There has always been one area of my yard where nothing will grow: the bone dry shade on the east side of my house. Even most weeds don’t want to grow over there.
But as I’ve been learning more about native landscaping, I’ve built a list of Pacific Northwest plants that are happy to grow in dry shade. These hardy shrubs and plants thrive together in the understory of conifers.
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PNW Shrubs and Plants for Dry Shade
Not only will these plants grow in dry shade, but they will also flex to tolerate part sun and seasonal moisture. Basically, they can handle anything our PNW weather throws at them.
Osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis) “Indian Plum”
- Type: Deciduous perennial shrub
- Size: Fast grower to 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide (varies)
- Flowers: White flowers in late winter to early spring
- Range: USDA hardiness zones 6–10; grows naturally from British Columbia through Washington and Oregon to California, typically west of the Cascade Mountains
Each osoberry shrub is either male or female. The male flowers are said to have an intoxicating smell — like cat pee — but I’m not letting that stop me.
Osoberries support bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other birds, so it’s worth giving this pretty shrub a try. It tends to be bushier in sun and thinner in shade, with a delicate appearance that looks beautiful in contrast to evergreens.
Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)
- Type: Evergreen shrub with new copper-colored growth in the spring
- Size: Slow growing to 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide (varies)
- Flowers: Light pink bell-shaped flowers in spring to mid-summer
- Range: USDA hardiness zones 7–9; grows naturally west of the Cascades from British Columbia to California
You just have to love a huckleberry. These tough shrubs provide year-round interest, adorable flowers and possibly the world’s best berries. Tiny, tasty berries.
I have heard that huckleberries hate to be transplanted after their first year, so it’s best to find a cozy spot for your huckleberry and leave it there for good.
Huckleberries support the usual pollinators, as well as many mammals like chipmunks, rabbits, elk and black bears…basically Winnie the Pooh and all his friends.
Tall Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium)
- Type: Evergreen shrub
- Size: Moderate growth rate to 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide (varies)
- Flowers: Yellow flowers in spring
- Range: USDA hardiness zones 5–8; grows naturally in much of the Pacific NW from BC through Washington and Oregon to California and parts of Idaho and Montana
Oregon grape loves to grow in tough, dry, rocky areas, especially in open woodlands. It flowers best if it gets some sun, but it also tolerates shade.
Supposedly the flowers smell amazing, and they are loved by mason bees who wake up in early spring. New foliage has a copper color that eventually turns green, and it can take on even more colors in different conditions, like cooler weather.
Oregon Grape vs. Holly: Be careful not to confuse Oregon grape with English holly. In the Pacific NW, English holly is highly invasive and should be removed to prevent it from spreading. Oregon grape leaves grow opposite each other, while holly leaves alternate on the stem. Try an app like Seek to identify your plants and rip out any holly right away.
More Large Shrubs for Dry Shade:
- Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor)
- Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium)
- Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)
If you have a lot of dry, dappled shade you want to fill in, thimbleberry might be perfect. As a bramble, it can spread and form a wild thicket in your yard once it gets comfortable.
Small Trees for Shade Gardens: I didn’t plant any small trees in my shady side yard, but I’ve heard black hawthorn, Pacific yew or vine maple are good options for additional layers.
Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
- Type: Evergreen shrub
- Size: Slow grower to 5 feet tall and wide when happy (fingers crossed!)
- Flowers: Light pink/white urn-shaped flowers
- Range: USDA hardiness zones 6–8; grows naturally along the Pacific Coast to the Cascades, as far up as southeast Alaska
Salal thrives in shade and tolerates drought but prefers to get some moisture. I placed salal in front of my windows where it can fill in without blocking the view.
And I’m not the only one who loves this neat and tidy little evergreen. Bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, songbirds and many mammals are in the salal fan club.
Baldhip Rose (Rosa gymnocarpa)
- Type: Deciduous shrub/rose
- Size: Moderate grower to 5 feet tall and wide (varies)
- Flowers: Pink rose flowers in spring to summer
- Range: USDA hardiness zones 5–9; grows naturally in much of the Pacific NW from British Columbia through Washington and Oregon to California, northern Idaho and eastern Montana
As far as wild roses go, the baldhip rose is supposed to be less aggressive than other natives like the nootka rose and swamp rose. Baldhip rose will live happily with other understory forest plants. It can spread to form a thicket over time, but it can also be controlled if you want to keep it to a small area.
The flowers provide nectar for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. If you didn’t think you could have pretty flowers in the shade, let a baldhip rose prove you wrong.
Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum)
- Type: The classic evergreen fern that every PNW garden needs
- Size: Moderate grower to 3 feet tall and wide (sometimes larger)
- Flowers: No
- Range: USDA hardiness zones 4–8; grows naturally along the Pacific Coast from southeast Alaska through British Columbia, Washington and Oregon to California
Sword fern is the toughest little shrub west of the Mississippi. While it loves moisture, it is drought tolerant after establishing in your yard. It can help control erosion on slopes, it will tolerate crappy Willamette Valley clay, and its lush greenery will keep you going through our gloomy winters.
Maybe I’m biased, because ferns remind me of childhood drives with my grandma, as well as blaster gun battles on Endor. Plus they provide nesting sites for birds and other little forest critters.
More Small Shrubs for Dry Shade:
- Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum)
- Cascade Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa)
- Creeping Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens)
If you don’t have room for the tall Oregon grape, try its smaller relatives. Creeping Oregon grape has a huge native range including tough PNW areas east of the Cascade Mountains. And cascade Oregon grape loves the dry shade of conifers.
Ground Cover Plants
Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora)
- Type: Evergreen during mild winters; deciduous during colder winters
- Size: Fast grower to 2.5 feet tall and 2 feet wide
- Flowers: Tiny flowers in cream, pink and green lined with fringe on tall, delicate stalks from spring to summer
- Range: USDA hardiness zones 4–8; grows naturally in much of the Pacific NW from parts of Alaska, British Columbia and Alberta through Washington and Oregon to California, northern Idaho and eastern Montana
Fringecup likes moisture but tolerates dry summers. It will spread by seed to fill in a shady forest understory (or side yard, if I’m lucky!).
The foliage makes a beautiful evergreen ground cover where winters are mild. I planted it in the front of my garden to absorb some of the excess rain that comes down the middle of my sloped side yard.
Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata)
- Type: Deciduous perennial
- Size: Moderate grower to 2 feet tall and wide
- Flowers: Dainty white flowers on long stems blooming from late spring to summer
- Range: USDA hardiness zones 4–9; grows throughout the Pacific NW and other parts of the U.S. depending on the variety
Foamflower also likes some moisture but can handle dry summers. Like the fringecup, it has ground level leaves with long, thin stalks of flowers. The soft foliage contrasts with the structure of the shrubs in my garden.
There are so many PNW plants that love dry shade. I hope to plant more over time from this list of favorites.
More Plants for Dry Shade:
- Columbian Windflower (Anemone deltoidea)
- Early Blue Violet (Viola adunca)
- Hooker’s Fairy Bell (Prosartes hookeri)
- Inside-Out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra)
- Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyeara oblongifolia)
- Smith’s Fairy Bell (Prosartes smithii)
- Turtlehead (Nothochelone nemorosa)
- Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)
- Western Starflower (Trientalis latifolia)
Planting Your Dry Shade Garden
Here’s the landscape plan I made for my shady side yard.
Fall, late winter or early spring are the best times for planting, so your garden can drink up some rain and grow roots before the dry summer. And of course, plants will need some supplemental water to get established during the first two or three summers.
My plants are brand new this fall, but I hope to add some pictures of the flowers as they bloom in the future. Grow, little plants!
Here are some more resources to inspire your shade garden.
- Backyard Habitats native plant gallery
- Real Gardens Grow Natives book
- PNW plant profiles and gallery by Eileen M. Stark
- Native plants for Willamette Valley yards