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California Native Plants for Small Shady Corners

Story and photos by Ellen Uhler

My husband and I rub elbows while gardening on our Oakland city lot, constantly looking for somewhere to put just one more plant. The small dark corners get planted simply because we have run out of other available spaces. Fortunately the plant palette is diverse, offering a never-ending exploration of our California native flora. The following have done very well in our yard, adapting to the tiny plots (or pots) where we plant them. They generally need supplemental water only to extend the flowering period, or to keep things looking green, when nature is turning tawny. Most are visited by pollinators, and require little care other than an annual clean-up.

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea)
Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) I used to love this plant because the wildlife didn’t (gophers, deer, rabbits, ground squirrels), but now I’m impressed with its ability to squeeze into a narrow shady bed, and still provide copious pink flowers for the hummingbirds and bees.
Live-forevers (Dudleya species)
Live-forevers (Dudleya species) Overall these succulents tolerate a lot more shade than you might imagine. Here they nestle under a lemon tree growing in a large pot, which in turn is overtopped by a plum tree. They need very little summer water. (The bunchgrass doing a fireworks impression is leafy reed grass (Calamagrostis foliosa)).
Bolander’s phacelia (Phacelia bolanderi)
Bolander’s phacelia (Phacelia bolanderi) This perennial phacelia comes to us from a little further north, but is quite suited to the central coast. It self-seeds abundantly, so if the mother plants get a little straggly, you can often let the children take over. Big clusters of pale purple-blue flowers feed the bees and with supplemental water put on a show for months.
Fernald’s iris (Iris fernaldii)
Fernald’s iris (Iris fernaldii) This iris is very shade tolerant and usually has creamy flowers with dark veins. Color variants include pastels from peach to pale plum (probably enhanced by hybridizing with other iris species such as I. douglasiana). Plants increase with age and clumps can be divided in the early winter to share with your friends.
Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa)
Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) On the central coast bleeding heart is typically found in the redwood forest, but it adapts readily to shady corners of the yard. The fern-like foliage stays green all year if given some summer water. The clusters of heart-shaped flowers have a mysterious cinnamon-musk scent and attract hummingbirds.
Bee plant (Scrophularia californica)
Bee plant (Scrophularia californica) In rich soil bee plant can get 6-8 feet tall, and will spread into available space, but can be cut back as needed. If you want to do your part to help the poor bees, this one is a no-brainer. Inconspicuous brick-red mouse-eared flowers provide a lot of nectar, and with some supplemental water it will bloom for months on end. It’s at home from bright shade to full sun.
Piggyback plant (Tolmiea diplomenziesii)
Piggyback plant (Tolmiea diplomenziesii) This foliage plant likes moisture, but is otherwise carefree. New plantlets grow out of the leaves, so you can share them with the neighbors. Their inconspicuous flowers should be investigated- they look like little dragons.
Alumroots (Heuchera)
Alumroots (Heuchera) In our yard island alumroot (Heuchera maxima) blooms for months under the birdbath. The local small-flowered heuchera (Heuchera micrantha) would do well there too, as it enjoys a little summer water.
Fringe cups (Tellima grandiflora)
Fringe cups (Tellima grandiflora) Like the piggyback plant and the alumroots, fringe cups are also in the Saxifragaceae family. The neat clumps of leaves do well in both shade and part sun, and aren’t fussy. The fancy little flowers of fringe cups deserve a closer look, and may provide you with volunteer plants.
California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata)
California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) Taking out the garbage is more fun when you run over the foliage of the softly mint-scented hedge nettle. It’s truly carefree, and spreads almost aggressively enough to eliminate the weeds. The narrow strip where it’s planted keeps its rambunctiousness under control, and its bright pink flowers light up the shade. It gets no supplemental water, allowing the house foundation to stay drier.
Nested polypody (Polypodium calirhiza)
Nested polypody (Polypodium calirhiza) The polypody ferns have few requirements other than protection from the sun and some substrate on which to anchor. Their green fronds unfurl with the winter rains, and then coil up into brown curls in the summer. Extra water will prolong their growing season, but why not save water, and savor the changing of the seasons?
Wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
Wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca) Who doesn’t like strawberries?! These tough little plants could be considered weedy with their stolons spreading new plants everywhere, except that “strawberries” and “weedy” are incompatible terms. They like dappled shade, make a low groundcover, and are often seen cavorting with California hedge nettle and grey rush.

Grey rush (Juncus patens) The most shade and drought tolerant of the rushes, grey rush is a workhorse in the native plant garden. Grey rush forms dense evergreen grass-like clumps, with tough networks of roots that hold their own against weeds.

Nettles (Urtica dioica) For the real native plant connoisseur I recommend the perennial native nettles. Here you can have food, medicine and a security system all in one. The stinging hairs and proclivity to self-seeding may have you cursing, but after you’ve tried cream of chanterelle and nettle soup there is no going back. To top it off, it’s a host plant for Red Admiral caterpillars.

From the dense shade of redwood forests to the dappled edges of oak woodlands to the seasonal shade of deciduous riparian forests there are many different combinations of light, moisture and substrate. This list is a very small sample of the California native species which grow in wild shaded areas. By weaving them into your landscape you increase biodiversity and add resilience to the web of life.



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