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Shadowplay: Herbs for the Shady Garden

This article was written by Elizabeth Barrette
posted under Pagan

Too often, gardeners look at shade as a problem rather than an asset. This happens often in herbalism because many well-known plants come from the Mediterranean and grow in full sunlight. However, many herbs thrive in lower light conditions, and some need protection from fierce sun, particularly in hot climates.

Also, most yard and garden spaces have a mix of different light availability. My two-acre yard runs the complete spectrum from sunny meadows to dappled lawn under trees to a few corners that are quite dark. A small yard may have a sunny patch, but almost always has sections overshadowed by the house or some trees. When you want to grow herbs, you work with the space you have and plant a diversity of species accordingly.

All shady gardens are not created equal. The density and duration of light vs. darkness influence what kinds of plants can grow in a given place. The amount of available water also plays a vital role: damp or wet shade is much more hospitable than dry shade. Sometimes you can modify the type of shade to make it a little darker by erecting an arbor, or a little brighter through replacing a brick wall with a lattice fence. Use the guide below to help determine what kind of light conditions you have available.

Full Sun—For comparison, this space receives direct sunlight for at least six hours a day, usually including the brilliant midday sun. Unless the soil is very heavy, it dries out fast after a rain. Plants that prefer full sun tend to dwindle in the shade; plans that prefer shade often wilt in full sun. Note that in heavily overcast climates, a garden right out in the open may not get enough light to qualify for full sun! You may then do better planting species that do well in partial or dappled shade.

Partial Shade—The area receives several hours of direct sun per day, and shade at other times. For instance, a garden on the eastern side of a house may get direct sun in the morning, but open or deep shade in the afternoon. Other times, a garden may get morning and evening sun. If it lies under a solitary tree, slanting light will reach the garden, but the canopy will bock overhead rays. This is useful for plants that can’t tolerate the intensity of noon sun, especially in hot or drought-prone environments.

Dappled Shade
—This creates a pattern of equally mixed sun and shade, which travels across the area over the course of the day. Fine-leaved trees such as birch, honeylocust, or goldenrain create this type of shade under their canopies.

Open Shade
—Here we see fragmented direct sunlight, but bright indirect light. Large trees with dense canopies, such as oak and maple, cast this kind of shade when they are spaced some distance apart, as in parks and yards. Their high branches block most of the direct light, but allow ambient light to get underneath, reflected from the ground or other nearby objects. A garden near a wall or building may also be in open shade. If not watered, open shade gardens are often a bit dry.

Deep Shade—This space receives little or no direct sunlight, and has moderate ambient light. The understory of a forest typically falls into this category; the light is absorbed by successive layers of foliage so that only an occasional sunbeam reaches the ground. Even in daylight it has a slightly dusky tone. Woodland gardens tend to be moist. Certain wildflowers and herbs belong to such habitats, and languish elsewhere. Few other plants do well here. A walled garden, or the space near a building with an overhang, can qualify as deep shade. These tend to be dry, and may need extra watering.

Full Shade
—The area receives no direct sunlight and little ambient light. It always looks rather dark. Rock overhangs, wall corners and crevasses, decks and boardwalks, canyon bottoms, and the undersides of dense trees such as pines and spruces can all create this type of shade. If the ground stays dry, little or nothing will grow there. But in wet areas, such as a hidden spring or a water garden, a thriving colony of mosses, lichens, liverworts, and ferns may emerge: a miniature enchanted forest that will grow nowhere else.

Shade-Loving Herbs

Angelica (Angelica archangelica) can grow in full sun in cool climates, but requires protection from summer sun in warmer climates. This statuesque plant reaches up to five feet tall and prefers rich, moist, well-drained soil. It makes an ideal background for a woodland garden or shady border. Candied, the stems make an excellent garnish for sweets.

Borage (Borago offinalis) prefers partial shade, growing about eighteen inches high. It has large oval leaves covered in hairs, and star-shaped blue flowers. Candy the flowers for a garnish or dry them for use in herbal crafts. The leaves are rich in potassium and calcium.

Chameleon Plant (Houttuynia cordata, ‘Chameleon’), also known as ‘Hot Tuna,’ thrives in shady, wet areas. In fact, it will grow in water, at pond edges. However, some of mine have run rampant along the partly shady and rather dry eastern wall of hour house,a nd from there spread to the openly shady and considerably dryer northern wall. This herb has a hot, spicy flavor. Its heart-shaped leaves are a dramatic blend of green, yellow, cream, and hot pink.

Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) prefers cool, partial, or dappled shade, especially in summer or hot climates. It does better in spring or fall plantings, and needs rich, moist soil. Chervil reaches up to twenty inches in height. Its ferny leaves are rich in carotene, iron, and magnesium; use them in salads.

Comfrey (Symphtum officinalis) thrives in shade but tolerates some sun, so dappled, partial, or open shade all work. Large hairy leaves rise eighteen inches from a central crown, and blue bell-shaped flowers appear on taller stalks.

Corsican mint
(Mentha requienii) is among the most delicate varieties of mint. Its tiny, low-growing leaves exude a sweet and creamy mint odor. It needs dappled to dense shade, and rich, moist soil. If protected from more aggressive plants, it spreads to make a nice ground cover, especially in a woodland garden or around a water garden.

Creeping thyme
(Thymus serpyllum) likes partial shade, grows well in borders and containers, and makes an excellent ground cover. This herb reaches three to six inches tall, but will trail farther down if planted in a hanging basket or by the edge of a wall. In coking, the tiny leaves go well with robust meats such as beef, pork, and lamb.

Ferns (Matteucia struthiopteris, lady fern Ahyrium filixfemina, Pteridum acquilinum, etc.) come in many varieties, which all require considerable shade. Do not expose ferns to more than dappled sunlight. Some species live in full shade, such as wet cave mouths. Amphibians love to seek shelter under fern leaves.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) tolerates partial, dappled, or open shade in cool areas, but this forest plant really prefers the deep shade and moist, rich soil of its understory home. Oblong leaves form a low rosette surmounted by a dramatic flower spike reaching three to six feet high.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) needs rich, moist soil and open or deep shade. Indirect sunlight is okay. It does well in woodland gardens, but also in containers.

Jupiter’s Beard (Centranthus rubber) grows in partial or dappled shade. Bushy clumps of lance-shaped leaves reach up to three feet and produce clusters of tiny pinkish to red flowers.

Lemon balm
(Melissa officinalis) tolerates partial, dappled, or open shade. It grows well in borders and containers, reaching three feet in height. Its leaves complement fish and chicken, and make a delicious tangy tea. Use them fresh or frozen, as the oils dissipate when dried.

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) prefers dappled or open shade. It grows well under trees, in borders, and in pots. Magically, it promotes peace, harmony, and love.

Lovage (Levisticum officinale) grows in partial, dappled, or open shade, towering up to six feet tall. Plant in backgrounds or along walls; water thoroughly to encourage deep root development. Its celery-like flavor makes lovage popular in soups an stocks. In bath water, the leaves are deodorizing and antiseptic.

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) prefers partial shade. It needs a light, deeps soil. The leaves first grow upright to about a foot high, then spread out to lie flat on the ground.

Moss (Thuidium, Leucobryum, Polytricum, Dicranum, etc.) may tolerate dappled or open shade. It prefers acidic soil relatively poor in nutrients, and abundant moisture. Northern or eastern wooded slopes are ideal.

Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) grows well in moist, shady sites, so it’s a good choice for a woodland garden. The bushy plant reaches three to four feet tall; this is a nice choice as a middle planting in front of foxglove or angelica.

Peppermint
(Mentha spp.) likes partial shade and rich, moist, well-drained soil. It reaches up to two feet high. Grow in pots to prevent spreading, or allow to ramble as a tall ground cover. It goes well with lamb, fruit, and chocolate. Peppermint makes excellent jelly and the leaves can be candied for garnishes.

Pineapple sage
(Salvia elegans) requires protection from intense midday and afternoon sun, making it ideal for partially shady gardens with an eastern exposure. It also needs more water than most sage varieties. This herb has a pineapple scent and its bright-red flowers attract hummingbirds.

Roman chamomile
(Chamaemilum nobile) needs protection from midday sun; grow it in partial or dappled shade. It makes an excellent ground cover, growing only four to twelve inches high. Its feathery leaves and daisy-like flowers cheer up a shady garden. Chamomile tea soothes digestion, relaxes the nerves, and brings sleep. It also makes a brightening rinse for blond hair.

Salad burnet (Poterium sanguisorba) can tolerate full sun in spring or fall, but tends to suffer sunburn in summer. Protect it from harsh afternoon sun. This herb grows well under deciduous trees or in containers. It can reach up to eighteen inches high, but is best harvested at about four inches because the leaves get bitter with age. Its nutty, cucumber flavor makes it popular in sandwiches, salads, and herbal vinegars.

Sweet woodruff (Gallium odoratum) enjoys dappled to deep shade, and a variety of soil conditions. The leaves form rosettes along the stems, and tiny white flowers appear at the stem ends. It often appears as a ground cover in woodland gardens. Sweet woodruff is the crucial ingredient in May Wine.

Violet (Viola pedata) enjoys partial to deep shade. Mine grow all over the yard in a variety of conditions. The heart-shaped leaves reach two to five inches high. The flowers may be candied as a garnish, or used to make floral water, perfume, or potpourri.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fisulosa) likes partial shade in rich, well-drained soil. The bushy plant reaches three to four feet tall. Its pink to red trumpet-shaped flowers attract bees and hummingbirds. The leaves make excellent hot or cold tea.

Designing a Shady Garden
Shady gardens perform best when planned primarily around the amount of light available in a given location, as that has the strongest influence on what types of plants will thrive. However, you can usually work in a secondary theme, such as the intended use of the plants or their attraction for other creatures.

One popular choice is the woodland garden, which thrives in op to deep shade under trees. A small woodland garden could include angelica, comfrey, foxglove, ginger, lily of the valley, patchouli, sweet woodruff, and violet. A larger woodland garden might add a darker grotto with ferns and moss around a tiny pool. These secluded gardens and their plants attract shy creatures like frogs and snakes.

Another common feature is the shady border, which runs alongside a building or fence. Typically in partial shade, this allows a wide choice of plants that need just a little protection from the sun. Plant taller ones at the back, shorter ones in front. Good choices include chervil, creeping thyme, lemon balm, peppermint, salad burnet, and wild bergamot. This is ideal as a kitchen garden for tea, salad, and seasoning.

Many yards have a spot between the trees that gets a mix of sun and shade, direct and dappled light. This is a lovely place for flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies, a way of brightening up the shadows. Plant such flora as borage, chameleon plant, Jupiter’s beard, pineapple sage, and Roman chamomile. Add a gazing ball, birdbath, or white statue to draw the eye.

Shady gardens illustrate two important magical principles on a very practical level. First, they balance light and darkness, thriving in a place of moderation rather than extremes. Second, they make use of the available resources, reminding us to cherish what we have and make the best of it. Shade-loving herbs allow us to grow a garden even if we don’t have a bright, sunny lawn. Shady places allow us to grow herbs that can’t survive hot sun. They give us a serene refuge from the harsh light of day. Find a place to create such a garden where you live, and you, too, can discover the joys of shadowplay.

From Llewellyn's 2008 Herbal Almanac. Click here for current-year calendars and almanacs.

Elizabeth Barrette

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