Plants for a purpose: autumn shade

Viola, saxifrage, berberis, heuchera

Shady corners needn’t be gloomy. There’s a host of beautiful plants that will thrive in partial shade and full shade, and even plants that can cope with dry shade. Here, we share some of our favourite shade-lovers that look fabulous throughout autumn. There are options to suit every colour scheme, and plants that will thrive in pots as well as your borders. Our choices include recommendations from the Gardeners’ World team and familiar faces from across the gardening industry.

Find more planting inspiration:

Saxifraga fortunei ‘Black Ruby’

Saxifraga Black Ruby chosen by Nick Bailey
Saxifraga ‘Black Ruby’ flowers October-December and thrives in damp shade

Chosen by Nick Bailey, Gardeners’ World presenter

Just as the rest of the garden is fading this impossibly exotic-looking saxifrage sends forth a mass of deep pink blooms which virtually float above its shade-busting glossy burgundy foliage. Each flower is composed of five petals with the lowest being much longer than the rest giving it a unique starry look.


Pheasant’s tail grass

Pheasants tail grass chosen by Toby Buckland
The semi-evergreen leaves of pheasant’s tail emerge green, then develop colourful streaking

Chosen by Toby Buckland, Gardeners’ World presenter

My go-to filler for the dry shade is the evergreen pheasant’s tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana). As the weather cools, the foliage turns a lovely smoky bronze setting off the yellow and orange leaves as they tumble from the trees. It also gently self-sows for new plants for free.


Actaea

Actaea chosen by Manoj Malde
Actaea is a dramatic perennial, growing to over 2m tall, that’s happy in partial shade

Chosen by Manoj Malde, garden designer

I love Actaea ‘Queen of Sheba’ because it puts on a show, with its elegant bottlebrush flower spikes rising above the mass of dusky purple foliage, when many plants in the garden are looking past their best. I leave the flower spikes on as they provide an interesting silhouette through winter.


Mukdenia rossii ‘Karasuba’

Mukdenia rossii
Mukdenia rossii is a hardy perennial that slowly creates carpets of maple-like leaves

Chosen by James Alexander-Sinclair, Gardeners’ World Magazine columnist

It may sound a bit like a Middle Eastern flatbread but Mukdenia ‘Karasuba’ is a fabulous plant for ground cover. Quite slow-growing but with great leaves that flush red like an embarrassed nun in autumn. White flowers in springtime.


Callicarpa bodinieri

Callicarpa
Callicarpas are hardy, deciduous shrubs that grows to around 3m tall

Chosen by Catherine Mansley, digital editor

Callicarpa, or beauty berry, has the most unnatural-looking berries, in bright, gleaming purple. They last long after the leaves have fallen in autumn, making it easier to admire their vibrant splendour as they adorn bare branches – they’re fabulous cut and added to flower arrangements. It’s fairly unassuming the rest of the year, so perfect for the back of a slightly shady border.


Violas

violas chosen by Jason
Violas will grow in part shade. Choose the right varieties and you can have violas in flower all year

Chosen by Jason Williams, creator of the Cloud Gardener blog

A bedding plant that’s widely grown and for good reason – violas are easy to grow, flower for ages and they are perfect for pots. Many varieties are also edible! As a container gardener in a small space, plants that have a dual purpose – pretty and edible – are a great way to maximise your space.


Stinking iris

Lily iris
Stinking iris will grow in dry shade, where little else thrives, and it self-seeds freely

Chosen by Lily Middleton, content creator

This poor iris seems to have been unfairly named, when it’s such a star in autumn. Iris foetidissima thrives in shade, and whilst the flowers are quite understated, in autumn its seedpods split open to reveal startlingly bright orange seeds. Just avoid crushing the leaves, this is what causes the stink!


Liriope muscari

Liriope chosen by Kevin Smith
This hardy perennial will grow in full shade, and is ideal as edging or under trees and shrubs

Chosen by Kevin Smith, editor

The glossy, evergreen leaves of this beautiful plant sit patiently for the lion’s share of the year, before sending up purple spikes of flower as summer begins to fade. In my garden, lily turf copes really well with shade – at times the ground is also very dry and it never seems to complain. I’ve mixed lirope with brunnera and astrantias at the front of a border.


Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’

Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream'
Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’ has an elegant, open habit and makes a striking focal point

Chosen by Oliver Parsons, horticultural sub-editor

Like all Japanese maples, ‘Orange Dream’ wants to be doing its thing in semi-shade under the protective wing of trees to keep it from getting scorched. This one is more of a shrub, growing to just above head height, and delivering the goods with lime green leaves that transform to an almost sci-fi blend of pink and orange come autumn.

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