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25 Dry Shade Tolerant Native Plants for a Southern Habitat Yard

Back in February I wrote about how having a section of sewer pipe replaced offered me an opportunity to replant a section of my rewilded yard a bit more strategically and add even more biodiversity in the process. Recently, when a friend was visiting and I showed her the area, she was surprised that there is little indication of the disruption from only a few months ago. I loosely documented how adaptable native plants can be then, particularly if moved when dormant. I realized I never got around to posting any updates.

Native plants are the perfect low maintenance option for just about any landscaping situation. You can't even tell this section of my rewilded yard was a 4 foot deep, 6 foot long trench only a few months earlier!

The success of relandscaping this section is an example of how easy care, low maintenance, and hardy native plants are as long you follow the old saying of finding the right plant for the right place. Despite dizzying development and tree canopy loss, at least for now in Atlanta we still have more trees than most cities. Finding plants for a dry, partially shady or partially sunny area that might get a little morning and afternoon sun or dappled sun all day is a typical challenge. The following plants are options to try in these conditions. I’ve noted when plants might prefer more moisture but tend to also do fine in dry shade. The following plants were either growing where the sewer work needed to be done or added to the mix after the pipe was fixed. I’ve also given a few suggestions for sedges and ferns growing in my yard but not this area that are worth considering (they are starred). Some of the plants listed here are so adaptable they are also included on lists I made last year of native edging plants and/or shade-tolerant native groundcovers. (also cut off the list at 25 even though I had another half dozen ideas!)

In this small section of my yard, the 25 or so native plants are interwoven seamlessly into a naturescape that works for both people and wildlife.

American or Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a 2–3-foot, tubular orange/yellow perennial hummingbird flower that freely self-seeds in shady, well drained areas. Bumblebees, hawk moths and hummingbirds are attracted to columbine. Cute little finches will eat the seeds. Columbine has one of the more memorable historical trivia facts - Native American men rubbed the aromatic crushed seeds on their hands as a love charm.

Once Eastern red columbine gets established it will self-seed to offer even more flowers for early spring pollinators including hummingbirds as they start coming through Georgia.

Sedges are a fantastic alternative to all the invasive liriope, English ivy, and vinca intentionally planted in Atlanta yards. A mosaic of native sedges would make a beautiful, sustainable habitat friendly, no-maintenance alternative to a resource and time greedy lawn. Most native sedges are also host plants for butterfly and moth species.

Appalachian Sedge (Carex appalachica) forms tufts of arching green, grassy clumps. Unlike many sedges that need moisture, it prefers to grow in dry shade such as my "woodland" type areas under and around where trees are growing, or along pathways. Both are fairly slow growing, but I’ve had more success with Appalachian Sedge than Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) which seems to struggle wherever I put it.

Appalachian sedge is a great native edging plant, grass alternative, or to underplant bushes, trees, and larger perennials in dry areas.

Searsucker Sedge (Carex plantaginea) is a fun sedge that forms ground hugging clumps of slightly wrinkled naturally lime green leaves. It likes moist woodsy areas but does just fine in average soil in the shade.

Broad-leaf Sedge (Carex platyphyla) has a darker green, slightly bluish color and prefers moist shade, but I am including it in this list because it has repeatedly formed a dense, low growing ground cover in a few dry, shady areas of my yard.

This corner of the area I replanted shows the broad-leaf sedge in the forefront and the seersucker sedge in the background. By next year the sedges will be robustly growing together and will completely fill this space.

*White-Tinged Sedge (Carex albicans) is another sedge that has become my favorite for dry, shady areas because it prefers moist soil but does well in dry shade and forms fine arching clumps. White-tinged sedge also makes a great lawn replacement and will spread slowly to form dense yet delicate and wispy tufts of turf-like groundcover.

White-tinged sedge is such a great sedge to add to a naturescaped yard but can be a bit tricky to find even at native plant nurseries. We need to start asking for specific varieties so the nurseries will start carrying them - starting with this one!

Ferns for dry part shade:

Hairy Lip Fern (Cheilanthes lanosa) is native to the Southeast and not common in the Piedmont region (where Atlanta is!) but can be found at nurseries. It's a petite, evergreen fuzzy or "hairy" fern that only grows up to one foot tall and spreads gently by creeping rhizomes. Unlike many ferns, hairy lip is drought tolerant the hairiness is to help it adapt to growing in a drier and sunnier place than most ferns. The stipe (stalk) is covered in hairs that collect moisture to help regulate heat. For added adaptability it will curl up during long dry spells and revive once moisturized, kinda like a sponge.

You can see the tiny hairs on this hairy-lip fern frond.

*Christmas Fern (polystichum acrotichoided) is another adaptable, low maintenance, evergreen woodland fern with 1-2 foot dark green, lance-shaped fronds that grows in dry, dappled sun and forms large clumps that can easily be divided in spring. It makes a lovely ground cover when mass planted and is one of the best ferns for preventing erosion. Christmas fern provides cover for ground-feeding and nesting birds.

Christmas fern is an adaptable semi-evergreen fern for a variety of yard conditions.

Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginiana) has long-blooming, bright yellow daisy flowers starting in early spring. In the South it's a well behaved, low-growing, evergreen ground cover in shady or woodland gardens. I let mine roam to form green mats beneath shrubs, trees, and around larger perennials. Butterflies, native bees, and small pollinators seek it out. Green and gold is a more polite and beneficial alternative to non-native creeping Jenny and ajuga, or invasive vinca and English ivy.

Green and gold forms a large evergreen groundcover through creeping runners and by self-seeding - making it a great native plant to share.

White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricate) is a hardy, low-growing, woodland perennial. In the later summer it is covered in a multitude of small daisy flowers with a dull yellow center. White wood aster grows easily in both damp and dry areas in partial to full shade and is drought tolerant. It self-seeds and is rhizomatous so it spreads fairly quickly to form large semi-evergreen mounds in otherwise challenging areas such as dry shade. Small native bees and butterflies always seem to be on the flowers and it’s a host plant for the Pearl Crescent and Checkerspot Butterflies.

Native asters are a keystone flowering species, and white wood aster is one of the best varieties to plant in a dry, shady spot.

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) is a host plant for 60 butterflies and moths in Atlanta, including the grey hairstreak butterfly. It is always one of my top suggestions for a carefree, high habitat value semi-evergreen groundcover in a variety of conditions. Some people even use it as a lawn alternative!

Wild strawberry is a top host plant for moths and butterflies in Atlanta and uses runners to a form a large and vibrant semi-evergreen ground cover if you let it roam.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is a woodland perennial that seems to tolerate a variety of growing conditions. It spreads by underground rhizomes and easily self-seeds. The flower colors range from pink to lavender. Wild geranium grow well with other flowering spring natives such a woodland phlox (phlox divaricata), crested iris (iris cristata), and red columbine (aquilegia canadensis). It's a popular pollinator plant for native bees and you may find mourning doves poking around and eating the seeds!

Wild geranium is a naturally pretty landscape plant as well as a moth host plant.

Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata) is a diminutive and charming spring blooming woodland plant. It likes the kind of bright edge of the woods shade where it might grow in the wild. Once it gets established it will form large colonies.

Dwarf crested iris and woodland stonecrop is one of my favorite woodland ground cover combinations. The iris fades in the winter but the stonecrop is evergreen.

Golden Ragwort or Groundsel (Packera aurea) is a rhizomatous, quickly spreading semi-evergreen groundcover with a long and abundant blooming season of 2 foot tall golden yellow daisy flower clusters. Although its natural habitat is the moist dappled shade of woodland areas, golden ragwort seems adaptable to a variety of growing conditions. It would make be a great alternative to invasive vinca or English ivy. Groundsel is attractive to pollinating bees, beneficial flies, and butterflies.

Golden ragwort spreads quickly to form an evergreen groundcover yet mingles well with other native plants throughout the growing season.

Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) will spread slowly to form a lovely spring groundcover where it can get filtered shade from trees. It likes moist humus but easily tolerates average soil. Early pollinators such as swallowtail butterflies and hummingbird sphinx moths will appear for phlox nectar. Fun random fact - woodland phlox was once used in witchcraft as a love potion and in traditional wedding bouquets to represent unity.

Woodland phlox is not only beautiful, but a great habitat plant. Every spring I look forward to seeing the hummingbird moths who visit it.

Woodland Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) is a carefree, low-growing, perennial, evergreen groundcover with starry white flowers. It spreads easily in moist, partial shade, but tolerates slightly drier, partially sunny areas. Plant sedum ternatum along a path where the clusters of tiny star-shaped flowers can be appreciated, or around shrubs, trees, or taller perennials where it forms an evergreen blue-green mat. Sedum ternatum roots wherever the stems touch the ground!

Woodland stonecrop is great ground hugging groundcover under other native plants. Here it is blooming and interweaving with woodland phlox (phlox divaricata)

Common Violet (Viola sororia) is a low maintenance, edible and high wildlife value native plant. In Atlanta twenty-six species of butterflies and moths use this as a caterpillar host plant including the giant leopard moth and a handful of fritillaries! Violet's landscape utility and charm is best seen if it is used as an edging plant along a driveway, walkway, or massed wherever a diminutive and hardy groundcover is needed.

I intentionally plant wild violets along the sidewalk, driveway, and walkways to show how they can be used as a native landscape option..

The following are a handful of new plants I added to the mix that will also grow in average to dry partial shade

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) naturally grows at the edge of woodlands and will do okay if it gets a few hours of direct sun or more of dappled sun. Say no to the cultivars and get the straight species of this hardy, drought-tolerant, popular native plant. Nectar-rich purple coneflowers are popular with a wide variety of pollinators including native bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Finches love the seedheads!

Adaptable purple coneflower is worth trying in a slightly shady area.

Spotted Beebalm (Mondarda Punctata) is the most shade tolerant beebalm variety. In my semi-urban Atlanta yard it grows about 2 feet tall in any dry, sunny, or partially sunny spot I plant it. It spreads by runners and easily self-seeds but doesn't take over in any way. Spotted bee balm is a valuable addition to a habitat yard - it's a moth and butterfly host plant, a nectar plant for hummingbirds and insects, a seed source for hungry little birds, and of course its fantastical flowers seem to be always covered in bees.

Spotted beebalm lives up to its name!

Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) is growing beautifully in clumps throughout the area of my front yard covered in dappled sun from large trees. It forms striking seedheads little seed-eating birds like goldfinches love, and is a host plant for the Northern pearly-eye butterfly caterpillar.

Bottlebrush grass is a beautiful native habitat grass for shady areas. By the end of winter the dried seedheads have been stripped by birds!

River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) was not planted in this particular small area because it will spread assertively just about anywhere it grows. Yet the dense, deep rooted clumps it forms are absolutely perfect for erosion control. It is one of the most popular native, shade-tolerant grasses because it is tall, adaptable and grows easily in just about any soil and light condition. It will self-seed and overtake less assertive plants so give it room to show off. The habitat value of river oats is as a protective cover and seed source for birds and as a host plant for skippers and other butterflies.

River oat is a striking native habitat grass to add to any area you want covered!

Foxglove Beardstongue (Penstemon digitalis) does well in a variety of growing conditions throughout my yard including dry, partially shady sites. This pretty 3-5 foot perennial will self-seed and spread to form large patches. Foxglove beardtongue is a popular pollinator plant for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. I can't get enough of watching bumblebees crawl inside the flowers!

An added benefit of adding foxglove beardtongue to the landscape is you get to see bumbly bees climb in and out of the flowers!

Fern-leaf Scorpion-weed (Phacelia bipinnatifida) is an uncommon 1-2 foot, evergreen native with lavender flowers that bloom profusely. It reseeds generously in average to moist shady woodland areas. Fern-leaf scorpion-weed seems perfectly happy in a few different spots in my yard. It’s a bit hard to find at native plant nurseries because it’s a biennial, but if you see it at a plant sale or swap – get it!

Biennial fern-leaf scorpion-leaf puts out quite a pollinator buffet the second year before self-seeding and dying so the cycle can begin again.

Goldenrod is habitat gold which is why I have over a dozen different varieties growing in my yard even though at this point I can only identify a handful with certainty! Goldenrod is called a keystone species because it’s a plant that is essential in a local ecosystem, particularly as a food source for insects. According to the National Wildlife Federation goldenrod is the top caterpillar plant in most metro Atlanta zip codes and hosts 92 species of butterflies and moths!

Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) is a fantastic 2–3-foot, clumping goldenrod for average to dry soil and one of the few goldenrods that will thrive in dry shade. It blooms in late fall and is often covered in small bumblebees.

Bluestem goldenrod lightens up any shady area and brings an impressive number of pollinators with it.

Elm-leaf Goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia) is a clumping woodland goldenrod that grows about 2-3 feet tall and thrives in dappled shade. It like a bit of moisture but does fine in average soil. Two years ago, I winter sowed the elm-leaf goldenrod so I hope it flowers this year - but I know I will probably have to wait another year.

Elm-leaf goldenrod babies!

*Zig-zag goldenrod (solidago flexicaulis) is another perfect 2-3 foot woodland goldenrod for a shady area. It’s rhizomatic so it will spread more aggressively than clumping varieties of goldenrod and needs more room to spread than the little area I replanted - but would be a great shade tolerant goldenrod for a larger area.

Zigzag goldenrod is named for the way the flowers and leaves alternative (zigzag!) up along the stem!

I intentionally planted a variety of plants to see what wants to continue growing in this area. As the Human Gardener brilliantly points out, the trick is about letting the plants find their right place so I'll try to give ongoing feedback this fall about what plants like this space 🌿

Less than a month after they were replanted the dwarf crested iris, hairy lip fern, and wild geranium all seemed to be adapting well. By next spring it will be interesting to see which one is happiest.

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