Best shrubs for shade – 10 shade tolerant shrubs for your backyard

By selecting the best shrubs for shade you can add color and interest in even the darkest corners of your backyard

shrubs for shade in a courtyard garden
(Image credit: Getty Images)

By choosing the best shrubs for shade you can make the most of darker borders and corners of the garden. Working with shifting levels of light and shade is an inevitable part of gardening, but there are many choices of shrubs that thrive in full or part shade.

Rather than presenting a challenge, shady backyards can in fact offer the potential to create wonderful contrasts, by using golden or silvered variegated leaves or pale flowers to add the impression of light among the shadows. 

Shade loving plants can offer changeable interest throughout the year, so add some of the following to your list of shrubs as part of your backyard ideas.

Best shrubs for shade

The deciduous or evergreen shrubs you choose for shady spots will differ depending on the type of shade you have in your backyard – so study its patterns at different times of day through the seasons. Smaller spaces might be in shade throughout the day; other backyards might only be in shade for part of the day, so the shrubs might have to be sun-tolerant, too. Decide whether areas are in light, semi, dappled or deep shade.

'The main thing about planting shrubs for shade is whether the specific plant is a full shade or partial shade loving plant,' explains Fiona Martin of Burncoose Nurseries.

‘Some shade-loving shrubs, such as the evergreen silk tassel bush, don’t like to be in deep shade, whereas others like Fatsia japonica can cope with full shade,’ explains award-winning garden designer Jonathan Snow.

Then assess the soil. 'Does the area have dry soil or wet soil and compare this to the soil requirements for the chosen shrub,' adds Fiona.

Below, we bring you the best shrubs for shade, and explain which type of shade they will enjoy.

1. Best shrubs for shade for late summer blooms

Hydrangea aspera ‘Villosa Group’ as a shrub for shade

(Image credit: Future)

Hydrangeas are well known and loved and there are many varieties to choose from that will cope well in a shady position. They are also one of the best flowering shrubs.

'Hydrangea aspera ‘Villosa Group’ is my favorite hydrangea with its large pointed velvet leaves and late summer blue flowers. It can also be grown on chalk,’ explains Jonathan. 

The deciduous shrub does well in partial shade, but learn how to prune hydrangeas to keep them flowering well and stop them becoming scruffy and unkempt.

2. Best shrubs for shade with fragrant flowers

shrubs for shade Sarcococca hookeriana ‘winter gem’

(Image credit: RHS/ Anna Brockman)

Shade loving plants often have the most fragrant blooms, as if the plants are trying to compensate for their lack of sunshine and color.

'Sarcococca hookeriana ‘winter gem’, also known as sweet box, has attractive, evergreen glossy leaves and highly fragrant white late winter flowers and berries,' explains Fiona Martin.

The dwarf shrub will tolerate full shade and brighten up dull corners where little else will grow. 

'It is tough and tolerant of most conditions,' advise the experts at RHS Plants.

3. Best shrub for shade with bright flowers

Mahonia repens is a shrub to use in a shady garden

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Mahonia repens is a frost hardy dwarf evergreen shrub that tolerates full to part shade. 

‘It’s main attraction, though, is its dark yellow racemes of upright flowers in mid to late spring, followed by blue-black berries. Shrubs with lighter color flowers can really brighten up a shady area, especially white and yellow flowers,' says Fiona Martin.

Fully frost hardy, these low growing mahonias, which typically only grow to one or two feet in height, can be used for ground cover.

4. Best low maintenance shrub for shade

fatsia japonica shrub in a shady garden

(Image credit: Getty Images)

'Fatsia japonica can cope with full shade as well as a bit of sun, and a fair amount of general neglect, too,' explains Jonathan, so it is a good choice if you're looking for low maintenance shrubs or fast growing shrubs for shade.

'It has architectural, evergreen leaves, and striking panicles of spherical, creamy white flowers in fall, which are often followed by round, black fruit in winter,’ adds Jonathan.

Both the flowers and berries are a valuable food source for beneficial insects, especially as they are produced in the middle of winter when not much else is on offer, so are also great for adding to planting plans for wildlife garden ideas.

5. Best shrubs for shade with variegated leaves

shrubs for shade aucuba japonica crotonifolia

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Aucuba japonica ‘crotonifolia’, also known as Japanese or spotted laurel, can grow in partial or full shade. 

‘The rounded shrub has spotted, variegated leaves and produces bright red berries in fall,’ explains Fiona. They like moist, well-drained soil.

Partial shade is best for more pronounced variegation, which can provide a lovely backdrop in a shady corner of a backyard.

'Aucubas may not be the most standout plants, but they make a very effective and dense windbreak and can tolerate high, salt-laden winds,' explains Fiona, so are a  good option for exposed and coastal gardens. 

Growing up to 15 feet tall, they are also good for use as fast growing hedges.

6. Best long living shrubs for shade

Camellia sasanqua

(Image credit: Crocus)

For some classic, traditional blooms, you can't get much better than long lasting and low maintenance camellias as shrubs for shade – which we think are among the best shrubs for the front of the house.

'One of my favorites is Camellia sasanqua. I find this fall flowering camellia so much more delicate, in leaf and flower, than its blousy spring cousins,’ says Jonathan. 

Camellias prefers moist, rich, acidic soil and thrive in full to partial shade. To maximize their flowering potential, learn how to prune camellias and you will be rewarded with their beautiful blooms for many years.

'This camellia makes a handsome stand-alone specimen, but it can also be used to make a dense, informal screen,' advise the experts at Crocus.

7. Best easy to grow shrub for shade

silk tassel bush

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Silk tassel bush or Garrya elliptica is known for its showy cascading flowers or catkins in winter or early spring.

A native to the coastal ranges in California and Oregon, 'this easy to grow evergreen shrub will grow in most soil types, but prefers to be out of the wind, and not in deep shade,' advises Jonathan. 

It makes a striking backdrop to many other plants and grows well in partial shade.

8. Best large shrubs for shade

Rhododendron arboreum var. roseum

(Image credit: Gina Kelly / Alamy Stock Photo)

Woodland plants, rhododendrons grow well in dappled shade.

Suited to USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8, these large growing evergreens flower from spring through to summer filling shady spots in the garden with colors ranging from deep red through to white.

'Rhododendron ‘Cunninghams White’, is a reliable, free flowering rhododendron with mauve buds that open to white flowers with a pale yellow center in spring,' explains Jonathan 

'It can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, unlike most rhododendrons that prefer acidic soil,' he adds.

9. Best shrub for shade with changing leaf color

the shrub Photinia 'Red Robin'

(Image credit: Alamy)

A great choice for privacy and screening in a backyard, photinia grows well in partial shade and is a low maintenance shrub.

Some varieties have lovely changing foliage color in spring and fall, such as Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin', which produces bright red new leaves.

They tolerate most soil types, although will cope best with moist, fertile soil with plenty of organic matter added in.

10. Best climbing shrubs for shade

Euonymous fortunei ‘Emerald n Gold’

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you are looking to cover walls or other vertical structures in a shady corner then Euonymous fortunei is an excellent choice and a good courtyard garden idea for making the most of space available by growing vertically.

Some varieties of these evergreen climbers also have lovely variegated leaves, to bring light and golden accents into a dark space, such as ‘Emerald n Gold’ with its golden variegated leaves.

It copes well in dappled and partial shade.

What tall shrubs tolerate full shade?

There are many tall shrubs that tolerate full shade, advises Fiona Martin of Burncoose.

These range from Aucuba japonica and some camellias, Mahonia x media varieties, to common laurel and English yew, to name but a few.

The key is to always do your research before buying a shrub for shade and 'check that the specific plant is a full shade loving tall shrub,' adds Fiona.

Which flowering shrubs like shade?

Hydrangeas do tolerate some shade, but to flourish they should also enjoy a bit of – ideally – morning sun.

They will not do well in full shade, however, so get to grips with how to grow hydrangeas so that you get the best from these stunning shrubs for shade.

Rachel is senior content editor, and writes and commissions gardening content for homesandgardens.com, Homes & Gardens magazine, and its sister titles Period Living Magazine and Country Homes & Interiors. She has written for lifestyle magazines for many years, with a particular focus on gardening, historic houses and arts and crafts, but started out her journalism career in BBC radio, where she enjoyed reporting on and writing programme scripts for all manner of stories. Rachel then moved into regional lifestyle magazines, where the topics she wrote about, and people she interviewed, were as varied and eclectic as they were on radio. Always harboring a passion for homes and gardens, she jumped at the opportunity to work on The English Home and The English Garden magazines for a number of years, before joining the Period Living team, then the wider Homes & Gardens team, specializing in gardens.