and more. The vibrant orange-flowered New Guineas are positively sizzling in chocolate-brown containers. To edge shaded borders, go for the low- growing Busy Lizzie impatiens, which cover themselves in 2-inch-wide, five-petaled flowers in nearly every color but blue.

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Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’)

Gracefully arching leaves give this perennial grass the look of a cooling fountain. Green with long yellow stripes, the leaves turn chartreuse in dense shade; in full sun in cooler climates, they turn creamy pale yellow. Display a single plant in a pot, or plant in drifts at the front of a border to create a drapey edging.

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Meadow rue (Thalictrum rochebrunianum ‘Lavender Mist’)

Puffs of small lavender-blue flowers and lacy green leaves that resemble those of columbine make this perennial superb as an airy counterpoint among bolder plants; we love it beside ‘Star Gazer’ hydrangea. And its delicate tracery of leaves and flowers is especially effective against a backdrop of dark green foliage. Meadow rue thrives in the dappled shade of woodland gardens, and blooms in early summer.

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Mirror plant (Coprosma ‘Tequila Sunrise’)

Glossy, jewel-like foliage blends lots of yummy colors on this amazing tender evergreen shrub. New leaves open emerald green with gold edges, then gradually marble themselves with orange, gold, and pink. The plant is gorgeous all year, and grows in a pyramid shape to 5 feet tall, but can be sheared to any size; it makes a great hedge in part shade.

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Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyeranus)

Exotic any way you look at them, leaves of this soft-stemmed shrub are a gorgeous blend of purple and silver with sea green ribs; their undersides are bright purple. We grow Persian shield as a strapping accent in a large (18-inch) pot, along with Medusa ferns, fragrant, white-flowered bouvardia, and lamium. It grows 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide.

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Yesterday-today-and-tomorrow (Brunfelsia pauciflora ‘Floribunda’)

A quick-change color show is what you get from this aptly named plant. Blossoms turn from purple (“yesterday”) to lavender (“today”) to white (“tomorrow”). And all colors are usually present at the same time on this 10-foot-tall plant. In small spaces, you can keep it to 3 feet tall with pruning, or grow a dwarf form.