I don’t think that I am alone when I say that I am drawn to plants with foliage that is anything other than green. This is especially true with purple foliaged plants, such as the ubiquitous flowering plums or the equally stunning purple smoke trees. Many Japanese Maples come in various shades of purple leaves and recently we have seen an explosion of varieties of Nine Barks, such as ‘Diablo’, and elderberries, such as ‘Black Lace’.  What all of these plants have in common, is that they have to be grown in full sun in order for them to maintain their dark foliage colors. Anyone looking for dark foliage that does well in shade is hard pressed to find many options. If your search for dark foliaged plants for shade has left you frustrated, look no more.  Here are a few choices that are well worth incorporating into your garden.

Black Mondo grass — I use this low growing grass in many locations (sun or shade) and it is always happy.  The blades are so dark, they are literally black, which can be a striking accent. Use it to edge a border or as a filler in a container.  It is slow growing and evergreen, so it will never take over your garden.

Saxifrage fortunei Pink Elf — This is a new introduction from the Dan Hinkley collection of Monrovia Nurseries. The low growing scalloped leaves are reddish-purple and at times are topped with dainty pink flowers. It is evergreen in a mild winter or deciduous when it drops into the teens for a couple of weeks.  It’s a real cutie.

Ligularia Brit Marie Crawford — This is a bold perennial with large (6 to 9 inches across) chocolate-maroon leaves that makes a truly shocking statement in a shade garden. The yellow/orange daisy flowers that come on later in the season are mostly a distraction in my book, so I just cut them off but you can leave them if you wish.

Ligularia Garden Confetti — This plant defies description.  It boasts large leaves, like most Ligularias, but in this case the foliage is multi-colored and shouts “what fun”.  You have got to see this one to believe it.

Rodgersia Chocolate Wings — Also a large leaved plant, this is a stunner when it first leafs out (which mine is doing right now).  Pink flowers come on a little later and then the foliage turns a dark green, but at this time of year I can’t wait to see it wake up from its winter slumber.

Actaea Black Negligee — This is a must in any full to part shade garden and is most definitely one of my top 10 favorite plants. The finely divided dark foliage forms a pleasing mound and then in the fall it sends up 6 foot tall spikes of extremely fragrant creamy white flowers that look like a goose neck bottle brush. Plant it in full sun or full shade and give it lots of water.

Astilbe Chocolate Shogun — This was a new find for me a couple of years ago and now I cannot live without it. It holds its chocolate foliage, even in the darkest corners of the garden, and sends up pink flowers in the summer which make a very nice contrast - although the foliage is reason enough to include it in the garden.  

Hydrangea Plum Passion — Finally, a shrub for shade that sports dark foliage. This is another Dan Hinkley introduction that will soon find its way into my garden.  Dark purple fuzzy foliage is highlighted with delicate lace cap flowers in early summer. I can’t wait to shoehorn it into the garden.  

All of these plants will look even more exciting if you pair them with golden or chartreuse foliaged plants (of which there are many choices) but alas, that topic will have to wait for another time.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA, and can be reached at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

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