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Native wild geranium

Native wild geranium

One of the questions that I continuously get asked starts out like this: “I love gardening! However, all I have is shade. Should I cut down the trees?”

Just kidding about the last part. There are numerous flowering perennials that not only take the shade of a large tree but also have beautiful floral displays and interesting textures that will be coveted by any gardener — sun or shade.

Some of my favorite plants grow in shade. I am in awe of the dainty blue spring flowers that appear on top of silvery mosaic leaves of false forget-me-nots, the rose-purple spikes of wood betony that stand at attention, the mound of cranesbill with numerous flowers appearing in June, the lacy fine texture of meadow rue, and the interesting baby bottle brush blooms of fothergilla.

False forget-me-not

Brunnera is a native of Turkey that is used as a delightful ground cover. It has striking heart-shaped leaves of varying designs and fierce blue flower sprays held above the foliage in early spring. Supplemental watering is required in hot summers or the leaf edges will scorch. ‘Jack Frost’ boasts silvery and green leaves. ‘Alexander's Great’ boasts bigger, silvery green leaves.

Wood betony

"Stachys officinalis" is not only a great selection for the shade garden but also thrives in a sunnier location. This adaptable plant is known for its bold colorful flowers that are spotlighted perfectly above the foliage for a long time. The foliage is neat and grows a few feet tall.


"Geranium sanguineum" usually grows wider than it does tall and forms clumps, making it very moundy. Pink flowers are ready for the grand display in May and June and may be sporadic throughout the summer. "Geranium maculatum" is ideal pink spring bloomer that is native to Illinois and an ideal specimen for a shady woodland garden.

Some gardeners shear after flowering to get the neat-mounded habit back. After frost, the leaves turn red. Roy Diblik, author of the "Known Maintenance Perennial Garden," suggests ‘Orion’ or ‘Max Frei’ for their continuous lavender blue flowers throughout the season and their nonstop new growth, making late June shearing obsolete.

Meadow rue

"Thalictrum dioicum" grows 1- to 2 feet tall and features fine, lacy, gray-green foliage standing ready to complement any bold colored flowers with its airiness and pleasing texture. As meadow rue reseeds, a gardener may want to thin or relocate to other parts of the garden. This long-lived and easy-to-grow plant in native to eastern America.


"Fothergilla gardenii" is one of the few shrubs that is happy in shady growing conditions. A 2- to 3-foot shrub that blooms fragrant, small, white whorled flowers in April or May, followed by a neat compact shrub, and ending the season in an explosion of brilliant yellow, orange and red fall color. ‘Mt. Airy’ is a hybrid that grows taller with upright stems and puts on a grander flower show.

Kelly Allsup is the University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator in Livingston, McLean and Woodford counties.