As someone who gardens primarily in shade, I’ve learned over the years to appreciate the value of plants with interesting foliage even more than those with pretty blossoms. Flowers are temporary in shade, but fantastic foliage lasts all season.
I’ve chosen ten plants here that are grown more for their leaves than their flowers, even though most of them do bloom beautifully, too. Be sure to mix at least a few of these in with your flowering plants to keep the interest going in that part of your garden all season long.
FOLIAGE PLANTS FOR SUN
What makes it unique: This shrub looks just like it sounds, with intense purple-black, incredibly lacy leaves that form a huge, billowy mass. New clusters of leaves emerge chartreuse in showy contrast to the mature dark foliage. It’s similar to a Japanese maple in appearance but is a much faster and easier plant to grow.
Vitals: Zone 4-7, 6-8’ tall, full sun to part shade, deer resistant, pollinator-friendly
Pair with: Perennial sunflower, rose mallow, bee balm
What makes it unique: The first-ever Loropetalum with variegated foliage! Deep purple new growth is heavily splashed with pink and white, complementing the bright pink flowers in mid-spring. Though it seldom needs trimming, you could do so right after blooming to encourage more variegated new growth.
Vitals: Zone 7-9, 4-6’ tall, full sun to part shade
Pair with: Coral bells, coleus, sweet bay
What makes it unique: You’ll easily recognize this grass by its zebra striped, green and gold foliage which is more resistant to foliar rust spot than other banded Miscanthus. Growing shorter than similar grasses, it fits easily into most landscapes.
Vitals: Zone 5-9, 3-4’ tall, full sun to part shade, deer resistant
Pair with: Rose of Sharon, burning bush, crapemyrtle
What makes it unique: Featuring the darkest purple-black foliage we’ve ever seen on a rose mallow, ‘Perfect Storm’ makes an outstanding focal point in the landscape. The dinner plate-sized, magenta and white patterned flowers are equally spectacular from midsummer to frost.
Vitals: Zone 4-9, 3’ tall, full sun, deer resistant, pollinator-friendly
Pair with: Sweet alyssum, bee balm, Japanese anemone
FOLIAGE PLANTS FOR SHADE
What makes it unique: Frilly fronds with forked tips add extra texture to this colorful fern. This is a taller type of fern that easily stands out in the shade garden.
Vitals: Zone 3-8, 20-22” tall, part shade to full shade, deer and rabbit resistant
Pair with: Brunnera, hostas, Japanese forest grass
What makes it unique: The huge, serrated, deep green leaves of this hardy perennial are exceptionally distinctive and will be larger than just about anything you’ll plant with it. This variety’s thick, leathery leaf texture helps it hold up in the heat better than other ligularias.
Vitals: Zone 4-9, 2-3’ tall, part shade, deer resistant, pollinator-friendly
Pair with: Japanese forest grass, coleus, lungwort
What makes it unique: Snowflake-shaped leaves change colors through the seasons, beginning deep red-orange with a burgundy center in spring and changing to a deep coppery green in high summer.
Vitals: Zone 4-9, 10-12” tall, sun or shade, deer resistant, pollinator-friendly
Pair with: Sedges, hostas, coral bells
What makes it unique: With leaves that grow larger than any other brunnera, this variety is a true standout in the shade garden. Metallic silver leaves with green veining form a full mound. In time, the lobes of the heart-shaped leaves overlap giving them a more circular shape.
Vitals: Zone 3-8, 14-16” tall, part shade to full shade, deer resistant
Pair with: Painted ferns, hostas, hydrangeas
What makes it unique: A rare shade tolerant ornamental grass, forming a slowly spreading clump of gold to chartreuse leaves that tend to arch all in one direction like a golden waterfall.
Vitals: Zone 5-9, 1-2’ tall, part shade to full shade, deer resistant
Pair with: Hostas, hydrangeas, elderberry
What makes it unique: So aptly named! The extremely rippled, powdery blue-gray leaves of this hosta will remind you of a bubbling stream. Its dynamic texture adds a sense of movement to the garden.
Vitals: Zone 3-9, 14-17” tall, part shade to full shade, pollinator-friendly
Pair with: Painted ferns, goat’s beard, double impatiens