Alison AplinPlants for shade in temperate Australia

Before considering what plants to grow, we need to look at the growing conditions. You need to ask yourself a few questions, like is the area shady all year or is the shade caused by a deciduous tree? If you answer when the tree is dormant, will there be access to winter sun for the north [southern hemishpere]. This significantly opens the range of plants that can be used. I personally find that if the shade from the tree is dappled or less during summer, then most plants will manage in this aspect, except of course those plants that demand full sun.

Aspidistra elatior var attenuata

Is the shade caused by the wall of a building or shed? Is the area under eaves, hence minimal rainfall to the site and so extra irrigation will be required. I have never come upon a plant that will survive with no water and no light!

The soil in the area also needs to be examined. Free draining is essential to most plants but areas abutting buildings, especially on a slope may have impeded drainage caused by the building footings. Unless you want to grow bog plants that will tolerate wet periods following heavy rain, then the drainage will need to be resolved.

Ruscus aculeatus

Dappled/filtered shade means that the canopy of trees allows some light through and the plants beneath are not in dense shade. Plants for this exposure, growing in well drained soil could include Aspidistra elatior or cast iron plant, Ruscus aculeatus growing to about 1 to 1.2 metres and Ruscus hypoglossum which is a smaller clumping form. Both of the Ruscus grow in dry shade. They can both fruit, but fruit is rarely formed, the theory being that you need a male and female plant – I have no idea how to determine this, so just accept the interesting foliage form.

Cordyline petiolaris

Also for dappled shade are the Cordyline family. I grow in my rainforest garden Cordyline rubra, Cordyline petiolaris, Cordyline australis, Cordyline stricta and Cordyline obtecta. These plants are predominantly foliage plants as are the bulk of shade loving plants grown. But to me, this plant group is stunning for its sheer grace. When grown in these conditions i.e. out of full sun, they tend to be smaller. In full sun they are taller and robust plants and can burn on a hot day with low humidity.

Full shade is deep shade. Often formed from the space between 2 buildings that are close together with eaves overhanging. It is also usually very dry. This shade can also be formed by a mass of trees, often with large leaves, but these trees are often deciduous and so allow winter sunlight into the space when dormant. The Aspidistra and both the Ruscus will also grow here as they are very shade and drought tolerant plants. Surprisingly, the bulk of drought tolerant plants like those mentioned, need quite a lot of water to get them established; once to this point, they are remarkably tough.

Hedychium gardenerianum

Partial shade is when the space receives shade at some stage during the day. I find that this can be the most daunting area to plant if the sun exposure is during the hottest part of the day i.e. mid to late afternoon. These need to be pretty tough plants to tolerate shade for the better part of the day to then be blasted by 40 degree plus blasts of hot Australian sun. A plant that I have found will work in these conditions is Hedychium gardnerianum or the ginger lily. Some regard this plant as a nuisance when grown without regard for its expanding size, but when room is allowed for its expanding girth it is a wonderful plant. Good garden hygeine will remove any seed that may germinate; we have not experienced this occurrence to date.

Dianella ‘Goddess’

There are quite a few Australian native grass-like perennials that grow well in various degrees of shade. I have found that they also look good with the plants mentioned above, because they are a variation on a theme – of growing foliage plants. Varieties that I have found do especially well are Dianella ‘Silverado’ with strappy grey foliage and silver variegation. Also Dianella caerulea ‘Goddess’ and Dianella tasmanica ‘Emerald Arch’ are good.

Dianella tasmanica ‘Emerald Arch’

Plant labels often state full sun, but I have found that the bulk of dianellas prefer part to dappled shade. I grow in both. They may not flower as well, but I have a tendency to grow for foliage effect at the expense of flowers which are usually fleeting.

Lomandra ‘Tropic Belle’

The Lomandra family of native perennials also has a species that I have found good in shade. This is Lomandra hystrix and its hybrids, Lomandra ‘Tropic Belle’ and Lomandra ‘Katie Belles’

Lomandra ‘Katie Belles’

They are bigger forms in general than the Lomandra longifolia varieties with a more graceful habit. But they do appear to prefer an acid soil to flourish.

Correa ‘Canberra bells’

Many of the Correa family grow and prefer some shade. Varieties like Correa ‘Marians’ Marvel’ and Correa ‘Mini Marian’ are excellent examples. The new Correa ‘Canberra Bells’ is also growing happily in my garden in dappled shade. The canopy here is high, but the area receives almost no direct sun. There is light without the sun.

Correa bauerlenii

Correa bauerlenii and Correa calycina are both very shade tolerant, tolerating more shade than the others. I have planted Correa calycina in my native garden at the base of a young Acacia melanoxylon, but last summer on a very hot day, the plant really struggled because it was receiving too much direct sun. In time, the canopy of the wattle will grow and protect it, and fortunately the blackwood wattle is a fast grower.

Both correas have green flowers, but birds seem to love these as much as the coloured forms. These green flowers in a native garden help to create that serenity that is so typical of the bush garden. The minimal use of loud colours is so endearing in the Australian bush. Restraint is definitely the essence here.


A sponsored tip from OZBREED
Liriope is an excellent plant for shade, growing well in most parts of Australia. Ozbreed’s Amythest Liriope stands out from the rest with its striking, deep-purple summer flowers held high above the rich green foliage.

And for a beautiful fine-textured lawn in a shady area, Ozbreed’s Sapphire fine leaf buffalo was rated best performing turf for 30%, 50% and 70% shade in a Horticulture Australia test. Added to that, it’s also very drought and frost resistant.

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Alison Aplin

About Alison Aplin

Alison is a passionate, multi award winning sustainable landscape designer, Horticulturist and arborist. She has been the owner and designer of 2 Ecotourism gardens that have both won significant awards. Her writing is based on knowledge, empirical learning which is essential to sustainable ethic, and a questioning mind leading to much research. Her articles are often controversial - with a disclaimer that she is responsible for the written matter, and not Garden Drum. A deeply caring person about the natural environment, Alison's writing endeavours to explain why sustainable landscapes are so important. Without people like her, they will be lost and gardens will become merely concrete

6 thoughts on “Plants for shade in temperate Australia

  1. Hi Alison,
    Correa ‘Canberra Bells’ is a great plant for the garden, and also a way to share in Canberra’s centenary next year. It’s been selected as the official plant of our capitals centenary and will be at the centre of many a celebration during 2013.
    I’ve also been enjoying Hellebores over the past couple of months, with some stunning new varieties now on the market. Check out the ‘Winter Royalty’ Collection for great shade-loving displays!

    • Thanks for your comment Amanda. I also love Hellebores, especially the corsicus/angustifolius varieties. I suppose I prefer these because the foliage is the dominant feature of the plant and remains intact whereas the traditional Hellebore in my gardens have always become dormant over summer. I have not grown them at all well in either this garden or my former one in the Clare Valley because of the limestone underlay. I feel that they prefer a well drained heavier soil for best effect. Maybe our soil is too nutrient depleted; am working on this but it takes time. But yes, I do agree that Hellebores are great plant for shade and remarkably drought tolerant once established [or maybe this is my problem and they are not as drought tolerant as I suppose?].

  2. Thanks for the info. on your website, but I am having trouble finding shady plants that give colour and tolerate quite dense shade in a cove near Adelaide. Some that I have tried have looked good for about three weeks (I can’t remember the names) but then start lose the will to live. (These have been meant for shade). I have become quite disheartened by this. I know Agapanthas can survive virtually anywhere but I’m not particularly fond of them.
    Have you any wise suggestions from your wide knowledge of the subject. I would be very grateful. Thanks, Zinaida

    • Hello Zinaida
      As a former resident of Adelaide I know this beautiful city well and know how difficult gardening can be for gardening enthusiasts.
      Some considerations that need to be addressed are 1) what is your soil? Many coastal areas in suburbia Adelaide have heavy clay soils which will affect the plant choice 2) what is the cause of this dense shade? If tree canopy, can reducing the density of the canopy allow extra light in? We do this annually with some of our trees so enable more light into the lower area, while also raising the canopy upwards so that in time, this annual pruning becomes obsolete.
      If the dense shade is caused by buildings, building rubble at the base can have an effect on the well-being of the plants.
      Instead of flower colour, why not consider variegated [with white variegation] plants? Many of these are tough and reliable. You need to consider how you irrigate your plants, especially if trees are the cause of the shade as the trees will take a lot of the moisture if the irrigation is too superficial. Now is not the time of the year to plant in Adelaide by choice.
      No plant is going to flower indefinitely, so to me the best way to achieve a good effect in shade is with foliage. Rainforests are perfect examples of shade planting.

  3. Hello Alison
    We live on the mid-north coast of NSW, quite close to the sea. Our dining room looks out on the southern side of the house to a wooden fence in front of which is a very narrow passage between us and our neighbours. This area gets no sun at all .We would like to plant something ‘green’ that will grow to about 6ft, just to hide the fence and soften the outlook. I am wondering if Lilly Pilly’s would grow here as they seem to thrive in most environments. If so, what variety would you recommend. Any other suggestions would be much appreciated.
    Many thanks

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