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Stewartia, Cranesbill, and Bear's Breeches are three great plants to help your shade garden shine.

Landscape Architecture

What’s Blooming Now: Adding a Little Drama to Your Shade Garden

Three of our favorite plants for giving your shade garden some extra pop are Stewartia, Bear’s Breeches, and Cranesbill. Here’s a little on why we love them, how to help them thrive in your garden, and some ideas for pairing them with other plants.

June 25, 2019

Exciting Plants for Shade Gardens

Starting out June-uary in Seattle with a heatwave has us dreaming of shady nooks to provide respite from the summer heat. As we consider what makes a shade garden pop, we started looking at our tried-and-true favorites that add a bit of interest to otherwise ordinary plantings around this time of year. Whether there’s a classic Seattle drizzle on, or it’s hot and sunny, these plants will add some color, texture and much-needed drama to your shade garden.

Stewartia

Native to Japan and Korea, Stewartia thrives in our temperate climate and has become a favorite ornamental tree loved for its compact structure, brilliant bark and delicate flowers. One of the most elegant and robust small trees for Pacific Northwest gardens, the delicate June blossoms of Stewartia remind us that this is truly a four-season tree. Beginning in early June and often persisting into early July, saucer-shaped blooms emerge from pearlescent buds along delicately tiered branches. A member of the tea family and related to camellias, Stewartia flowers resemble the camellia with delicate white petals centered with bright orange, pollen covered stamen.

Stewartia monodelpha – white blossoms with yellow centers – are a great option for a shade garden.
Stewartia - Stewartia ssp.

Tall Stewartia flowers tend be smaller than Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia), but often bloom more profusely, covering the tree in white blossoms. (Pictured Here: Tall Stewartia – Stewartia monodelpha.)

The glossy, elliptically shaped leaves also resemble the camellia, although they are deciduous, turning shades of burgundy, red and bright orange in autumn. While we love the showy flowers and foliage, the bark of this tree is what really sets it apart. Depending on the species, Stewartia bark exfoliates in patches to reveal different tones of the smooth bark beneath with colors ranging from silver to peach to burnt orange. Stewartia is a beautiful tree year-round: showing off beautiful bark and branches in the winter, fresh green leaves in spring, delicate white flowers in summer, and fiery foliage in autumn. Growing up to 15’ tall and 10’ wide, Stewartia is a great fit for small gardens or under high-canopy trees and is best planted in moist soil with dappled or part sun exposure. Plant this lovely small tree as a single focal point in the garden or as a row along a prominent path where they will be enjoyed year-round.

Bear’s Breeches

While no one quite agrees on where the common name originated, most agree that Bear’s Breeches, or Acanthus, makes a stunning addition to shade gardens and borders. A stately perennial with strong architectural features in flower and leaf, Acanthus is a great focal point in small gardens or planted en masse, paired with other sculptural species. Native to the Mediterranean and a common garden plant in ancient Greece, the ornately lobed leaves and intricate flowers are thought to be the original inspiration for Corinthian column decoration. Due to the dry, hot summers of its native region, Acanthus can tolerate dry soils and prefers part-sun to part-shade exposure.

Acanthus flower, commonly called Bear's Breeches features blossoms along a tall stem.
Bear’s Breeches – Acanthus mollis

Great in a shade garden: the unusual Acanthus flowers are arranged alternately along the tall stem, creating a mesmerizing zig-zag pattern while each white petal stands out, signaling to pollinators that nectar awaits within.

Acanthus looks its best in the cool summer months when the large leaves create a dense mound up to 2’ tall and wide, with flower spikes that rise well above the foliage. Often reaching nearly 4’ tall, each spike is covered with oddly-shaped flowers reminiscent of large snapdragons. Nearly 2” across, the blossoms contain white, three-lobed lower petals topped with purple-red bracts that form a prominent hood over each flower. Flowers are arranged in alternating pairs along each stem, creating a dramatic zig-zag appearance. Due to the sturdy and unusual form of each flower, Acanthus is solely pollinated by insects large enough to push through the opening between petal and bract to reach the nectar at the base of each flower. Many gardeners have observed that bumblebees are the primary pollinator of Acanthus because they are one of the only insect pollinators big enough to push their way past the enclosed entry. After flowering, Acanthus goes dormant letting the leaves and stalks die back for the hottest part of the summer. Cutting back the spent foliage and flowers will help the leaves come back strong in the next season. We love Acanthus for its big, glossy green leaves, striking flower stalks and the ornate architectural presence it brings to shade gardens.

Cranesbill

Hardy geranium, or Cranesbill, is a shade garden staple that does well in a variety of tough garden areas, like parking strips, rock gardens, and slopes. While there are many species of hardy geranium available in our region, our favorites are the hybrid species ‘Rozanne’ and ‘Biokovo’. We love these species of bushy spreading groundcovers for their versatility, continuous blooms, and dependably lush, semi-evergreen foliage. The Rozanne geranium is a powerhouse of many gardens and landscapes because it tolerates a variety of conditions, from full sun to deep shade in almost any soil type.

Geranium, or Cranesbill, flowers are purple and stand out with contrasting bring green leaves in a shade garden..
Cranesbill – Geranium x ‘Rozanne’

Combining Cranesbill with other shade-loving plants in contrasting colors and textures creates a lush looking garden with pops of color and seasonal interest.

We love to use Rozanne in mixed woodlands, container planting, and as a colorful border in formal gardens. With a long bloom time that usually lasts from June through September in the Pacific Northwest, the bright blue-purple flowers against nearly chartreuse foliage bring a pop of color to shady areas. The flowers themselves are a delicate mix of purple and blue with white centers that are lightly striped with deep purple. Super low maintenance, Rozanne only needs moist soil and filtered sunlight to thrive. A self-pruning species, hardy geraniums require no deadheading and will continue to bloom throughout the growing season if they are well-watered. If blooms begin to flag during the hottest days of the season, light pruning and shaping will help them spring back and continue to bloom into early autumn. We love to combine Rozanne geranium with other shade plants that provide contrasting colors and textures like Acanthus, Variegated Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) and Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) as pictured above.

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