21 Stunning Perennial Ground Cover Plants That Thrive in the Shade

These beautiful compact shade plants can be used as perennial ground cover which will add interest to your garden while helping to keep the weeds down.

I love growing these compact perennial plants under shade loving shrubs and backyard trees.

best shade plants

Perennial Ground Cover Plants For Shade

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Compact perennial plants that can be planted under taller plants add interesting layers to your garden and help to keep the weeds down.

Although there are some perennial ground cover plants that bloom brilliantly in the shade, many rely more on foliage and color variations rather than flowers to create interest.

I find that dense planting of shade tolerant perennials requires very little maintenance and minimal weeding, as long as they are adequately watered. I also amend the soil with compost and triple mix prior to planting and use a thick layer of mulch to retain moisture and restore nutrients.

Keep reading to see some of my favorite compact shade perennials that grow to be less than 18” high, and are excellent ground covers.

Want to find some taller plants that will grow in the shade? Click here to see our article on Bushes To Plant Under Trees.

Hellebore (Lenten Rose or Christmas Rose)

Hellebores make a great addition to the shade border
Hellebores make a great addition to the shade border

Bloom time: Early Spring to Summer

Zones: 4 – 9

Hellebore is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring, earning it the nickname ‘Christmas rose’. But even though it starts early, it can continue to blossom all summer.

White Hellebore
White Hellebore

The foliage is evergreen and low growing–which makes it a perfect plant for the front of a shady border.

Picotee Hellebore
Picotee Hellebore

The blooms range in color from cream, light green, speckled pink or burgundy to glorious double pink or white in the hybrid ‘Ellen’ series.

The only maintenance I do, is to tidy the appearance by removing any dead leaves.

15 Stunning Perennials That Thrive in the Shade | This list of easy to grow shade perennials is perfect for ground covers under bushes or trees in your garden.
Double Hellebore

They have become very popular, which means new varieties are coming out all the time, like these ones with double flowers.

Purple Hellebore
Purple Hellebore

Or these purple ones.

Find more information about growing Hellebores HERE.

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Virginia Bluebells
Virginia Bluebells

Bloom time: Early Spring to Summer

Zones: 3 – 8

Virginia Blue Bells is a lovely native plant, commonly referred to as Virginia cowslip, which produces bell shaped flowers that start out pink and mature to lavender blue.

Virginia Bluebells with Hellebore
Virginia Bluebells with Hellebore

It goes completely dormant after blooming in the spring, which gives me an opportunity to double plant with Japanese painted fern (another one of our perennial ground cover plants for shade).

15 Stunning Perennials That Thrive in the Shade | This list of easy to grow shade perennials is perfect for ground covers under bushes or trees in your garden.
Virginia blue bells with ferns, hostas and hellebores

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’

Brunnera Macrophyla 'Jack Frost'
Brunnera Macrophyla ‘Jack Frost’

Bloom time: Spring

Zones: 3 – 8

‘Jack Frost’ Brunnera has gorgeous large, variegated, silver heart-shaped leaves, and sports dainty blue flowers in the spring.

Brunnera with blue flowers

Brunnera By A. Barra (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If it is kept consistently moist, it rewards with a lovely mounded plant that fairly glows in the shaded environment.

Leave the foliage to protect the crown over winter and trim it back in the spring.

Columbine (Aquilegia)

Blue Columbine
Blue Columbine

Bloom Time: Spring

Zones: 3 – 9

Columbines have pretty flowers that come in many different colors above lacy foliage and are just an all-around pretty plant.

Columbine

Columbine By Ulf Eliasson (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

They do tend to self-seed (although not too aggressively) so you may find them growing up in places where you didn’t expect them. But I like them so much I usually just let them grown where they want to!

Hosta

Hostas along path
Hostas along path

Bloom Time: Summer

Zones: 3 – 9

Hosta is an old standby perennial ground cover that now is available in a variety of variations, leaf and plant size.

Lime green Hosta
Lime green Hosta

I like to put those varieties that have cream, white, or lime green leaves in the darkest spots so that they pop, particularly at night.

Variegated Hosta
Variegated Hosta

I have a particular fondness for the tough, leathery or waxy leaved hostas because they repel slugs and maintain neat mounds.

Hosta with mauve flowers in the perennial shade garden

 

Most hostas bloom mauve or white in summer.

Hostas surrounding a statue
Hostas surrounding a statue

Dwarf Astilbe

Astilbe with pink blooms
Astilbe with pink blooms

Bloom time: Summer

Zones: 4 – 8

Astilbe’s fern like leaves and delicate blooms add interest to any shady spot.

Astilbe under a Japanese Maple
Astilbe under a Japanese Maple

Astilbe comes in a variety of colors to match your color scheme.

It will also grow in a variety of light conditions, so be sure to read the growers tag and choose those varieties identified as preferring shady conditions.

Also, pay attention to the height of the plant. There are taller and shorter varieties so pick the ones that are most appropriate for your setting.

Hydrangea

Hydrangea Macrophylla
Hydrangea Macrophylla

Bloom time: Summer

Zones: 4 – 9

There are now many Dwarf hydrangeas that can be included in the shade garden.

Technically they are bushes but I love them so much that I feel compelled to mention them here.

Cityline Hydrangea
Cityline Hydrangea

The Cityline series is bred for compactness.

Pink Lacecap Hydrangea
Pink Lacecap Hydrangea

The color of the blooms of most hydrangeas depends upon the acidity (blue) or alkalinity (pink) of the soil.

Hydrangea Macrophylia 'Pistachio'
Hydrangea Macrophylia ‘Pistachio’

I particularly like Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Pistachio’ because it is a dwarf plant with different colors than you normally see in Hydrangeas (red blooms with lime green centers), and the color is unaffected by soil PH.

Hydrangea bushes typically bloom all summer and into the fall.

Note: There are a few different varieties of Hydrangea with different sunlight requirements, so make sure you are getting one that is meant to grow in the shade.  Click HERE to get more information on Hydrangeas.

Ground Cover Cranesbill (Geranium macrorrhizum)

Shade Perennial Ground Cover Cranesbill ©Manfred Ruckszio - stock.adobe.com
©Manfred Ruckszio – stock.adobe.com

Zones: 3 to 8
Bloom Time: Late spring / early summer

There are hardy geraniums for most garden situations, yes, even as a ground cover for dappled and full shade.

Cranesbill is extremely easy to grow but needs well drained soil.

Geranium macrorrhizum is a drought-tolerant and shade-tolerant perennial with semi-evergreen, fragrant leaves.

Abundant flowers cover the mounding foliage in late spring. And if cut back hard after the first flush of blooms, it can bloom all summer and into fall.

They attract butterflies and repel deer and rabbits.

The foliage turns color in the fall which extends its interest in the garden.

Trillium

Trilliums growing through ground cover
Trilliums growing through ground cover

Bloom Time: Spring

Zones: 4 – 9

I like to plant Trilliums under rhododendrons and evergreens to enjoy the distinctive white or red blooms. Since this native plant likes rich acid soil, it is very happy being situated with these other acid-loving plants.

It is a little particular about being disturbed after it has been planted so try to plant it in its forever home right from the beginning. If the foliage or blossom is broken the plant will not bloom for two years and may even die.

The ground covered in trilliums ©ehrlif - stock.adobe.com
©ehrlif – stock.adobe.com

Although it spreads by rhizomes (and will naturalize), it is not at all invasive and co-exists easily with other spring plants.

Once the weather starts to get warmer, Trilliums go completely dormant. You might want to mark their location so that you don’t accidentally dig them up.

White trillium
White trillium

Trillium is the official flower of the Canadian province of Ontario and the State of Ohio.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra)

Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart By Wuzur (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Bloom Time: Spring

Zones: 3 – 9

Bleeding heart is another one of the spring blooming low growing perennials that goes dormant in the summer.

But the blooms are so beautiful that it’s definitely worth having in your shade perennial border.

Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum)

Ferns and Columbine
Ferns and Columbine

Foliage Only

Zones: 4 – 9

Japanese painted ferns are a boon to garden designers. With their blue green leaves, burgundy variations, and compact growth habit they are extremely interesting.

Japanese Painted Fern 'Pictum'
Japanese Painted Fern ‘Pictum’

Variation “pictum” has red stems and pewter colored leaves that reflect light.

Japanese Painted Fern 'Ghost'
Japanese Painted Fern ‘Ghost’

Whereas ‘ghost’ has whitish green fronds that brighten up a dark space.

Click HERE for more fern varieties that will grow in the shade.

European Ginger (Asarum europaeum)

European Ginger
European Ginger

Bloom Time: Spring

Zones: 2 – 9

Ginger is perfect for ground cover under a bush or grown among rocks. The European variety has attractive round shiny leaves and grows much slower than North American wild ginger.

Although it blooms in the spring, the blooms are insignificant and most gardeners plant it for its beautiful foliage.

Golden Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’)

Golden Japanese Forest Grass
Golden Japanese Forest Grass

Foliage Only

Zones: 5 – 8

Glowing with strands of gold that are banded in green, Japanese forest grass drapes gracefully over rock borders or edges of walls. Its brightly colored leaves really stand out in the shade.

Japanese Forest Grass with Hostas
Japanese Forest Grass with Hostas

Japanese forest grass is a low maintenance bright edging that flutters in the breeze.

Japanese Forest Grass

Coral Bells (Heuchera)

Coral Bells with dark leaves and white flowers
Coral Bells with dark leaves and white flowers

Bloom time: Spring

Zones: 4 – 9

Commonly called coral bells, Heuchera foliage provides great color in the shade garden. The leaves come in a range of hues from almost black, dark purple, chartreuse, peach and orange and have an interesting lobed shape.

It does not like to be planted too deep, so set the crown at ground level.

Heuchera planted with Lamium in a perennial shade border

This plant does have insignificant little flowers, but it is mainly grown for its beautiful foliage, like these yellow and orange varieties grown with Lamium in the middle.

It was named Plant of the Year in 2012.

Woodland or Alpine Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

Woodland strawberry ©Luidmila Spot - stock.adobe.com
©Luidmila Spot – stock.adobe.com

Bloom time: Spring and repeat all summer

Zones: 3 – 10

Alpine strawberry is native to North America where it grows on the edges of woody areas allowing it to get a few hours of sun.

These plants are small, easy to grow and produce white flowers followed by small aromatic edible fruit all summer.

If propagating from seed, start the seed in flats indoors, progress to pots, then harden off before planting into the garden.

Roots are shallow so they need to be kept well mulched.

Ground Covers To Plant With Caution

Shady garden border with Hostas, Periwinkle, Lamium, Ferns and Pachysandra

Below are a few classic ground cover plants that I did not include in my original article because they can be invasive.

However, after seeing them used very effectively at the Proven Winners Garden tour on Mackinac island last August, I am amending the list. The garden above has periwinkle, lamium and pachysandra all used in one garden bed!

Mackinac Island is in Zone 4 so the cooler temperature may help to keep these plants manageable.

I recommend that you check with your local nursery before planting them in your garden, particularly in warmer climates.

Pachysandra

Pachysandra growing with hostas in the shade garden

Bloom time: Spring

Zones: 5 – 9

Pachysandra is a low growing NE united States evergreen native that spreads by rhizomes in full shade.

It is an easy-to-grow, drought, deer, and rabbit resistant plant.

It is also relatively easy to pull out if it spreads where you do not want it which makes it less work to maintain than some of the other classic ground cover perennials.

Lamium

Lamium in a shady garden bed

Bloom time: All Summer

Zones: 3 – 8

Lamium, a low growing member of the mint family, has lovely pewter leaves that glow in the shaded garden.

There are pink, purple, or white flowered varieties — ‘purple dragon’ has the biggest flowers.

Its stems are square and it spreads by rhizomes that need to be dug out to contain the growth.

Lamium will choke out small plants so plant it under tough perennials and bushes.

Periwinkle (Vinca Minor)

Vinca minor used as shade ground cover in the garden

Bloom time: Spring

Zones: 4 – 8

Pretty lavender-blue flowers show off on glossy evergreen foliage.

Vinca is drought, shade, deer, and shallow-rocky soil tolerant.

It spreads aggressively by rooting at the nodes of the trailing stems, so plant it where you want a thick ground cover.

Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)

Ajuga reptans perennial ground cover for shade

Bloom time: May to June

Zones: 4 – 10

Give careful consideration to the placement of Ajuga because it will creep into lawns and be difficult to eradicate.

However, it is useful under trees where grass will not grow (it is one of the few plants that will survive under a black walnut tree). It also tolerates dry shade and is deer resistant.

Bugleweed will form a dense, evergreen mat of shiny, dark green leaves with spikes of violet-blue flowers. There is also a variety available with purple/burgundy leaves.

This shade-loving perennial spreads by underground runners called stollens as well as by self-seeding. Cut off the spent flowers to prevent the latter.

English Ivy (Hedera helix)

English ivy used as ground cover in the shade ©KDImages - stock.adobe.com
©KDImages – stock.adobe.com

Bloom time: Fall

Zones: 4 – 9

Ivy is a low, rapidly growing plant that needs to be carefully cited because of its invasive nature, especially when used as a ground cover.

Although English Ivy does bloom, the flowers are not particularly ornamental.

This evergreen performs well under trees in dense shade but note that it is toxic to animals and humans.

Convallaria majalis (Lily of the Valley)

Lily of the valley - ©Ольга Шиманович - stock.adobe.com
©Ольга Шиманович – stock.adobe.com

Bloom time: Spring

Zones: 2 – 9

A poisonous, invasive plant with white bell shaped flowers that smell divine, the lily of the valley spreads by stollens and rhizomes.

Once this tough plant forms a colony it is very difficult to dig out.

It is drought and shade tolerant and not bothered by deer or rabbits.

Other Shade Plants You Might Like

Do you have any favorite perennial ground cover plants for the shade? Tell us in the section below.

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15 Stunning Perennial Ground Cover Plants That Thrive in the Shade

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15 Stunning Perennial Ground Cover Plants That Thrive in the Shade

15 Stunning Perennial Ground Cover Plants That Thrive in the Shade

15 Stunning Perennial Ground Cover Plants That Thrive in the Shade

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24 Responses

  • I really like all of your articles. I have tried all the plants you recommended and most of them have done really well in a place I thought was too shady for anything to grow. Thanks so much.

    • Hello Nancy. Hellebores will not grow in any zones higher than 9. So they should be fine in a northern Florida Zone 9 garden but will succumb to the heat in the Miami area. Springhill Nurseries (www.springhillnursery.com) have a good selection of hellebores or you could try Wayside gardens (www.waysidegardens.com) as another source. I hope this helps.

  • All of these are lovely shade plants but I would not refer to them as ground covers due to their height. Moss or pachysandra are better definitions of ground covers.

    • Hi Holli…I think you have a stricter definition of ground covers than I do. For me, any plant that is fairly low growing, doesn’t require a lot of maintenance and creates a thick enough blanket of foliage to prevent a lot of weeds from growing up between them qualifies 🙂

    • Hi…Keeping them well watered and fertilized is one possible option. It could also be that the plants are root bound. If that’s the case, pull the roots apart and transplant into a bigger pot. The other possibility is that they are still getting settled…it sometimes takes Hellebores a year or two to bloom after they have been planted. So if it’s a fairly new container you may just have to be patient 🙂

  • Are the Virginia Bluebells invasive? You mentioned fern peony. That is a plant that I am not familiar with. Could you tell me more about it?

    • Hello Becky, Thank you for your interest. Virginia Bluebells, although native to the north eastern states, are not invasive in my zone 5 Toronto garden. They form a slow growing clump that goes dormant in the summer. Self seeding is minimal in my experience.

      Japanese fern peony is a lovely little bush 1-2 feet high that has delicate fern-like blue-green foliage and big red flowers in the spring. It is considerably more expensive to purchase than a regular peony because it is difficult to propagate. Once established in a part-sun location it needs little care except cutting off the spent blooms to let the plant conserve energy. I have mine at the front of the border by the path where the gorgeous blooms can be appreciated. Once a season I put organic fertilizer around, but not touching, the stem and mulch. It will grow in sandy or clay soils and does not like to be planted too deep. I cut the stems off 2 inches from the ground in the fall.

  • My favorite is oregano! Oregano likes all kinds of soil, can improve your soil conditions even, is delicious and deer hate it. Plus, plant and forget about it until you harvest it to add to your cooking. Love it!

    • Thanks for drawing this to my attention. Foam flower is considered a close cousin to astilbe, as the leaves look very similar. It can stand more shade than astilbe, too.

  • I love in North Yorkshire U.K. Hellebores ,heuchera and Japanese anemone grow well here .I have just purchased mertensia Virginia and bletilla striata, after seeing your list ,so wish me luck

    • Hello Judith Of course I wish you luck with your new additions to your garden. I love m. Virginia and I thank you for bringing bletilla striata to my attention. I will add it to my spring list if I can find it in Toronto. I see it has been awarded the RHS award of merit so I think it will make a nice groundcover for you. I’d be interested to hear how these plants do for you.

  • Japanese Anemone spreads! So plant it where you wouldn’t mind that happening! It is gorgeous. Lily of the valley, are lovely too.

    • Hi Mark…It’s all in your definition of ground cover. For me, any plant that covers the ground thick enough to prevent the weeds from growing up under it is a ground cover. And all of these are good for that purpose. If you’re looking for traditional ground cover plants (the ones that spread out quickly), they are covered in the last section. I prefer not to use them in the garden because they are often difficult to maintain once they get going.

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