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19 Shade-Tolerant or Shade-Loving Evergreens


Shade-loving evergreens, best choices.

‘Evergreen’ is a broad term that doesn’t settle on a scientific definition.  While the word usually brings Christmas trees to mind, it simply refers to plants that stay green and photosynthesize year-round. In contrast, ‘deciduous’ trees are trees that are marked by their leaves falling routinely in certain seasons.

In the middle of evergreen and deciduous is the term ‘semi-evergreen,’ which refers to plants that may have a very short period of losing their leaves or are evergreens that are susceptible to certain environmental issues (like drought or bug infestation) that could cause them to lose foliage. 

Certain evergreens stay green year-round that are considered shade-tolerant, the most popular being varieties of boxwoods, hemlock, and yews.

Before we take a look at the different varieties of shade-tolerant evergreens, let’s explore the difference between conifers and evergreens, the types of evergreens, and the definition of shade.

Conifers and Evergreens

A common misconception about evergreens is that the term is synonymous with ‘conifer.’ To put it simply, conifers make up the varieties of trees that end up in our living rooms and town squares in December.  More scientifically speaking, conifers are plants that typically have needle-like or narrow leaves and produce cones to protect their seeds (Merriam-WebsterOpens in a new tab.). 

Conifers are gymnosperms (literally meaning ‘naked seed’), which are plants that produce seeds in an exposed manner.  Most gymnosperms grow their seeds in a cone the same as conifers do.

This is what distinguishes conifers from other plants (angiosperms, that produce seeds inside reproductive organs like flowers and fruits) not their potential status as evergreens. Most conifers are evergreens, but there are types that lose their leaves in the fall. 

Essentially, evergreens are plants that keep their foliage alive year-round, regardless of their physical characteristics. 

Types of Evergreens

Because ‘evergreen’ doesn’t denote specific plant varieties, any plant can qualify if it stays active throughout all of the growing seasons.  For example, a tree that goes dormant in the winter in Montana may be able to stay active all year in Florida; therefore, it is an evergreen in one place and not in another. 

That being said, many evergreens are consistent and therefore, can be divided into groups.

Evergreens are typically split into two categories: narrowleaf and broadleaf. 

Broadleaf evergreens include versions of tropical plants like mahogany, some varieties of hardwoods like oak and holly, and even some outlier varieties like palm trees. This category also includes shrubs and groundcover varieties such as hydrangeas and creeping thyme.

Narrowleaf evergreens are more popular picks for landscaping because they are picturesque, needled evergreens like firs, pines, and false cypress shrubs, which are varieties of conifers.

The most popular evergreens for shady areas are varieties of ‘boxwoods,’ ‘hemlock,’ and ‘yews.’  These mostly produce sturdy, green, traditional-looking evergreens.  That being said, there are many unique and colorful evergreen options for the shady areas in your garden.

What is ‘Shade?’

Before exploring plant options, ‘shade’ terms should be identified.  You will typically find exposure characteristics defined as:

Full sun: at least 6 hours of light a day

Partial sun/partial shade: 4-6 hours of sun a day, preferably morning sun

Full shade: Limited sun exposure, including no direct sun

(IFAS, Florida University blogOpens in a new tab.)

Many plants can survive in several exposure conditions.  This article identifies evergreens that thrive or tolerate at least partial shade. 

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The 19 Best Evergreens For Shady Areas

Carpet Bugle ‘Bronze Beauty’

Ajuga reptans

Ajuga reptans combine evergreen covering with colorful seasonal blooms.

This is a unique, colorful, and vibrant groundcover evergreen that grows quickly and covers hard-to-reach areas.  It is a lively replacement for areas usually taken over by grass, like gaps in rock pathways.  While the bright blue flowers are attractive, gardeners are drawn to this plant because of its quick growth and bronze foliage. 

This is a very low maintenance and adaptable plant. While its growth in shade is valued, it can survive in full sun as well.  As long as it’s given a moist environment and decent airflow, it can thrive in most soil conditions.  It is not affected by pests, although mildew is something to watch for.  Its one downside as an evergreen is that it is evergreen in most places; if you plant outside the hardiness zone, you may not be able to enjoy it year-round. 

  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Height at Maturity: 2” – 5”
  • Width at Maturity: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4 – 10
  • Sun Exposure: Partial sun, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, but overall adaptable
  • Invasive: Oregon and West Virginia

Japanese Spurge

Pachysandra terminalis

Japanese Spurge evergreen in bloom.

This plant provides a beautiful dark green coverage of shady areas.  It blooms with small colorful flowers in the spring, but its uniquely shaped leaves and rich color are its main attractions. 

This is a perfect plant for low maintenance.  Once planted, it can be left to grow without much attention, as it is resistant to most pests (including deer), air pollution, and diseases.  It prefers moist soil, but can handle dry conditions well.

  • Plant Type: Perennial shrub
  • Height at Maturity: 6” – 8”
  • Width at Maturity: 1’ – 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4 – 8
  • Sun Exposure: Partial sun, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, otherwise adaptable
  • Invasive: No

Coral Bells ‘Autumn Leaves’

Heuchera

Coral Bells flowering evergreen plant.

This is an incredible option for gardeners who want year-round color besides green.  Coral Bell leaves take on different hues of red throughout the year and produce flowers in the early summer. It is a colorful addition to borders, coverage, and even containers.

Coral Bell is a low-maintenance plant for many reasons.  It handles heat and humidity well, does well in drought conditions, resists pests and diseases, and attracts butterflies.  While it can be planted in full sun, this would require extra watering.  As an evergreen, the only downside is that it is a semi-evergreen.  Even so, it is a perennial.  If your hardiness zone does not support it as an evergreen, it will revive in the next growing season.

  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Height at Maturity: 8” – 2’
  • Width at Maturity: 1’ – 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4 – 9
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial sun, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, neutral, and loam or sand
  • Invasive: No

Korean Boxwood ‘Justin Brouwers’

Buxus sinica var. insularis

Boxwoods are popular, sturdy, reliable options for shady evergreens, and the Korean Boxwood is no different.  Showcasing a classic green foliage year-round, this plant will grow in a dense, rounded manner.  It makes a perfect addition to a small garden or border.

The Korean Boxwood is low maintenance and grows best in partial shade.  Like other similar plants, it should be mulched and watered to keep it from dehydrating, although it will survive in dry conditions.  It is susceptible to certain pests and diseases, so watch for leaf spots and small bugs. 

  • Plant Type: Shrubs
  • Height at Maturity: 1’ – 2’
  • Width at Maturity: 1’ – 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6 – 8
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial shade, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained and moist, but adaptable
  • Invasive: No

Variegated Lily Turf

Liriope muscari

Offering purple fall flowers and low maintenance, Variegated Lily Turf is an evergreen often chosen as a border plant for flower beds.

Variegated Lily Turf can be used as an ornamental grass due to its long, showy, ivory-striped leaves.  The purple flower clusters do not appear until late summer/fall, so its addition to a garden will add color in the late growing season.  It does well as anything from a border to a coverage plant.

This is another low maintenance plant because it resists pests, diseases, deer, rabbits, and does well in humid and dry conditions.  While it can survive in full shade, it will not grow as quickly or as full as it would in partial shade or full sun. 

  • Plant Type: Perennial
  • Height at Maturity: 1’ – 2’
  • Width at Maturity: 1’ – 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5 – 10
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial sun, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, but overall adaptable
  • Invasive: Deep South East

Glossy Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’

Abelia x grandiflora

Glossy Abelia is technically a semi-evergreen that offers changing bloom colors throughout the year.

This dwarf semi-evergreen changes color with the season.  With white blooms lasting for most of the warm season, it starts with yellow and green in spring, it morphs to gold in the summer, followed by orange in the fall, and finishing with a bright red for lively winter color. 

The Kaleidoscope provides the best coloration in full sun, but it also does well in partial shade.  Its soil needs are normal, and it is resistant to most pests and diseases.  It’s suggested that you keep it protected from hard freezes.

  • Plant Type: Shrubs
  • Height at Maturity: 2’ – 3’
  • Width at Maturity: 3’ – 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6 – 9
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained and moist
  • Invasive: No

‘Anne Marie’ English Ivy

Hedera helix

This plant is another great coverage plant, with leaves of different shapes based on their maturity.  It sports a soft green color with an ivy edge and is popular for its visual interest. 

This is a low-maintenance plant, but it can’t be left fully alone.  It prefers semi-moist, well-drained soil and is only mildly resistant to drought conditions. It should be monitored for leaf spots and various pest infestations, including aphids and vine weevils.

  • Plant Type: Perennial, climber
  • Height at Maturity: 3’ – 4’
  • Width at Maturity: 2’ – 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5 – 10
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial sun, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained and consistent moisture
  • Invasive: Entire West Coast and central East Coast

Boxwood ‘Green Velvet’

Buxus

Perhaps the most popular evergreen shrub, the Boxwood is a very traditional-looking bush.  It holds a dense, uniform look that is consistent year-round.  It produces a rich, dark green foliage that can be enjoyed throughout the seasons.

While planting takes a bit of preparation, this is a fairly low-maintenance plant.  It should be planted in a partially-shaded area (too much shade will slow its growth, too much sun could damage the foliage) that is protected from strong wind.  It can survive in drought conditions, but it should be mulched when planted and watered in dry weather.  It is mildly susceptible to pests and diseases, so keep an eye out for leaf spots and bugs.

  • Plant Type: Shrubs
  • Height at Maturity: 3’ – 4’
  • Width at Maturity: 3’ – 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5 – 8
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial sun, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, but overall adaptable
  • Invasive: No

Anglo-Japanese Yew

Taxus-media

Anglo-Japanese Yew plant.

This is another traditional-looking shrub when it comes to evergreens.  It is a dense formation of bright green needles that produce seeds in red cones.  It grows slowly, staying round when young growing out as it ages. 

This thrives in full sun and partial shade but survives in full shade.  It is extremely low-maintenance, as it can survive in drought conditions and does not need to be pruned.  It is a poisonous shrub if eaten, which should be carefully considered by parents and pet owners. 

  • Plant Type: Shrubs, conifers
  • Height at Maturity: 3’ – 4’
  • Width at Maturity: 4’ – 6’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4 – 7
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial sun, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, but otherwise adaptable
  • Invasive: No

American Yew

Taxus canadensis

Opposing several shrubs on this list, the American Yew does not grow in a tight, compact manner.  Rather, it has a more open and free structure.  Females will produce small red cones in the summer. Its foliage is dark green on the top and light green on the bottom through the summer and changes to hues of auburn in the winter. 

The American Yew is low-maintenance, but it does need protection from various dangers.  Full winter sun, heat, dry conditions, and strong winds will all pose a threat to the plant’s health.  It grows best in partial shade but will do well in full shade as well.

  • Plant Type: Shrubs, conifers
  • Height at Maturity: 3’ – 5’
  • Width at Maturity: 6’ – 8’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3 – 7
  • Sun Exposure: Partial shade, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained and moist, but adaptable
  • Invasive: No

Oregon Grape Holly

Mahonia Aquifolium

Oregon Grape Holly is a shade-loving plant but can tolerate partial sun.

The Oregon Grape Holly is a unique evergreen in that its produce is edible.  Its colors are vibrant all year long, starting off with bronze leaves and light, golden flowers in the spring.  In the summer, it gives way to dark green foliage and indigo berries that are edible raw and can be used for making jam.  The fall brings in a burgundy hue which provides color through the cold months. 

This plant thrives in partial and full shade and will not handle full sun well.  It is slightly higher maintenance than most on this list, as it needs consistent moisture, protection from wind, rich soil, and grows best in colonies.  However, it is resistant to most serious pests and diseases. 

  • Plant Type: Shrubs
  • Height at Maturity: 3’ – 6’
  • Width at Maturity: 2’ – 5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5 – 8
  • Sun Exposure: Partial shade, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, acidic, moist, rich
  • Invasive: No, but will naturalize if suckers aren’t pruned

Dog Hobble

Leucothoe fontanesiana

Dog Hobble plants.

Dog Hobble is an elegant-looking plant.  Its dropped groupings of white flowers emerge in the summer as the leaves turn dark green.  Outside of the flowering season, the foliage alternates between hues of bronze, red, and purple. 

Another low-maintenance plant, the Dog Hobble is described as a ‘shade lover.’ It does not need pruning and it resists most pests and diseases.  However, it needs consistent moisture and calm conditions and its leaves and flowers are poisonous, so it does come with its share of concerns. 

  • Plant Type: Shrubs
  • Height at Maturity: 3’ – 6’
  • Width at Maturity: 3’ – 6’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5 – 8
  • Sun Exposure: Partial sun, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, acidic, and clay, loam, or sand
  • Invasive: No

Fernspray Gold

Chamaecyparis obtuse

This tree may not produce many colors, but its growth habits make it an interesting addition to landscapes.  Its branches can grow somewhat whimsically, while generally keeping a triangular shape to the tree.  The foliage exposed to the sun will keep a lighter green coloration than the foliage inside the tree. 

The Hinoki Cypress enjoys full sun and partial shade.  It is low-maintenance, but it should be protected from strong winds and watched for aphids and root diseases.  Acidic soils work best for this plant, but it will grow in other conditions.

  • Plant Type: Shrubs, conifers
  • Height at Maturity: 5’ – 6’
  • Width at Maturity: 2’ – 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4 – 8
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained and acidic, but adaptable
  • Invasive: No

Red Chokeberry

Aronia arbutifolia

Red Chokeberry offers changing colors throughout every season.

This plant provides an ever-changing colorful interest to any garden.  With light pink flowers in the spring, dark green foliage in the summer, and vibrant red leaves and berries through the fall and winter, there is no season where this tall shrub will not shine.  Along with its aesthetic interest, the Red Chokeberry provides food to bees, butterflies, and birds all year long. 

Another low-maintenance plant, the Red Chokeberry is resistant to most pests and diseases and grows naturally in wet and dry northern climates.  It thrives in full sun and partial shade, although it does produce more fruit in full sun.  It is also only semi-evergreen, so check your hardiness zone to see if it would support this plant as an evergreen.

  • Plant Type: Shrubs
  • Height at Maturity: 5’ – 10’
  • Width at Maturity: 3’ – 5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4 – 9
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, but otherwise adaptable
  • Invasive: No

Toyon

Heteromeles arbutifolia

This picturesque plant is popular with Christmas lovers.  Following its prolific white flowering stage in the summer, the Toyon produces red berries that keep their color through the winter.  Its leaves are consistently dark green and provide a rich point of interest regardless of the season. 

This is another low-maintenance plant because of its growing ease, ability to thrive in full sun and partial shade, and adaptability to most soil conditions.  An interesting characteristic is that, while the tree does not need much water to survive, consistent watering will render this tree fire-resistant.  While it seems to handle pests well, Toyon unfortunately is not resistant to disease.  Watch out for root rot, black mildew, fire blight, and other diseases.

  • Plant Type: Shrubs, trees
  • Height at Maturity: 6’ – 8’
  • Width at Maturity: 4’ – 5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 9 – 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, but otherwise adaptable
  • Invasive: No

Spotted Laurel

Aucuba japonica

Spotted Laurel budding.

To appreciate the full display of this plant year-round, make sure to plant a male and female close together.  Both will produce rich green leaves with speckles of gold scattered throughout, and the spring will bring purple flowers with white anthers.  The females will then yield bright red berries that will last through the winter months, but only when pollinated. 

While the Spotted Laurel needs to be kept from strong gusts of wind, it is mostly low-maintenance.  It grows best in partial to full shade, survives through dry spells, and is adaptable to most soil conditions (although rich soil will make a difference with its vibrancy). 

  • Plant Type: Shrubs
  • Height at Maturity: 6’ – 10’
  • Width at Maturity: 5’ – 9’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6 – 10
  • Sun Exposure: Partial shade, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, but otherwise adaptable
  • Invasive: No

English Yew

Taxus baccata

A low-maintenance evergreen, English Yew.

This large shrub/small tree is a unique-looking plant.  While its foliage is a sturdy, dark green, its branches look somewhat whimsical.  At times, female branches produce red cones even though the tree itself is male.  You can prune and shape this tree however you desire.

This is a low-maintenance tree that is flexible with its conditions.  It prefers full sun or partial shade, but grows well in full shade as well.  Other needs are average, but flexible.  Most elements are poisonous if eaten, like other similar plants.

  • Plant Type: Shrubs, conifers, trees
  • Height at Maturity: 6’ – 15’
  • Width at Maturity: 4’ – 8’
  • Hardiness Zone: 7 – 8
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun, partial shade, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained, but adaptable
  • Invasive: No

Boxwood

Buxus sempervirens

While this Boxwood resembles needled trees, it is actually a broadleaf evergreen.  Its picturesque growth habit is completely natural; you do not need to prune or train this tree to achieve this structured look.  Its deep green foliage will keep this color year-round.

The best environment for the Boxwood is partial shade.  It will grow – although with less volume – in full shade, but full sun could damage its foliage.  Mulch will help keep this plant hydrated.  It can survive dry spells, but should still be watered in these phases.  It is susceptible to certain pests and diseases like box red spider mites and leaf spots, so watch for these threats. 

  • Plant Type: Shrubs
  • Height at Maturity: 7’ – 8’
  • Width at Maturity: 2’ – 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6 – 8
  • Sun Exposure: Partial shade, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained and moist, but adaptable
  • Invasive: No

Florida Hobblebush

Agarista populifolia

Florida Hobblebush offers both evergreen leaves and seasonal blooms.

This plant is an ornamental, colorful addition to a border or large section of ground.  Its flowers emerge in the late spring/early summer and stay until its seeds drop, but the green foliage is year-round.  The shade of green will change throughout the seasons. 

This is a low-maintenance plant because it resists most pests, diseases, and flooding conditions.  It needs clay, loam, or sandy soil and an average water intake.  While its natural height is quite tall, it can be pruned and kept at any desirable height.  A unique concern with this plant is its leaves; they can be fatal upon ingestion, which parents and pet owners should seriously consider.

  • Plant Type: Shrubs
  • Height at Maturity: 8’ – 12’
  • Width at Maturity: 5’ – 6’
  • Hardiness Zone: 7 – 9
  • Sun Exposure: Partial sun, shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained and acidic
  • Invasive: No

Conclusion

Choosing the right evergreen should include considerations of your hardiness zone, soil properties, sun exposure, and your particular tastes. There are plenty of options to choose from. Make the choice that’s right for your yard.

Sydney Bosque

Sydney has over 15 years of experience in lawn maintenance, landscape design, and organic gardening. She has an A.A.S. in Landscape Design/Organic Produce Production from the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture.

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