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Painters Perennials for your Shade Garden: Part 2

Last week, we covered some of our favorite shade perennials for the front of the garden or to be used as borders or groundcovers. This week we will cover mid-height fillers and back of the garden statement plants. We still have some space in Dana's Talk and Tour this Sunday for those of you who'd like to dive a bit deeper into the world of shade gardening!

Medium Height Fillers (Meat of the Garden)


Perennial (z3-9), part sun-part shade, most varieties range from 1-2' tall and wide

Robust yet ethereal bloom spikes occur in late spring through mid summer depending on variety and weather

Bloom colors range from white to pale pink to vermillion to purple, and flower textures vary from dense, erect tufts to open, feathery, and cascading - excellent cut flowers!

Attractive foliage can range from glossy dark green to bronze to rich dark brown

Prefers refers rich, moist soil, but is tolerant of our native soils and good for novice gardeners

When planted en masse, makes a great taller groundcover


Perennial (z3-9), part-full shade in general, though some are bred for more sun tolerance

Leaf sizes range from 2" long to over a foot, and most varieties feature mid-summer bloom spikes of white or purple, many quite fragrant.

The size of the plant can range drastically, but most range from 1-2.5’ tall and 1.5x3.5’ wide. 

While hostas can handle our native soils, they do best in richer, more fertile soils and with good drainage - so for best performance and size, you definitely want to amend your soil.

Hostas are often beloved by both deer and slugs - we carry many cultivars that are slug resistant, but deer are another story (we recommend frequent applications of Green Screen around your beds). We carry a range of leave colors, shapes, and sizes along with variation in the total plant size. Some of our favorites include:

Big Daddy (24x36") - Often described as the best blue hosta, and also one of the larger ones. The foliage emerges blue-green, and matures to a chalky blue with thick seersuckered leaves that are deeply cupped. Exhibits good slug resistance.

Guacamole (22x38") - Very large leaves are a rich apple green with avocado colored margins, though summers and more sun exposure can turn them more gold green. Very fragrant lavender blooms, a faster grower than many, and good sun tolerance.

Some unique options we have this year include: Captains Adventure (a true collector’s hosta with very unusual leaf variegation), Golden Tiara (a different habit from most - profuse, small golden variegated leaves form a dense border), & Blue Mouse Ears (tiny, adorable, rich blue-green).

Autumn Fern, Dryopteris erythrosora

Perennial (z5-8) part-full shade, 1-2' tall and wide

One of the most colorful ferns of its genus; showy, semi-evergreen fronds emerge coppery pink-orange and mature to glossy green, semi-evergreen in our winters

Prized for its adaptability and beauty; low maintenance, deer and rabbit resistant

Thrives in consistently moist soil; spreads by rhizomes over time

Lady Fern - We love the straight species as well as the showier nativar 'Limelight'. The red stems on the native make it easy to identify in our woods, and Limelight features stunning gold-green fronds that contrast with a deep purple-red stem.

Eared Lady Fern

Athyrium otophorum 'Limelight'

Perennial (z5-9) full-part shade, 1-2' tall and wide

Exquisite fronds emerge chartreuse and mature to green, creating a two-toned effect

May stay evergreen in mild winters; deer resistant

Thrives in consistently moist to wet soil; outstanding specimen for container combos or woodland gardens

Japanese Painted Fern - Regal Red & Godzilla are favorites, but all cultivars are simply lovely!

Athyrium 'Godzilla'

Perennial (z5-8) part-full shade, 3' tall, 3-6' wide

Silvery fronds with green highlights and dark purple stems, forms a massive, arching clump

Thrives in rich, moist soil

Low maintenance; deer and rabbit resistant

Maidenhair Ferns

A lot of variation in Maidenhairs - from the Mairis' Northern Maidenhair on the left to the 5-Finger Maidenhair (more commonly seen here in WNC) to the right. All feature stunning, delicate foliage. Northern Maidenhair cultivars have foliage that tends to persist from late spring through fall if given proper sun protection, but the 5-Finger Maidenhair is most showy in late spring, often looking a little stressed by later summer. Both die back completely and winter and often worry gardeners due to how late they may emerge in spring.

Northern Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum pedatum

NATIVE (z3-8), full part shade, 18-24 tall, 12-18 wide

Finely cut graceful leaves on wiry dark stems

Young fiddleheads emerge pink in spring

Tiarella, Tiarella cordifolia (Foamflower) NATIVE perennial (z4-9) part-full shade, 9-12'' tall, 1-2' wide

Thrives in moist, rich, well-drained soil

Dainty white-pink blooms in early spring

Such a beautiful native - blooming all over right now in our woods! Cultivars may have more colorful or patterned leaves, or richer pink blooms.

Heuchera - our favorite native is Dale's Strain, and our favorite hybrids include Obsidian (the richest black), Midnight Rose, Forever Purple, Forever Red, Delta Dawn and Southern Comfort. When planted en masse, they can make a lovely groundcover or border - also great in shade combo pots!

Heuchera americana 'Dale's Strain' (Coral Bells)

NATIVAR perennial (z3-8) part-full shade, 1-2' tall and wide

Cultivar originating in North Carolina, selected for its exceptional silver-blue highlights

Excellent semi-evergreen, drought-tolerant groundcover for dry shade; panicles of tiny pink-white flowers bloom in spring

Aka coral bells or alumroot

Heucherella - 'Catching Fire' is a favorite for it's vivid contrast! Heucherella is a cross between Heuchera and Tiarella, and features the leaf shape of a Tiarella with richer colors of the Heuchera. Foliage often cascades, making a lovely option for combo pots or garden edges.

Spiderwort, Tradescantia andersoniana 'Sweet Kate'

Sweet Kate is a favorite for the chartreuse foliage that adds a pop of bright color to your shady areas, and the royal blue blooms contrast beautifully

Perennial (z4-9) full-part sun, 12-18'' tall and wide

Unique yellow-chartreuse foliage, best color in full sun

Vibrant purple-blue flowers spring to summer

Tolerates wet, boggy soil

Turtlehead - We love both the white and pink selections - in nature, you'll see a variation of white to rich pink. A really unique bloom and a tough plant as long as it gets moist soil and protection from too much sun.

Cheloni lyonii 'Hot Lips'

NATIVAR perennial (z3-8) part shade, 2' tall and wide

Spikes of rich rosy-pink blooms late summer (pinker than above photo)

Flower has an unusual shape, resembling the head of a snapping turtle

Thrives in moist woodlands and boggy, wet soil

Deer resistant

Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum

NATIVE perennial (z3-8) full-part sun, 4-6' tall, 3-4' wide

Fluffy white flowers late summer

Thrives in constantly moist soil

If you are lucky enough to have a spot these in the woods in late summer, they often are quite profuse - looking like lovely, ethereal white tufts throughout the forest.

Snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum

We especially enjoy the "Chocolate" nativar for the bronze-green foliage as it contrasts nicely with the white blooms.

NATIVE to WNC, part/full shade, 3-4' tall, 2-3' wide

Mounds of green or bronze-green (Chocolate) leaves, puffy clusters of white fall flowers

Attractive to butterflies and bees

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis

Our favorite is the straight species, but we also like 'Black Truffle' and 'Starship Rose' for richly contrasting foliage and brilliant bloom colors.

NATIVE perennial (z3-8) part sun-part shade, 2-4' tall, 1' wide

Brilliant red flower spikes late summer; loved by pollinators

Clumping habit; suited to wet sites

Indian Pink, Spigelia marilandica

NATIVE perennial (z5-9) part-full shade, 1-2' tall and wide

Striking red-and-yellow starburst blooms late spring; dormant in winter

Prefers rich, moist soil; tolerates wet conditions


Tractor Seat Plant aka Leopard Plant

The large, round, intensely glossy leaves are simply beautiful in the landscape or in containers, and remain evergreen through all but the harshest winters. Also unique because they send up bright yellow bloom spikes in December!

Farfugium japonicum var. giganteum

Tender perennial (z7-10) part-full shade, 1-2' tall and wide

Large (18''), thick, glossy green leaves resemble tractor seats

Tall (4') stalks of bright yellow daisy-like flowers in fall

Prefers rich, consistently moist soil and protection from strong winds

Hardy Geranium (part sun) - We especially love Bevan's and Rozanne for groundcovers and front of borders!

Geranium 'Rozanne'

Perennial (z4-8) full-part sun, 15-20 tall and wide

Masses of glowing, violet-blue flowers bloom all season long

Contained, sprawling habit

Considered by many to be, of all hardy geraniums, simply the best

Geranium macrorrhizum 'Bevan's Variety' (Bigroot Geranium)

Perennial (z3-8) full-part sun, 10-12'' tall, 18-24'' wide

Abundant clusters of pink-purple flowers late spring through summer

Semi-evergreen, fragrant, light green foliage takes on purples tones in fall

Effective at choking out weeds; ideal attractive groundcover

Bluebells, Mertensia virginica (Virginia Bluebells)

NATIVE perennial (z3-8) part-full shade, 1-2' tall and wide

Pink flower buds develop into trumpet-shaped blue flowers early spring

Smooth, oval, blue-green foliage

One of the most magical spring bloomers there is!

Bleeding Heart - We typically carry a few different species and selections, including the native Dutchman's Breeches. Emerging foliage is very tender - mark to avoid stepping on it, and cover if fear of a hard frost. The foliage as well as the blooms are just beautiful.

Dicentra 'Amore™ Titanium'

Perennial (z5-9) part-full shade, 9'' tall, 12-18'' wide

Vigorous, heat-resistant cultivar with an exceptionally long bloom time

Pure white flowers appear in spring and last all through summer

Attractive, fine-textured, smoky blue-green foliage

Thrives in moist, well-drained soil

Spring and Fall Blooming Anemones

Forming well behaved clumps, all anemones sport delicate, lovely blooms ranging from white to deep pink, single or double. Some of our favorites include A. sylvestris and Wild Swan.

Japanese Anemone 'Wild Swan'

Perennial (z4-8) part shade, 1-2' tall and wide

Award-winning variety with large, pure white flowers, backed with lavender-blue; blooms from spring to frost

Easy care and well-behaved; does not aggressively spread

Thrives in rich, moist, well-drained soil; deer and rabbit resistant

Toad Lily Tricyrtis formosana 'Seiryu', 'Samurai,' 'Gilt Edge'

Pretty foliage is often spotted and provides a nice filler in the garden. Blooms are simply show-stopping in late summer and fall, resembling orchids and simply covering the plant. Daytime moths will often be seen pollinating them.

Tricyrtis formosana 'Samurai'

Perennial (z5-9) full-part shade, 12-18'' tall and wide

Sensational, petite, purple-pink flowers late summer to fall; one of the few varieties with variegated leaves

Soil must not be allowed to dry out; can form colonies over time

A Painters favorite!

Obedient Plant Physostegia virginiana 

A lovely taller native for moist areas - tolerant of more sun than most on this list. The flowers are fun to manipulate (kids love them!), and are excellent for pollinators. Will naturalize if happy, so good to fill a larger moist area. We often carry both a white and a pink nativar - 'Crystal Peak White' and 'Vivid'.

Physostegia 'Vivid'

NATIVE perennial (z3-9) full-part sun, 3-4' tall, 2-3' wide

Spikes of pink blooms summer to fall, brilliant for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds; tolerant of wet soil

Great Solomon's Seal Polygonatum commutatum, Common Solmon's Seal Polygonatum

multiflorum, & Variegated Solmon's Seal Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum

All three of these are simply lovely and will spread and naturalize in part shade. Beautiful delicate blooms, and lush foliage.

Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum

NATIVE perennial (z3-8) part-full shade, 3-7' tall, 3-4' wide

Green-white spring blooms; blue-black fall berries

Graceful, arching; thrives in moist soil

Taller/back of garden (Statement Plants)

Aralia Aralia cordata 'Sun King'

Perennial (z3-9) part sun-full shade, 3-6' tall and wide

Finely toothed, arching foliage shines with a bright yellow-green hue

Clusters of tiny white flowers in summer; purple berries feed birds in fall

Aka Japanese spikenard

An impressive plant at maturity, and incredible bright color for darker garden spaces!

Black Cohosh Actaea racemosa & Bugbane Actaea simplex - SS, 'Chocoholic' & 'Pink Spike'

Actaea 'Pink Spike'

Perennial (z4-8) part-full shade (z3-9) 4-5' tall, 2-3' wide

Tall spikes of pink-white, fragrant flowers late summer to fall

Flowers feed the pollinators; following seeds feed the birds

Chocolate-purple, finely textured foliage; fabulous accent for shade

A taller showpiece plant - cultivars with darker foliage and colored blooms are particularly impactful, but the towering bloom spikes are impressive regardless of the selection!

Goats Beard Aruncus dioicus - SS or hybrid 'Sparkles'

NATIVE perennial (z3-7) full-part shade, 4-6' tall, 4' wide

Rich green, elegant foliage

Plumes of wispy, creamy white flowers in summer

The straight species gets very tall and serves as a great backdrop, whereas many cultivars are more of a medium height. The giant feathery blooms will not disappoint!

Meadow Rue - We love the straight species, but the cultivar "My Little Favorite" is great for those looking for a more compact option. Delicate foliage resembles a Maidenhair Fern, and puffs of pink blooms are equally magical! Be warned that if skin brushes the plant, you may have irritation when combined with sun exposure. Best to plant with gloves and sleeves and leave alone once established.

Meadow Rue, Thalictrum aquilegifolium

Perennial, light shade, 24-36 tall, 12 wide

Bluish green foliage resembles Columbine

Rosy lilac clouds of flowers in spring

Delicate and airy

Ostrich Fern Matteuccia struthiopteris

NATIVE perennial (z3-7) part-full shade, 2-5' tall, 3-4' wide

Tall, majestic fronds resemble ostrich feathers; thrives in rich soil with constant moisture. Will naturalize with time, creating a mass of tall, erect, fabulous plumes!

American Royal Fern Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis

NATIVE (z3-9) full-part shade, 3-5' tall, 2-3' wide

Deep green fronds with red stems

Copper-brown inflorescences produce spores

An unusual looking fern, typically forming large clumps that become strong statements in back of gardens or as focal points.

Cinnamon Fern Osmundastrum cinnamomeum

NATIVE perennial (z4-9) part-full shade, 2-4' tall and wide

Arching green fronds; brown spore-bearing stalks (fertile fronds) are well known for their height and beauty

Thrives in moist, boggy soils

Northern Sea Oats Chasmanthium latifolium

NATIVE perennial grass (z5-9) full sun-part shade, 2-3' tall and wide

Clump-forming, good for naturalizing and stabilization - may reseed aggressively so best planted where you do't mind some naturalization. Great to hold steep banks in place. Dangling oat-like seed heads in fall and winter provide beauty and lovely sounds as wind blows through them.

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