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Juli Sarris: Colorado State University Extension: Some perennials have it made in the shade

Jun 07, 2023

It's that time of year again, when gardeners flock to the local garden centers for new plants to spruce up their yards.

There are many great plants to choose from that will do well in Colorado, but unfortunately, most of them require sun. What can be done for our shady areas? Plenty!

Shade-loving perennials, just like their sun-loving cousins, will return every year, bigger and better than the previous year. Some have a clumping shape, with the clumps growing larger every year, while others will spread through seed or underground roots. Some are small and dainty; others are a little more showy, but all of them will provide foliage and flowers to brighten the shady spots in your yards.

Here are some suggestions for shade-lovers that are also low-water plants:

Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum): This fragrant little ground cover does great under a tree or next to a fence. It will spread a little bit every year by sending roots underground. Small white flowers appear in the spring and smell heavenly.

Columbine (aquilegia): Our state flower comes in a variety of colors and heights, and greatly prefers shade over sun. They will spread through seeds, so you may find them popping up the following year where you least expect them. An exception to the shade-loving nature of the columbine is Plant Select's Denver Gold variety, which loves the sun. Their Remembrance variety thrives in partial sun.

Coral bells (heuchera): This perennial is a little bigger and showier than others, sending up spikes of flowers in the late spring and leaving behind lovely, lush foliage once the flowers are spent. Coral bells also attract hummingbirds and butterflies. For added interest, look for varieties like Plant Select's Snow Angel coral bells with variegated and varied foliage.

Hummingbird trumpet (zauschneria garrettii): This low-growing ground cover blooms in summer with bright orange trumpet flowers that are very attractive to hummingbirds. It spreads through underground roots and is ideal for covering slopes.

Creeping mahonia (mahonia repens): This lovely ground cover (sometimes called Oregon grape holly) is evergreen and at a foot high is a little bigger than some of the other shade perennials. Small yellow flowers appear in the spring and are very attractive to bees.

Hostas: Many people ask Master Gardeners about these large-leafed perennials, which come in a variety of sizes, with foliage ranging in color from lemon-green to deep blue. Some varieties are variegated; some are not. They send up spikes of white or purple flowers during summer. Unfortunately, while they might love shade, they are not xeric, so plant them near your house for easy watering.

Happy shady gardening.

For more information on this and other topics, visit or contact your local CSU Extension Office.

Juli Sarris is a Colorado State University Extension Colorado Master Gardener in Boulder County.

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Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum): Columbine (aquilegia): Coral bells (heuchera): Hummingbird trumpet (zauschneria garrettii): Creeping mahonia (mahonia repens): Hostas: Follow Us