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US National Arboretum


The “Dark Side” of Conifers

Image of conifers in the Gotelli CollectionAlmost every gardener or homeowner has that spot. It’s the too-shady spot, the no-afternoon-sun spot, the no-space-to grow-anything spot. Conifers don’t usually jump to mind as options for these sites since “they’re all sun-loving, right?” While that’s mostly true, there are a number of conifers that actually grow well in shade. In fact, some require this natural form of “sunscreen” for survival.

Shade is to plants what SPF in sunscreen is to human skin. Higher levels of SPF (or shade) give more protection from the sun’s rays. Many plants are protected from the sun for part of the day, but get full sun for the rest. Others experience light shade under the umbrella of a tree with only occasional sunlight peeking through the leaves. For those places where very little light filters through, the plants receive considerable protection from the sun. Plants in this situation are considered to be in full shade.

Solid green colored conifers are the best performers in the shade. They put all of that chlorophyll to good use for food production, which keeps them strong and vibrant in the lower light levels. Variegated conifers and those conifers from more northerly climates do well in light or filtered shade. Here, you must be careful, though, for if the shade becomes too dense, the variegation you love will fade over time. 

If you’ve ever tried to put a hat on a sun lover, you know how emphatically they resent the gesture. The same is true for yellow-colored conifers. As much as you’d like to brighten up that dark spot in your garden, yellow conifers really weren’t “made for the shade.” Planting them in a shady area will most assuredly cause them to lose that vibrant golden color. 

If you have a “dark side” in your garden, here are some of the best conifer selections for shady places:

Taxus (Yew)
One of the best conifers for those dense shade areas. Growth habits range from low and spreading (‘Repandens’), to narrow columns (‘Flushing’), to large pyramidal trees (‘Kelseyii’). The foliage is generally very dark green in color, and female selections will have red fleshy fruits, correctly known as arils. One word of caution in growing yews:  they will not tolerate wet or damp soils. They must be planted in well-drained sites.

Image of CephalotaxusCephalotaxus (Plum Yew) (shown at left)
Similar in overall appearance to the yew (Taxus), plum yew’s foliage is a little coarser in texture and more olive green in color. There are low growing selections (‘Prostrata’) and a beautiful, large, wide, spreading shrub (‘Duke Gardens’). Unlike yew, plum yews are much more tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions and are equally adapted to dense shade plantings.

Tsuga canadensis (Canada hemlock)
Commonly seen growing on moist, north-facing slopes in its native range, hemlock has adapted well to garden situations. There are weeping selections, dwarf, congested foliage selections, and the more familiar graceful pyramidal shaped plants. They do well in filtered sun and can tolerate occasionally dry soils once they are established.

Image of Thuja occidentalisThuja species (Arborvitae)

Thuja occidentalis (American arborvitae) (shown at right) and Thuja plicata (western red cedar) are both native conifers and are extremely adaptable plants. Both species have many cultivar selections that vary in color and habit. Tolerant of damp or dry soils, they require filtered sun or high shade to survive.

Chamaecyparis obtusa (Hinoki false cypress)
Well-known for their beautiful sprays of cupped dark-green foliage, Hinoki cypress are slow growers that need moist, well drained soils. Plants grow well in light shade or on sites that have afternoon shade, especially in the summer months.

Conifers in the Arboretum's Gotelli Collection (top image); Cephalotaxus (middle image); Thuja occidentalis (bottom image).

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Last Updated   July 28, 2006 10:22 AM
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