Foliage in Shade

Plants that naturally grow in woodlands often flower very early in the year before the woodland canopy closes and light levels fall. For those of us that grow such plants this can mean a very short season of interest. However, by carefully choosing plants with dramatic and contrasting foliage, the naturalistic woodland garden can continue to look good throughout the year. Here are nine foliage ideas from my woodland garden beds.

Woodrush (Luzula sylvatica)
One of our showiest native sedges. It forms thick evergreen tufts of foliage, up to 18 in (45cm) across, which emerge in bromeliad-like whorls.  Give it a shady damp spot, and it will reward you with lush strap like leaves throughout the year. Foliage interest: all year round.

Brunnera Macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
Beautiful, rough, heart shaped leaves with dramatic green-veining on a silver background, emerge in spring along with their tiny blue forget-me-not like flowers. Once established Brunnera tolerates fairly dry shade, and clumps up nicely. Not at all invasive. Foliage interest: spring – autumn.

Iris sibirica
The narrow vertical lines of this iris create a distinct pattern, contrasting well with rounded or fern-like leaves. They emerge quite late in spring and push their way up from among lower and earlier plants. They grow vertically at first to 14in (35cm), before becoming more lax and arching. Foliage interest: late spring-autumn. The dead winter leaves are initially brown, and may be of interest in some situations.

Lungwort (pulmonaria longifolia)
 These rough spear like leaves are spattered with irregular silver spots. In the summer each leaf is 8in long (20cm) together forming bold clumps – quite eye-catching if given the space to develop. However, when they first emerge in spring the leaves are smaller and narrower, growing along emerging flower stalks that carry their purple and blue flowers so beloved by bumblebees.  Foliage interest: spring – autumn.

Barrenwort (Epimedium versicolor ‘sulphureum’)
The shield-shaped leaves, 2 to 3 in long (5-7cm) are quite distinct, especially with their red and green veining. Although they are evergreen, it is often best to cut them down in late winter so that when their flowers emerge in spring they are better seen. Fresh new foliage appears soon after. Foliage interest: late spring – late winter.

European ginger (Asarum europaeum)
European ginger has glossy, leathery kidney-shaped leaves, 2 to 4 in across (5-10cm). They spread slowly forming evergreen mats, with a hint of ivy about their character, but more controllable. Some say slugs can wreck them but I’ve never had a problem. Foliage interest: all year round.

Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata)
Not a fern, but a perennial umbellifer with bright green leaves, repeatedly dissected into fractal leaflets. The foliage emerges from the ground in mid-spring in an extraordinary unfurling, quickly expanding to create airy clumps 2ft (60cm) across. Being a culinary herb with an aniseed flavour, its leaves are useful as well as decorative. Foliage interest: late spring – autumn.

Variegated ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegata’)
Striking cream variegation transforms this common invasive weed into a thing of beauty. To control its wandering nature grow it in a pot. When it starts to flower cut it back hard and it will regrow fresh foliage in a matter of weeks. As long as it does not dry out completely it is tough and easy. Foliage interest: spring – autumn.

White foxglove (Digitalis purpurea ‘Alba’)
The bold clumps of this biennial have softly felted foliage – wild but not coarse. In second year the clumps swell before pushing upwards to flower. The white variation (alba), has pure green leaf stems, unlike the more common purple foxglove which has hints of its flower colour suffused through the stems. Foliage interest: all year round, but best in spring.

2 thoughts on “Foliage in Shade”

  1. This is great information! I have a small woodland area that I have struggled to plant and find plants that will survive. I want to use natives as best I can and no chemicals. I really appreciate you keeping such great notes on your progress and I realize I have to do this too.


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