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Plants That Tolerate Dry Shade

Discover which plants and flowers can still thrive in dry, shady areas of your yard.

The garden beneath your large shade trees probably won't be your best or brightest. But don't give up. In her wisdom, Mother Nature has created a few sturdy plants that will tolerate the rigors of dry shade.

Dry shade results when the canopy from overhanging trees prevents rain from reaching the ground. Tree roots make it even tougher for understory plants to compete — a classic David-Goliath struggle. In this instance, Goliath usually prevails.

Still, if the canopy is deciduous in nature, sunshine and rain reach the ground in early spring before the leaves emerge, and again in autumn after they fall.

If that's the "hand," bulbs are the "glove."

Their timing is impeccable, and certainly no coincidence. Snowdrops, winter aconites and glory-of-the-snow come first, followed by miniature daffodils, wood anemones and squills. In a race for light and moisture, these tiny bulbs bloom early, store a bit of food for next year, then retreat below ground as the mighty trees awake.

Spring wildflowers such as bloodroot, bluebells and trout lilies follow a similar schedule, going dormant after the trees leaf out.

Spring is not the gardener's real challenge, however. That comes later, during summer and fall. It's only when resources become scarcer and shade trees flex their muscles that gardeners should assess the true success of their plantings.

Still standing in my garden after many challenging seasons are tough shrubs like black jetbead (Rhodotypos scandens), Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), southern bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) and Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica). Some of them were here when we arrived, others we acquired.

Over the years, we propagated, transplanted, pruned and encouraged those shrubs that made it, and learned from those that didn't.

Gone are the fussy Rhododendrons and azaleas. Dead or moved to more hospitable zones are sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) and bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica). Each has a niche, but dry shade wasn't it.

I admire the survivors, more for their stamina than for their singular beauty, though the jetbead's white flowers are lovely and the bright yellow blossoms of kerria are cheerful in spring.

Carolina allspice is an acquired taste, with sultry dark-chocolate-maroon blossoms flowed by interesting seedpods in fall. Pair it with Japanese painted fern — which, along with Christmas fern, is among the most drought-tolerant of this feathery clan — to pick up the maroon-and-silver highlights of the fronds.

Other shrubs I could have chosen — and still might, for we have lots of dry shade beds left to fill — include blackhaw viburnum (V. prunifolium), already a denizen of these dry woods, maple-leaf viburnum (V. acerifolium), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.) and wild hydrangea (H. arborescens).

There are plenty of suitable perennials and groundcovers that can be used to supplement spring bulbs and wildflowers. Add a spot of color wherever you can, but rely on foliage and texture for summer interest. That way you won't be disappointed that your dry shade bed isn't ablaze with blooms.

Hostas are the workhorse of the dry shade garden. Mix them with ferns for contrast. In addition to the two varieties mentioned earlier, holly fern and marginal wood fern are among the most tolerant of dry shade.

Epimedium, once a connoisseur's plant, is now available in many forms. One of the best is Epimedium x perralchicum 'Frohnleiten,' a vigorous groundcover — who cares in dry shade? — with evergreen foliage and lemon-yellow blooms in early spring.

Brunnera will add a touch of forget-me-not blue, while Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), yellow lungwort (Symphytum grandiflorum), lily-of-the-valley and hardy begonia (B. grandis) can be counted on for a bit of color as well.

Strictly for their gorgeous leaves, add patches of wild ginger and Robb's wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Robbiae').

You're really serious about solving the dry-shade dilemma when you start collecting plants like Saruma (S. henryi), native coral bells (Heuchera Americana) and variegated sedge (Carex siderosticha 'Island Brocade').

All the plants mentioned will grow better in soil that's amended with compost or sphagnum peat moss. Poke around between the large tree roots to see if there aren't pockets of soil that can be improved. Just be careful not to cover existing roots with too much new soil, or they may suffocate.

(Lindsay Bond Totten, a horticulturist, writes about gardening for Scripps Howard News Service.)

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