Native Evergreen Ferns for Perennially Beautiful Shade Gardens



Christmas fern is one of the toughest and easiest of the eastern evergreen ferns for shade gardens.

Ferns give shade gardens a wistful, woodland look. Most die back after a hard frost, but a few remain evergreen for continued color though winter. Species range from resilient North American ferns to forest dwellers of Europe and Asia, but natives look most at home in American gardens. When planted in swaths, among other perennials, they create a protective winter blanket around the sleeping crowns of their counterparts.

Evergreen ferns are diverse in appearance. Some are huge and dramatic, while others are small and delicate. Each lends its own design possibilities and will stand out in your beds through the cold months. In early spring, cut back winter-worn foliage to allow fresh fronds to unfold.

Culture varies from species to species, but as a group, evergreen ferns generally grow best in full to partial shade and fertile moist to average soils fortified with garden compost, though a few are surprisingly drought and sun tolerant. Many favor slightly acid soils, in which case peat moss would be the preferred garden amendment.  The following list of seven species encompasses an array of showy options from across the country.

Select American Evergreen Ferns

Christmas fern grows well in dry shade and looks good under winter trees.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9) is a tough eastern fern that blankets forest floors with green all winter long. It thrives in moist, fertile soils but also grows along shaded rocky uplands where conditions are tougher and water more scarce. The broad clumps have simple dark green fronds that remain upright from spring to fall but flatten when winter hits and snow presses them to the forest floor. Plant this one in masses.

Giant chain fern is truly a giant, reaching up to 8 feet high. (Image by Stan Shebs)

Giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata, Zones 7-10) is the largest of the North American ferns and naturally grows in forests from Arizona to British Columbia. The big, impressive fronds, which can reach between 4-8 feet high and 9 feet wide, lend spacious gardens a primordial look. Sites with partial shade and moist soil are preferred, but once established, this fern can be surprisingly drought tolerant. Don’t plant this one with shy perennials. The biennial Korean giant angelica (Angelica gigas, Zones 4-10) is a beautiful compliment that will grow in partial shade and produces giant, deepest purple domed flowers that reach 6 feet. The 3-6 foot golden Japanese spikenard  (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King) is another potential complement. Cut back flagging fronds before the growing season takes off.

The lacy hairy lip fern is one of several evergreen species that grow well among rocks. (Image by Krzysztof Ziarnek Kenraiz)

Hairy lip fern (Cheilanthes lanosa, Zones 3-8) favors rocky outcrops in the eastern US. It reaches a height of 8 inches but will spread up to nearly 18 inches. Unlike many other ferns, it also grows well in full to partial sun. Its fuzzy fronds look attractive through winter. Any stone wall or rock garden would benefit from the addition of this charming fern. Plant it in slightly acid or alkaline soils that are porous and well-drained with some organic matter.

The bold Hart’s tongue fern looks tropical but grows well in colder zones.

American Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium var.americanum, Zones 5-9) fronds lack indentation, which makes them look like green tongues. This eastern species one of the more impressive looking evergreen ferns for gardens, with its upright mounds of bright green foliage that reach 1 to 1.5 feet high. It will spread over time to form a full, broad clump. Grow it in full to part shade in sites with average soils. Plant it with colorful forest bloomers, such as the spring-blooming wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) and summer-blooming Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica). Hart’s tongue fern exists across much of the northern hemisphere and is very adaptable. The Eurasian (Asplenium scolopendrium) is the species most commonly found in garden centers, but it is comparable in looks and preferences.

Maidenhair spleenwort will grow along rock faces and tolerate full sun.

Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes, Zones 3-9) is another truly lovely, delicate-looking rock fern that is surprisingly tough. Just look at its distinctive little fronds with beads of green. Native populations are widespread across much of the US, Canada, and adjacent Mexico. It tolerates sun and shade and grows well between moist rocky outcrops and woodlands. It forms nice clumps that reach just 4-8 inches. They are slow to grow and spread, so purchase fully grown plants.

Native to the American Southwest, wavy cloak fern is very tolerant of sun and drought.

Wavy cloak fern (Astrolepis sinuata, Zones 7-9) Here is a southwestern fern that can tolerant dry conditions and sun as well as partial shade. In the wild, it grows alongside rocks and beneath dryland shrubs. The upright, fine-fronded fern reaches 1-1.5 feet and looks delicate but feels tough and wiry. The leaf tops are dusty green, and the backs are almost coppery. Clumps spread to form small colonies.  Plant it with low-growing sedums and drought-tolerant grasses, such as Mexican hair grass (Nasella tenuissima).

Another fern for drier, rocker conditions is the soft, fuzzy wooly lip fern. (Image by Megan Hansen)

Wooly lip fern (Cheilanthes tomentosa, Zones 6-8) is a South-Central US native that can also take drier conditions and full sun to partial shade. It has fine, delicate fronds that look better suited to woodlands than rocky outcrops. It makes a good companion with hens and chicks and drought-tolerant grasses.

Winters look better with a few evergreen ferns to improve landscape color when the snow subsides. Keep in mind that smaller woodland types also look great with spring bulbs and native wildflowers, so plant them together to enliven the spring garden as well. (Click here to read more about early spring bulbs.)

I Need Colorful Flowers for Deep Shade

Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ is colorful and thrives in shade. (Image by Jessie Keith)

“What is the best colorful flower that needs the least amount of sun for Zone 7a?” Question from Kay of New Jersey

Answer: That’s a great question. I will list several brightly colored perennials that grow well in shaded Mid-Atlantic gardens (arranged by bloom time). But, let me know your soil type and whether your flowers will be competing with lots of surface tree roots. Most shade plants grow best with a nice layer of moderately moist, organic-rich soil and limited surface-root competition. Amending your soil with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend will help.

Colorful Flowers for Shade

Spigelia is a pretty summer bloomer for shade.

Early Spring – Helleborus Brandywine™ : Evergreen leaves and pretty early spring flowers make these great shade perennials for any Mid-Atlantic garden.

Late SpringTradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’: Golden foliage and violet-purple flowers make this one of the most colorful shade perennials for late spring.

Late SpringPhlox stolonifera ‘Home Fires’This hardy, low-growing, groundcover phlox produces bright magenta blooms in late spring and early summer.

Summer –Spigelia marilandica: This summer-blooming flower offers clusters of crimson and gold flowers that are beautiful and visited by hummingbirds.

Late Summer – Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips: Flowers of pink appear on this late-summer bloomer. Chelone likes a little more soil moisture and will tolerate both sun and shade.

All-Season Foliage Plants- Hostas and Heucheras: Both heucheras and hostas grow well in shade and have foliage that comes in a wide array of colors.

If you want to add some brightly colored shade-loving shrubs to your low-light garden, throw in a few azaleas and rhododendrons. Variegated red twig dogwoods also add brightness to shaded gardens.

Happy shade gardening!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Colorful Flowers for Shade Gardens

Columbine grow well in full sun to partial shade. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The bright treasures of the shade garden often come from our nation’s most beautiful forests. Beneath the canopies are perennials that evolved to grow and bloom on the forest floor, which botanists call the understory. Here the litter of leaves, thin soils and root competition caused by so many trees may be similar to your own yard’s shaded spaces. What you plant there likely came from the forest floor, and these treasures really flourish when you offer similar soil conditions.

Heuchera - Maureen Gilmer
Hot-colored foliage of Heuchera ‘Amber Waves’ brings sunset oranges to the shade garden all season long.

The leaf litter accumulation is known as a duff layer, which is the natural mulch for shade plants. Recreate this protective layer using Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and Garden Soil. It’s equally useful for amending poor soil and clays with organic matter that improves drainage.

Of all the understory perennials, four top choices offer color, romance and elegance to shaded beds and borders…


Today’s Heucheras and are by far the most exciting group of new cultivars. Breeders have crossed western native Heuchera species with the traditional coral bells. The result are new varieties that not only bloom extravagantly, but their foliage color is nothing short of outstanding. Here you’ll find mounds of vivid foliage in reds to purple, black, gold and many shades of green for color long after flowers fade.

Bleeding Heart - Maureen Gilmer
Charming heart-shaped blossoms hang from wand-like stems of Dicentra spectabilis, the woodland bleeding heart.

Bleeding Heart

From Asian forests come the old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), often the first flower of spring. This frilly perennial is the most romantic shade bloomer with wands of dangling heart-shaped pink flowers. These nod and sway in the slightest breeze adding gentle animation to shaded nooks in the garden. This species was also bred to our western native Dicentra to expand flower colors into dark red and white.


No flower can compete with the elegance of columbine (Aquilegia spp.), which is found in northern forest around the globe. Those we grow in gardens are hybrids of European species crossed with our many natives to produce a wide range of flower size and color. They also attract bees and hummingbirds.

Bigleaf Hydrangea

Perhaps the hottest shade garden plant is bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), the big leaf or mop head type. It brings early summer color to shade gardens with a bonus of blue or pink flowers to cut and dry. This is a great problem solver for beds and borders lacking much sun. Beware that mature hydrangea flowers are so fabulous they are routinely stolen from front yard plantings.

Hydrangea - Maureen Gilmer
Huge flower heads of big leaf hydrangeas offer cut flowers in pink or blue depending on the variety and soil conditions.

When you set out to bring color to your shaded garden, there is less light to make the foliage and flowers stand out. To increase visibility, plant groups of the same variety in small drifts or masses. Before planting, recreate the forest floor conditions by mixing lots of compost into your soil, or amend it on a plant by plant basis in each, individual hole. Once all are in the ground, spread a thick layer of mulch around each plant to create your own duff. Above all, remember that trees are greedy and applying water in the heat must be enough to please them and these colorful denizens of the understory too.