Wet Shade

Question: I see many articles about dealing with dry shade but that’s not quite the problem I have. Can you tell me any plants that will grow in wet shade?

Answer: When you have a specific challenging conditions in your gardening site—such as wet shade—it helps to match those conditions up to a nearby natural area and investigate the plants that inhabit it. “Wet shade” can be akin to a swamp, riverbank, lake shore and other naturally damp areas. You might check with the local chapter of your state’s native plant society to learn what plants thrive in such areas near you. Wildflower.org, the website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, can also be very helpful because its plant listings are quite specific about not just what state the plant comes from, but what kind of natural landscape it typically occurs in.

That said, here are a few plants generally successful in wet to damp shade:
SHRUBS
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Shrubby dogwoods (Cornus spp.)
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Elderberries (Sambucus spp.)
Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
Spicebush (Calycanthus spp.)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)

PERENNIALS
Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
Cardnial flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Ferns
Astilbe
Piqsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia)
Sedges (Carex spp.) and certain ornamental grasses

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Find advice on making the most of shade in The Shady Border, a Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide.

Southern shade gardeners: check out Southern Shade, a guide to selecting plants that will thrive despite the extremes of your climate.

Barabara Ellis offers 20 detailed plans for shade gardens in Shady Retreats.

Get great advice and a good look at the shade garden of well-known British gardener Beth Chatto in The Shade Garden.

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11 thoughts on “Wet Shade

  1. I live in the northeast in full shade with poor soil predominately clay and the following do well in my yard: Jack in the Pulpit, Trillium,
    Dog toothed violets, Bloodroot, Virginia Blue Bells, Twin leaf, Spring beauty, Hepatica, Black cohosh, Blue myrtle, Primroses, May apples, Hosta, Fern, Astilbe, Hellebores, Wood lilly, Indian Pink, Asia Ginger, Pulmonaria,Brunnera, Cut-leafed toothwort, and, of course, the very invasive Lilly of the Valley.

  2. Determining your locale and zone would be helpful, but if you are in northern zones, here are a few suggestions:
    -as for shrubs (for light shade) you may try Winterberry (Ilex vert) which is a holly that looses it’s leaf, but the bright crimson berry is very showy in the winter landscape. Prefer clusters of them, and you’ll need a male such as ‘Jim Dandy’ to get the fruit.
    – as for perennials for shade (not too dark) why not try
    one ot more of the many sedges avail today. Some are variegated such as ‘Ice Dance’.
    – for an aggressive but tropical looking plant try Butter-burr
    (Pestastis jap.) with it’s HUGE leaves. Loves wtaer, and grows in shady situations. But I warn that it is AGGRESSIVE, if you have room to let it spread out. Hope this helps!

  3. I have a wet shade area – not swampy or wetlands, but a consistently damp under trees kind of wet shade. I’ve experimented over the years and what grows best are astilbe, ferns, bleeding hearts, columbine, hostas, azalea, (not rhododendron, however), and oddly enough, curley parsley (just threw extra seeds down to see what would happen).

  4. I have a wooded ravine in back of my house (zone 7, MD) with a small, intermittent stream in the bottom. It gets filtered sun only when the trees have no leaves. I was given a few clumps of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) by a friend. Since I have no damp place in my yard, I planted them along the stream bank. They have slowly spread over 15-20 years and now line the bank for about 30-40 ft. They are very pretty in the spring, and go dormant in the summer. They have even held their own against the carpet of English ivy planted by the previous owner.

  5. I am planning to move my Rodgersia ‘Fireworks’ and Ligularia ‘The Rocket’ plants to more shade and more regular water. This year they constantly needed water and had some sun and were always drooping or leaves drying up. They would only perk up when watered. The Astilbe in front of them also dried up easily. So I guess I’m suggesting trying these plants.

    • Hi, Jo Ellen! Thanks for commenting. I think we are both right. Sometimes out West they call the Western native Calycanthus species (C. occidentalis) “spicebush.” You are right that Lindera benzoin is also “spicebush.” And the southern Calycanthus species, C. florida, is Carolina allspice or sweetshrub.

      Another instance of the importance of Latin names!

      Lindera benzoin is indeed another good choice for a damp spot, in sun or shade. Thanks again!

      • Indeed, Latin names are critical when talking about plants, especially when a common name refers to more than one plant. That’s why if you were talking about Western spicebush, then Calycanthus occidentalis would have been the proper citing. In common parlance with the USDA, and many, many other plant sources, Calycanthus is not usually referred to as spice bush, but as allspice.

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