The 17 Best Perennials for Shade Gardens That Overflow with Color

astilbe perennials shade flowers
Photo: Tria Giovan

Shady or partly shady areas can seem like challenging places to grow plants, and they can be if you're trying to grow sun-loving perennials. But not all perennials need full sun to thrive. The foliage and flowers of the following shade perennials will fill the not-so-sunny areas of your garden with color year after year.

01 of 17

Bigroot Geranium

bigroot geranium flowers perennial Geranium macrorrhizum
David Speer

One of the toughest shade-tolerant plants, bigroot geranium doesn't mind heat or drought. And deer and rabbits typically pass them by in search of tastier morsels. Not to be confused with zonal geraniums that are grown as annuals, these colorful perennials put on a spring show with pink, purple, or white flowers; some varieties also offer outstanding fall color in their woodsy-scented foliage.

Growing Conditions: Part shade to full sun in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 2 feet tall

Zones: 4-8

Top Picks: 'Album' offers white flowers; 'Ingwersen's Variety' offers clear pink flowers; 'Variegatum' has purple-pink flowers and white-variegated leaves

Buy It: Geranium macrorrhizum 'Ingwersen's Variety' ($12, Bluestone Perennials)

02 of 17

Toad Lily

white toad lily perennials Tricyrtis
Peter Krumhardt

Add a touch of elegance to your shade garden with graceful toad lily. This easy-to-grow flowering shade perennial offers unique flowers that are often compared to orchids. Many are spotted with shades of purple or blue.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 2 feet tall

Zones: 4-9

Top Picks: 'White Towers' bears white flowers; 'Tojen' offers especially large lavender flowers

Buy It: Toad Lily ($29, Breck's)

03 of 17

Ajuga

ajuga perennials shade
Marty Baldwin

Grown mainly for its attractive leaves, ajuga also produces blue flowers in the spring. Select varieties offer dark purple or variegated foliage, or pink or white flowers. It makes a tough groundcover, staying low and spreading outward with creeping stems. In some regions, it can spread aggressively, so make sure to check if it's a problem where you live.

Growing Conditions: Full shade to full sun in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 6 inches tall

Zones: 3-9

Top Picks: 'Golden Glow' has creamy-yellow edges; 'Burgundy Glow' offers silvery-green leaves splashed with pink and burgundy; 'Chocolate Chip' offers smaller, purple-infused leaves

Buy It: Ajuga Live Plant ($3, Walmart)

04 of 17

Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart

pink old-fashioned bleeding heart Dicentra spectabilis
Peter Krumhardt

There's little wonder why old-fashioned bleeding heart is a favorite shade perennial. Its finely cut foliage looks almost fernlike, and in late spring and early summer, it produces pink or white heart-shape shade flowers that hang from elegant, arching stems. By midsummer, bleeding heart usually goes dormant and loses its foliage. Plant it with astilbe or hosta so you don't end up with a bare spot in your shade gardens.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 3 feet tall

Zones: 3-9

Top Picks: 'Pantaloons' has pure white flowers. 'Gold Heart' bears bright golden leaves and pink flowers

Buy It: Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart ($13, Breck's)

05 of 17

Hosta

hosta perennials shade plants
John Reed Forsman

Among the showiest and easiest-to-grow shade perennials, hostas come in a huge variety of sizes and shapes. Choose from miniatures that stay only a few inches tall or giants that sprawl 6 feet across or more. Look for leaves in shades of green, blue, white, chartreuse, and gold, with many cultivars boasting pretty variegation. Some hosta flowers are very fragrant, too.

Growing Conditions: Full shade to full sun (depending on variety) in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 2 feet tall (depending on variety)

Zones: 3-8

Top Picks: 'Blue Mouse Ears' offers silvery-blue leaves and stays 1 foot wide; 'Frances Williams' offers thick, blue-green leaves edged in chartreuse and grows 2 feet wide; 'Sum and Substance' offers chartreuse leaves and grows 6 feet wide

Buy It: Live Plant Hosta ($8, Walmart)

06 of 17

Lungwort

purple lungwort flowers perennials
David McDonald

Though it doesn't exactly have a poetic-sounding name, lungwort is an attractive shade plant. It earned its moniker from the silvery, lung-shape spots that dot the foliage of these flowering shade plants. The leaves look good all season long, but they make an especially pretty accent to the clusters of pink, white, or blue flowers in spring.

Test Garden Tip: Because its foliage is somewhat hairy, deer and rabbits typically leave lungwort alone.

Growing Conditions: Full shade to full sun in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 4-8

Top Picks: 'Opal' features ice-blue flowers; 'Trevi Fountain' features cobalt-blue blooms.

Buy It: Pulmonaria Raspberry Splash ($19, Bluestone Perennials)

07 of 17

Yellow Corydalis

yellow corydalis perennials shade plants
Lynn Karlin

This hardworking perennial takes the prize for being the longest bloomer in a shade garden. Enjoy the clusters of yellow flowers from late spring all the way to frost. It's not just the flowers of yellow corydalis that are beautiful; the gray-green leaves of these colorful shade plants are attractive as well. Deadhead the fading flowers if you don't want this plant to self-seed around your garden.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 5-8

Top Picks: Corydalis lutea is the easiest to grow and the longest blooming; white corydalis (Corydalis ochroleuca) also flowers over an extended period

Buy It: Corydalis Ferny Corydalis Cheilanthifolia Seeds ($4, Seed Corner)

08 of 17

Deadnettle

Lamium maculatum Purple Dragon
Rich Pomerantz

Starting in mid-spring, deadnettle produces clusters of pink, purple, or white flowers. This shade perennial blooms all summer, creating months of color. And even when it's not blooming, the silver-infused foliage of these flowering shade plants brightens shady corners.

Test Garden Tip: Keep deadnettle looking its best by keeping it moist. If it dries out too much, the leaves will develop brown edges.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 8 inches tall

Zones: 4-8

Top Picks: 'White Nancy' offers white flowers and silver foliage with a green edge; 'Beacon Silver' bears pink flowers and silvery leaves

Buy It: Spotted Dead Nettle ($12, Bluestone Perennials)

09 of 17

Barrenwort

epimedium perennial flowers for shade
Andy Lyons

An underused perennial that deserves more attention, barrenwort has it all when it comes to shade perennials. The groundcover blooms in spring in shades of red, orange, yellow, pink, purple, or white; it tolerates dry shade and it's deer- and rabbit-resistant. Some varieties are evergreen in mild-winter areas; others offer good fall color.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade where it tolerates dry spells, but does best with regular watering

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 5-9

Top Picks: 'Niveum' offers pure white flowers; 'Sulfureum' offers yellow blooms

Buy It: Epimedium g. 'Lilafee' (Barrenwort)

10 of 17

Brunnera

brunnera flowers
Peter Krumhardt

In spring, the sky blue shade flowers of Brunnera add welcome sparkle to shade gardens. When not in bloom, its large, robustly textured leaves continue to look pretty, especially if you grow a variegated variety. While the plant is often short-lived, it does tend to self-seed so you won't need to buy new plants.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 2 feet tall

Zones: 3-8

Top Picks: 'Hadspen Cream' offers green leaves broadly edged in creamy white; 'Jack Frost' has green leaves heavily overlaid with silver

Buy It: Brunnera 'Sea Heart' ($20, Park Seed)

11 of 17

Hellebore

hellebore perennial shade
Robert Cardillo

Also called Christmas rose, hellebore is one of the earliest bloomers of flowering shade plants. Look for its burgundy, pink, cream, green, or white shade flowers in late winter or early spring. Although it looks delicate, the Christmas rose is quite sturdy once it gets established, very drought-tolerant, and it's deer- and rabbit-resistant.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade where it tolerates dry spells, though it does best with regular moisture

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 4-8

Top Picks: The Heronswood Double strain offers frilly, petal-packed blooms in a wide range of colors; the Royal Heritage strain offers single blooms in a wide range of colors

Buy It: Hellebore Collection ($65, Breck's)

12 of 17

Astilbe

astilbe perennials shade flowers
Tria Giovan

With feathery flowers appearing in early summer, astilbe blooms in shades of burgundy, red, pink, lavender, and white. In addition to the attractive flower plumes, this shade plant has finely cut foliage, which in many varieties is flushed with bronze.

Growing Conditions: Part shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 3 feet tall (depending on variety)

Zones: 4-8

Top Picks: 'Deutschland' bears pure white flowers; 'Fanal' offers dark red plums and bronzy foliage; 'Sprite' is an award-winning selection with shell-pink blooms

Buy It: Astilbe Mixture Super Sak (from $28, Breck's)

13 of 17

Japanese Painted Fern

japanese painted fern perennials shade
Lynn Karlin

It's tough to imagine a lovelier shade perennial than Japanese painted fern. This beauty offers fronds liberally dappled with silver, burgundy, and green. Plus, it's a low-growing, slow-spreading plant for shady areas. Deer and rabbits usually leave it alone.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 5-8

Top Picks: 'Silver Falls' has especially metallic leaves; 'Burgundy Lace' has rich purple-red tones in the leaves

Buy It: Japanese Painted Fern ($26, White Flower Farm)

14 of 17

Wild Ginger

wild ginger perennials shade wide leaf
Justin Hancock

Hailing from the woodlands of North America, wild ginger is one of the toughest shade plants. It produces fuzzy, heart-shape leaves that look great from spring to fall. And it's rarely bothered by deer and rabbits. This slow grower eventually forms an impressive groundcover.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 6 inches tall

Zones: 2-8

Top Picks: Wild ginger is a lovely deciduous type; European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) offers shiny evergreen heart-shape leaves in Zones 4-8

Buy It: Wild Ginger Seeds ($4, High Country Gardens)

15 of 17

Japanese Forestgrass

japanese forestgrass perennial plants in shade
Peter Krumhardt

With graceful foliage that looks like a waterfall, Japanese forestgrass comes in varieties that have bright gold, yellow, or white variegation. In fall, the leaves of these colorful shade plants often pick up beautiful reddish tones.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 5-9

Top Picks: 'Aureola' bears bright yellow leaves with dark green edges; 'All Gold' has even brighter golden foliage

Buy It: All Gold Japanese Forest Grass ($30, The Home Depot)

16 of 17

Lilyturf

liriope purple flowers grass-like leaves
Dean Schoeppner

Loved for its grassy foliage and spikes of blue or white flowers in late summer, lilyturf also scores major props for being low on the menu for deer and rabbits. Plus it's practically a plant-and-forget-it garden resident, even when growing in dry shade.

Test Garden Tip: Lilyturf can be a fast, almost aggressive spreader when it's happy so plant it where it can be contained, such as along a concrete walkway.

Growing Conditions: Full shade to full sun, where it tolerates drought well, but does best with regular watering

Size: Up to 12 inches tall

Zones: 5-10

Top Picks: 'Majestic' offers narrower leaves and deep purple-blue flowers; 'Silver Dragon' offers boldly variegated foliage and violet-blue blooms

Buy It: Super Blue Lilyturf Liriope Grass Plant ($48, The Home Depot)

17 of 17

Fern-Leaf Bleeding Heart

fern leaf bleeding heart perennial shade
Peter Krumhardt

Unlike the old-fashioned bleeding heart, fern-leaf bleeding heart keeps its beautiful foliage all season long. These shade plants bloom on and off from spring to fall (if they get enough moisture during hot, dry periods), producing delicate clusters of pink, red, or white flowers.

Growing Conditions: Full to part shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil

Size: Up to 2 feet tall

Zones: 4-8

Top Picks: 'Bacchanal' offers dark red flowers; 'King of Hearts' offers rose-pink flowers and stays about 1 foot tall; 'Aurora' offers white blooms

Buy It: Reblooming Bleeding Heart Mixture ($21, Breck's)

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