Getting to Know Shade-Tolerant Plants

Plants need sunlight to thrive and grow, but some need less sunlight than others. Homeowners who find their landscapes are less supportive to sun-loving plants can choose from a variety of shade-tolerant plants, shrubs and trees.

Beautiful Shade Garden by the Water

Shade tolerance refers to a plant’s ability to withstand low levels of light. Certain plants have adapted this feature to survive in the wild. Plants that grow at the base of forest floors, for example, will get less sunlight than others outside of the tree canopy. Such adaptations enable a wide variety of foliage to grow even though they are not exposed to much sunlight.

While sun-loving plants often have broad leaves and expend significant energy to capture sunlight for photosynthesis, shade-tolerant plants expend less energy and tend to be more efficient consumers of soil nutrients and sunlight.

Coleus colorful plant

Shade-tolerant plants, such as coleus, can add color and appeal to shady areas of a landscape.

Penn State Extension’s Plant and Pests division says the amount of shade a plant is growing under will directly affect the density of the foliage and the plant’s flowering and fruiting characteristics. Blending shade-tolerant plants into the landscape can be an effective use of space. Before choosing plants for an existing landscape, it’s important to assess the level of shade or sun the plants will receive.

· Heavy shade: Heavy shade is when no direct sunlight reaches a plant. This occurs at the base of northern-facing walls or beneath thick tree canopies.

· Full sun: Areas that receive full sun enjoy direct sunlight between six and eight hours per day.

· Moderate shade: These sites have reflected sunlight that may come off of water features.

· Light shade: Plants in these areas will get partially filtered or dappled sunlight.

Once you understand which type of shade you are dealing with, you’ll be ready visit plant nurseries and select your plants. Most greenery comes with care instructions that include recommendations regarding the amount of shade/sunlight the plant will need to do well. If further assistance is needed, a knowledgeable employee can make suggestions based on landscape needs.

If you are looking for some preliminary guidance when it comes to selecting shade-tolerant shrubs, plants or trees for Central NJ we’ve compiled the following list (you’ll find many more at your local garden center):

  • Annuals: 
  • Wax Begonia
  • Coleus
  • Sweet William
  • New Guinea Impatiens
  • Scarlet Sage
Purple Coneflower
  • Perennials:
  • Columbine
  • Bleeding Heart
  • Purple Coneflower
  • Daylily
  • Bee Balm
Big-Leafed Hydrangea
  • Shrubs:
  • Barberry
  • Boxwood
  • Flowering Quince
  • Big-Leafed Hydrangea
  • Holly
Dogwood and Spring Shrubs Against Black Background
Flowering Dogwood Tree
  • Trees:
  • Japanese Maple
  • Eastern Redbud
  • Flowering Dogwood
  • Saucer Magnolia
  • Canadian Hemlock

Shade-tolerant plants can make welcome additions to the landscape, offering greenery and color in the darker areas of a property.  

TIP:  Don’t be fooled by the coolness of the shade, plants and trees still need water, fertilizer, and mulch to thrive.