Variegated Plants for Shade

  • Post published:01/12/2013
  • Post comments:2 Comments
Variegated hostas in Bruce Cannon’s garden

Some people think that the palette of plants for deep shade provide little visual diversity in color and texture but this is not true. Variegated plants can alter that perception.

First I have to say that there are all kinds of shade, from the deepest shade that you would find in a coniferous woodland, to the gay dappled shade or high shade beneath deciduous trees. It is important to remember that if you want flowers in your shade, it will usually have to be a light shade. This can be achieved by limbing up tall deciduous trees so that more sun can penetrate the ground.

This year and last, the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) named two variegated spring bloomers as the Plant of the Year. Last year they chose Brunnera macrophylla Jack Frost with its silvery leaves veined with green and small blue spring flowers that dance above the foliage. Many people, me included, often confuse brunneras with forget-me-nots. They both bloom in the spring and have little blue flowers, but the brunneras have larger leaves and the flowers can be as much as 18 inches tall. It tolerates some sun, but is perfectly happy in full shade.

This year the PPA has chosen Polygonatum odoratum Variegatum as its plant of the year. This variety of  the delicately fragrant Solomon’s Seal grows gracefully between18 to 24 inches tall and the slim 3 to 4 inch long leaves have cool white margins. In the spring there are creamy bell-like flowers at each leaf axil. Like the brunneras, Solomon Seals need full to partial shade. If the location is moist so much the better. It will tolerate a drier site if it is kept well watered during the first year.

Another spring bloomer I love is the variegated pulmonaria with its green foliage splattered with white. High Contrast is a new variety that produces purple buds that open to pink and mature to blue flowers. It is that pink and blue combination that has always intrigued and pleased me.

Last year I grew caladiums in pots in the shade surrounding our Cottage Ornee. I chose the richly shaded Florida Sunrise. The large green leaves have a red heart and veins. I seem incapable of resisting any shade of red. The potted caladiums did very well, but as the summer progressed I wished I had chosen Candidum Sr. that had large white leaves and sharp green veins, or ‘Moonlight’ that has smaller leaves but is almost pure white. The white foliage would have been more dramatic from a distance. Or I could have compromised and chosen Cranberry Star  with its white leaves, green veining and reddish splotches.

Hostas are a wonderful large family that provide many shades of variegation. The low and wide growing June was the Hosta of the Year in 2001 and I can understand why it remains popular. It has a bright golden center with two shades of green at the edges. For the color to develop to the fullest it needs some dappled sun, but it will tolerate a deeper shade as well.

Minuteman hosta has very white margins that would brighten a shady corner. It produces lavender flowers and will do well in a container or in the garden.

I love garden phlox and I saw that Bluestone Perennials has a new phlox named Shockwave that has deep green foliage with yellow margins. The flowers are a lavender pink with white centers. Phlox paniculata love the sun, but I think the effect of this variegation would really make for a glowing planting.

Shrubs can also have interesting variegated foliage. Beautyberry is a shrub that always attracts a lot of attention when the pink flowers of summer become stunning purple berries in the fall. Callicarpa japonica Snow Storm also has foliage that is almost white when it first unfurls, then begins to develop a green spatter, and is finally a dark green. That’s a lot of excitement for a single shrub that will not grow much more than three feet tall and spread gracefully.

One word of warning. I know that bishops weed, Aegopodium, beautiful and variegated as it is, is an invasive plant. It is sometimes still sold, and we should all be wary at nurseries as well as plant swaps and sales.

Variegated foliage is one way to add color and texture to our gardens, and the hybridizers are providing us with more opportunities to add this element to our gardens.


All of us are paying more and more attention to our beautiful rural landscape, to the ways it is used for farming and forestry, and for our own recreation. A committee in Shelburne has just sent a survey to every household to collect information that will be used to create an Open Space Recreation Action Plan. The town has so many assets, and so many possibilities in different areas from farming to recreation that the committee needs thoughtful responses from everyone, especially young people who will be affected by the changes in town for many years. While each household has received a survey, every individual can fill out the survey on-line at This is an important opportunity for people to make their concerns and desires known.

Between the Rows   January 5, 2013

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jason

    For some reason variegated foliage often, though not always, leaves me cold. I prefer the plain Brunnera to Jack Frost. To your point about Brunnera and Forget Me Not, I think one of the common names is False Forget Me Not. I do like the Variegated Solomon Seal, though. Can’t really explain it.

  2. Pat

    Jason – the nice thing a bout being a gardener is that all our likes and dislikes do have to be logically consistent. I didn’t know about the name false forget-me-notl

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