Illuminate Your Pond with Shade-Loving Plants

No light? No problem.

by Kelly Billing, Maryland Aquatic Nurseries & 

Water gardening is an infectious hobby, and though most ponds are located in the full sun, the absence of a blank canvas should not be a deterrent for the shady gardener. Water at any light level adds interest, sound and movement — and can even attract wildlife. Not to mention the beauty of reflection, which is welcome in all circumstances.

Of the first perennial plants to emerge in the spring, a number of them are shade-loving or shade-tolerant plants, which begin blooming not long after the snow melts. Many sun-loving plants will grow in the shade quite happily but might have a reduction in the number of blooms they produce. Others will have abundant foliage in the shade but won’t have the necessary sunlight to flower at all. That shouldn’t discourage their use, since massing plants for foliage shape and texture doesn’t lose effectiveness in the shade. Large plant groupings that concentrate on bold foliage or masses of flower color become even more important in the shade, so they stand out in lower light levels. Extremely dense shade may not be suitable for all the plants listed, but this is a great list to begin trial and error.

Shallow Water Plants

Marsh Marigolds can provide a few weeks of sunny, yellow flowers certain to brighten up any corner and let you know that spring has arrived. These plants are extremely cold-hardy in North America and love clay soil or marshy conditions near the surface of the water. They are ideally suited to spring-fed areas where cold incoming water year-round deters summer dormancy. In warm parts of the country and in areas with hot seasonal temperatures, moving water is necessary to keep them alive even if they sleep during the summer months.

There are a number of varieties, but Caltha palustris (Marsh Marigold) and Caltha polypetala (Giant Marsh Marigold) are the most common. The Giant Marsh Marigold is more heat tolerant, and foliage persists longer into the summer in warmer climates where Caltha palustris retreats more quickly. Both are best suited to the northern garden. (12 inches tall, Zone 3.)

Bog Bean, or Menyanthes trifoliate, is an early bloomer as well, starting during or just following the Marsh Marigolds. Both of these plants begin flowering before the foliage emerges; however, it isn’t far behind. Bog Bean stems root in the soil near the water’s edge, reaching out many feet across the top of the water. Rooting easily without soil, stems can simply be threaded between rocks that are low enough in the water so that they won’t dry out if the level drops. Slow growing compared to most other surface growers, they are tolerant of severe pruning when needed. Left to spread out, they are buoyant enough to support a frog’s weight and become a favorite place for them to take up residency. (6 to 8 inches tall and spreading, Zone 3.)

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On the left is Colocasia antiquorum, Imperial Taro and the right is Amaranthus tricolor, Joseph’s Coat

Blue Flag Iris, or Iris versicolor, will bloom well in moderate shade, but it may not produce flowers in dense shade. However, it will still form beautiful, dense masses of foliage. It is an excellent plant for nutrient uptake because of the generous root system it produces. Those roots are also an excellent harboring place for fish fry, dragonfly larvae, water boatmen and many other aquatic insects that benefit from the ecological balance in the water garden. In the sunshine, you can rest assured there will be an abundance of violet flowers. (2 to 3 feet tall, Zone 4.)
Cardinal Flower, part of the Lobelia family, is an excellent way to add color to an area out of the direct, hot sun. These deer-resistant plants have a fan following from hummingbirds and butterflies and can be planted in and out of the water. Lobelia speciosa is native to North America, and its intense red color is breathtaking. Not all varieties like the water as much as others. There are some highly improved varieties from the species including, but not limited to, Red Vulcan, Starship Scarlett and Fried Green Tomatoes. They tolerate more water and have been consistently more robust than most of the others we have tried. (2 to 3 feet tall, Zone 4.)

Golden Club (Orontium aquaticum) leaves repel water like the lotus and are sometimes referred to as Never Wet. The waxy, deep-green foliage looks just like velvet. It’s a personal favorite because it’s so slow-growing and never makes a nuisance of itself. On the flip side, that means it takes a couple of years to look good — and several years to look great. However long it takes, with all certainty, it’s worth the wait! The slow-growing and clump-habited growth requires very little care in order to prosper. White spikes topped with yellow, club-like flowers stand well above the foliage for a striking combination. Once established, the candelabra effect is undeniable. It is resistant to pests and disease and loves moving water, growing in as deep as 12 inches at maturity. (Zone 6.)

Saururus cernuus (Lizard’s Tail) and Saururus chinensis (Chinese Lizard’s Tail) are both low-maintenance species that can add some late summer color to a shaded garden. The Chinese Lizard’s Tail flushes a set of leaves with large white patches just below the flowers for some added interest and extra brightness to a dull corner. When space allows, Lizard’s Tail is excellent for planting on the banks and shoreline of earth-bottom ponds where it will grow up and out of the water. It’s also suited for shallow water, where its tenacious root system will stabilize the soil and limit erosion. In a lined pond it should be contained in a sturdy, but large pot. (2 to 3 feet tall, Zone 4.)

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More Annuals: Cuphea ignea, Firecracker Plant

Carex riparia (Variegata), or Variegated Sedge, has interesting black and yellow flowers in the early spring, rising just above the slender, ivory leaves. In full sunlight, this beautiful delicate grass turns completely green. If it is kept in part shade, the ivory color blends slightly with the green for a striking highlight to an otherwise dim area of the pond. 18 to 24 inches tall. Zone 4.

The Water Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis scorpioides) has dainty, heavenly blue flowers beginning in early spring and persists into the fall when planted in cool, shady areas of a bog or stream. It grows in sun or shade and in moist soil or water up to 1 foot deep. It performs best in moving water. The fine roots are excellent at trapping sediment without dislodging stone work. They are intolerant of warm, standing water and may be prohibited in some northern states. The spreading groundcover grows 6 to 8 inches tall. (Zone 3.)

Annuals

Taro (Colocasia) are especially tolerant of low light conditions, and due to their extreme foliage colors, they are well-suited to offering a bold statement in the shady garden pond. Intense yellow, vibrant green and black are some of the captivating options available. Some have shiny leaves, while others appear dusty and have ruffles, stripes or speckles. Others have contrasting stems with similar traits. The height range depends on the cultivar range, from 18 inches to 8 feet tall. (Zone 8.)

Pond plants

Colocasia ‘Mojito,’ Taro

Firecracker Plant (Cuphea ignea) is an incredibly versatile plant. Establish it outside the pond in the garden, where moist, boggy soil exists or in up to an inch of shallow water. In sunshine or all shade, this annual will be covered in orange-red flowers. It flowers continually from early summer until frost. These plants are most prolific in wide streams or in baskets in areas of moving water. With no serious insect or pest problems, it is a favorite to add summer color to the shady pond. (18 to 24 inches tall, Zone 8.)

A couple of traditional annuals that love streams and moving water in the shade are Impatiens and Coleus. Both will thrive in the water as long as they are not sunken too deep. They should be planted at or above water level with saturated soil in moving water to provide a well-oxygenated environment to the roots. They are certain to add color and lighten things up.

Other varieties include:

  • Blue Hawaii (green, heart-shaped leaves; purple-red veining)
  • Electric Blue Gecko (glossy, nearly
    coal-black leaves)
  • Elena (chartreuse leaves)
  • Elepaio (green-splashed with white)
  • Imperial (green with purple blotches)
  • Mojito (green speckled with burgundy)
  • Red Stem (cranberry stems, lime-green leaves)
  • Tea Cup (burgundy stems with upright, veined leaves that let the light through)

Perennials

Many plants that ordinarily won’t grow in the water will adapt easily if the water is moving. Experiment with plants like Asclepias, Hosta and Ligularia, and moisture-loving ferns like Osmundo (Royal Fern), Dryopteris (Autumn Fern) and Thelypteris (Marsh Fern).

Lily-like Aquatics

Nuphar advena (Spatterdock) leaves are similar to a waterlily, except they stand up rather than lay flat on the water’s surface. The bold, yellow flowers are 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter, appearing in the spring. Although Spatterdock may not be quite as appealing as a water lily, it does provide an unusual texture in deep-water areas of a pond. It is an excellent choice for the koi keeper who has plant- eating fish. It tolerates sun or shade, and koi dislike it. (Zone 3.)

Aponogeton distachyos, Water Hawthorne

Water Hawthorne (Aponogeton distachyos) is a stunning, mid-depth to deep-water plant that emerges in cool conditions and can bloom all winter long if the water doesn’t freeze. Active growth occurs when water temperatures are between 35 and 65 F. It has been known to bloom from Maryland to Ohio on a few Christmas days. Growth and flowering will cease when the water is frozen but will pick right back up as soon as the water thaws, blooming into late May when the hardy waterlilies have heavy growth. The strap-like leaves are a nice compliment to the lilies. Because waterlilies and Water Hawthorne have alternate growing seasons, we recommend planting them in the same container. Three to five plants per large waterlily container is ideal; one plant sleeps while the other is awake. Water Hawthorne is a true bulb and goes completely dormant when water temperatures are very warm. Light shade helps extend the season, because the water stays cooler. It will simply go dormant during the summer in the South, so take caution not to throw it away. In addition to offering flowers and foliage during the offseason, Water Hawthorne makes a great cut flower, lasting up to two weeks in a vase. The strong, sweet fragrance fills the house when they are brought into the warm indoors. The flowers are edible and have a flavor similar to red leaf lettuce. They can be added to salads or used to decorate a fruit tray or even a cake! (12 to 24 inches, Zones 4-7.)

Waterlilies and Lotuses

There are a few waterlilies that have shown to be extremely tolerant of low light levels, and they not only thrive but also flower quite well. These sun-loving plants have a few in their family that have proven to be impressive in a lot of shade.

Nymphaea ‘Colorado’

Nymphaea ‘Colorado.’

Nymphaea ‘Rhonda Kay’ is beautiful alone, but plant a few in the same pot, and you can have two or three flowers open per day on each plant with good fertilizer and as little as two hours of direct sunlight. Note this is a larger lily that likes to spread the pads at least 3 feet in each direction. A 16-inch-wide container is ideal for a single plant, a pair of plants or up to three plants to increase the volume of flowering. Zone 8.
Nymphaea ‘Clyde Ikins’ is a peachy-yellow perennial lily that does not play by the rules and will often bloom well in the shade. It is a beautiful lily with heavy flowering potential and deserves a good-sized container (14 inches wide or better). Add monthly fertilizer with humates or micronutrients. Zone 3.

Nymphaea ‘Colorado’ is a salmon-peach perennial lily that is an all-around favorite of waterlily growers. Colorado is usually considered one of the heaviest flowering perennial lilies in the sun. Extremely tolerant of low light, it has bloomed consistently in as little as two hours of direct sunlight. Plant in a wide container (14 inches wide) with the same care of fertilization. (Zone 3.)

Nelumbo lotuses will thrive in as little as four to five hours of sun. Not as many flowers will be produced in part shade compared to what you might see in full sun, but nothing can replace the awe-inspiring foliage it produces in the water garden. (Zone 3.)

In addition to the varieties listed, many other plants offer impressive foliage color and texture to water gardens in part shade. Additional plants to consider for the shade garden are Horsetail (Equisetum), Umbrella Palms (Cyperus alternifolius), Compact Payprus (Cyperus percamentus), assorted Swords (Echinodorous) and Arrow Arum (Peltandra) for diversity and complementary interest to the water garden.

The list of options for the shady garden pond isn’t long, but the characters are distinctly different and very capable of putting together a worthy display. Care should be taken to select three to five varieties and plant substantial masses of each to empower them in the reduced light. Sweeps of texture and color will play off each other to create a setting that becomes a destination!

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