15 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.

ground cover perennials that love shade

Perennial Ground Cover Plants

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.

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.

White trillium
White trillium

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.

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.

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 blooms By Anna reg (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0 at], via Wikimedia Commons

By Anna reg (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0 at], via Wikimedia Commons

Most hostas bloom mauve or white in summer.

Hostas surrounding a statue
Hostas surrounding a statue

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.

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.

Chinese Hardy Ground Orchid (Bletilla striata)

Hardy Ground Orchid By KENPEI (KENPEI's photo) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp], via Wikimedia Commons

Hardy Ground Orchid By KENPEI (KENPEI’s photo) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp], via Wikimedia Commons

Bloom time: Summer

Zones: 6 – 9

These Chinese hardy ground orchids are quite easy to grow and really do look like orchids. They grow between 12″ and 24″ high (depending on the variety) and will develop many blooms per plant once they are established.

The only trouble I have with them is that rabbits really like the leaves!

Japanese Anemone (Anemone huphensis)

Japanese Anemone
Japanese Anemone

Bloom Time: Fall

Zones: 3 – 9

One of the highlights of my fall garden is Japanese anemone. It shows off with a multitude of cheerful pink or white flowers.

Japanese Anemone in the garden
Japanese Anemone in the garden

Japanese anemone is a late bloomer; so the plant stays dormant until late spring. I plant fern peony in beside it because it is fading by the time the anemone starts to sprout.

Japanese Anemone
Japanese Anemone

At 3′ high, this plant is a little tall for a garden border but I stake it and let it be. It always gets many appreciative comments from passersby.

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.

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.

This plant does have insignificant little flowers, but it is mainly grown for its beautiful foliage. It was named Plant of the Year in 2012.

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

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shade loving ground cover perennials

15 Stunning Perennial Ground Cover Plants That Thrive in the Shade

compact perennials for shade

compact perennials for shade
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

shade-loving perennials

beautiful compact perennials for your shade garden

ground cover shade plants

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low growing perennials that love shade

ground cover perennials that thrive in the shade

ground cover perennials that love the shade

ground cover shade plants

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22 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.

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