Phil DudmanTop 10 plants for subtropical shade

Finding the right plants to grow in a shady spot is a common challenge, but there are far more choices than you think. Here’s a bunch of my favourite subtropical beauties to get you started: begonia, bromeliads, anthurium, clivia, blue ginger, Malaysian orchid, caladium, zebra plant, Brazilian plume flower and bat flower.

Begonia sanguinea

Begonia sanguinea

1. Begonias
: they’re a little old fashioned and as common as muck, but there’s a reason for that… they are great performers in the shade. Many feature beautiful flowers, and when they’re not in bloom, you’ve got a terrific range of foliage shapes, colours and textures to look at. Most are low growing, but some form tall slender canes which make them a good choice for lining narrow pathways along the fence on the shady side of the house. All of them are very easy to propagate, so you can fill large areas on a budget and create stunning effects.

Begonia listada

Begonia listada

2. Bromeliads: this is another very familiar plant that can’t be ignored when decorating shady spaces. There are so many beautiful types to choose from, with attractive foliage and showy flowers that last for ages. They’re easy to propagate so you can fill large areas on the cheap, and because they are epiphytes, they need minimal soil so there’s no need to worry about competition from hungry tree roots – just plonk them in the mulch, give them the occasional watering and they’ll be happy forever.

Shade-loving bromeliads thrive in the subtropics

Shade-loving bromeliads thrive in the subtropics

3. Anthuriums
: these are also epiphytic plants that love the shade. They feature glossy green heart-shaped leaves and flowers in red, pink, purple or white throughout the year. Enrich your soil with humus and feed them regularly to encourage lots of beautiful foliage and blooms.

Anthurium 'Small Talk'

Anthurium ‘Small Talk’

4. Clivias
: Clivias are almost unkillable. You rarely have to water them – you can pretty much plant and forget. Their lush green strappy leaves look good year round then in late winter/ spring they brighten up the world with their orange trumpet blooms. With a little hunting around, you’ll also find yellow and cream varieties. Plant them in clumps or rows for greatest effect.

Shade-loving cream clivia

Shade-loving cream clivia

Red clivia hybrid

Red clivia hybrid

5. Blue ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsiflora)
: While it looks like a ginger, it’s not actually a true ginger. The flowers aren’t blue either, they’re more of a purple. Despite these little discrepancies, it’s a showy number for the shade, shooting it’s bunches of colourful blooms into view every summer. It’s easy to propagate from stem cuttings, so repeat it in generous clumps throughout shady areas to create a unifying effect.

Blue ginger - Dichorisandra thyrsiflora

Blue ginger – Dichorisandra thyrsiflora

6. Malaysian Orchid (Medinilla cumingii): 
Another deceiving common name – it’s not an orchid and it doesn’t come from Malaysia. It is however a very showy and valuable plant for the shade. The pretty pink flowers open the performance, and soon followed by the berries, starting purple and then turning black.

Malaysian orchid - Medinilla cumingii

Malaysian orchid – Medinilla cumingii

7. Caladiums: 
It’s hard not to fall in love with these beautifully patterned and multi-coloured leaves. They will give your shady areas the true look of the tropics through the summer, which is when they’re at their best. Caladiums grow from underground corms (which are like a bulb) and die back over winter in subtropical zones. If you like, you can dig them up when they’re dormant and divide the corms to create more plants.

Deep pink caladium

Deep pink caladium

Caladium white and red

Caladium white and red

8. Zebra Plant (Aphelandra squarrosa): 
This is a lovely little thing for shade with its deep green leaves beautifully-patterned with stripes of cream and don’t forget those bright yellow flowers.

Aphelandra squarrosa. Photo Oeropium

Aphelandra squarrosa. Photo Oeropium

9. Brazilian plume flower (Justicia carnea): 
This one is a soft wooded shade-loving shrub to about 1.5m with lush leaves and thick plumes of pale pink, deep pink or pure white tubular flowers in summer. It’s a real delight. While it performs beautifully in shade, it will also flourish in sunny spots so it’s a good choice for out on the edge of tree canopies where it’s likely to get a bit of both. They’re easy to propagate from cuttings too, so you could spot them around under the broad canopy of a big jacaranda.

Brazilian plume flower - Justicia carnea

Brazilian plume flower – Justicia carnea

10. Bat flower (Tacca chantrieri): 
If you won’t something really special, try one of these. It’s a real stunner, with its large glossy green leaves and bat-like blooms; everyone will be gobsmacked when they see it.
 Keep an eye out for them. There are both black and white flowering forms available.

Bat flower

Tacca chantrieri – bat flower

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4 thoughts on “Top 10 plants for subtropical shade

  1. Sancha Dickson on said:

    I have a sub tropical garden on the eastern shore of Sydney Harbour. I want to plant some interesting plants that can take full sun. I have many bromeliads and gingers and some heliconias plus succulents in some dry places. I live on a hillside with terraced gardens.

    • Phil – sounds like you’d better write a new blog post called ‘Top 10 plants for subtropical sun’!

  2. pineapple on said:

    I’ve wrestled with the shade thing for some time and am happy to discover that a few of my discoveries are on your list. Thanks for the suggestions … now onto the ground covers!

  3. Talli Jackson on said:

    Thanks a heap Phil! I’ve been making a tropical garden in my backyard and a lot of my plants are from this page!

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