- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Always on the lookout for drought-resistant plants that thrive in shade, I feel as if I’ve hit the jackpot when I find such a plant that also is deer-resistant and tolerates poor soil. Then, suppose that plant is an evergreen perennial that year after year and in total neglect shoots up flowers that look like weird little flying saucers.

Well, three years ago, I found a plant with those characteristics. I planted it and all but forgot about it. Those eccentric little flowers popped up again each spring, more of them each year, and this year I went out and bought two more.

It is Euphorbia amygdaloides Robbiae (common name Robb’s spurge). Euphorbia is a family of more than 2,000 plants. It includes everything from the Christmas poinsettia, a tropical plant, to treelike shrubs in South Africa. The Robbiae and several other cultivars are sold in Washington-area nurseries as perennials. They stand 12 to 15 inches tall and send up their flowers to twice that height or more.

The Robbiae has whorls of dark green foliage that stand upright all winter and contrast nicely in the spring and summer with the lacy cinnamon ferns with which it shares its bed. The flowers are pale yellow.

Other Euphorbia perennials have foliage with white variegation or red undersides. They require more sun than the Robbiae.

Although they make up for it with other characteristics, the drawback with the Robbiae and some other shade perennials is that they lack the striking color of sunny perennial flowers.

Probably the most popular evergreen perennial for shade is the Helleborus. It has significant flowers in late winter through spring in soft, almost dusky colors and is drought- and deer-resistant. Just recently a new cultivar of Helleborus has been introduced, the Brandywine, which has a rainbow of brighter pastel colors.

Of course, you can’t beat the color of the early spring woodland wildflowers, including the bleeding heart, Virginia bluebells and iris cristata, in pink, white, blue and violet. They are valuable to a shady garden. The woodland flowers are herbaceous, not evergreen, and like a moist soil. They make great companion plants in a fern garden.

Come summer, there is the native spiderwort (botanical name Tradescantia) that gives you small blue flowers on tall stems June through August in a mostly shady garden. There are some cultivars in different colors, but they are not for a garden where deer browse.

In late summer and fall, the native white wood aster divaricata sends out its tiny flowers in shade. It takes almost no maintenance, and the deer don’t like it.

No discussion of shade gardens is complete without mentioning the queen of shade perennials, the hosta, now available in hundreds of varieties in Washington-area garden centers. The lush foliage is beautiful. It comes in green, blue, gold and dozens of different variegations. The flowers are beautiful, some of them fragrant, in purple or white. Different varieties flower in June, July and August. The big problem: It is the deer’s favorite dinner.

Two more of the best flowering plants for shade are the ground covers ajuga and epimedium. Both have pretty foliage and colorful flowers. The ajuga, with small blue flower stalks in April and May, is another deer favorite, however. Epimedium, with flowers of yellow, white, violet or pinkish red, is not bothered by deer.

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