When light is scarce, try these shade-tolerant plants

Las Vegas is becoming a shady town. Yes, trees are maturing. But yards around homes are shrinking, and with people building two-story homes, light becomes a premium. I receive many requests for plants that grow well in shaded areas.

Here are a couple of rules for selecting shade-tolerant plants. Larger-leafed plants (garden vegetables are exceptions) tolerate more shade than evergreens with needles (junipers, pines etc.). Examine evergreen needles on the shady side of your home. If they’re thinning out, it’s because of a lack of light.

You’ll also find dark-colored leaves tolerate shade better than those of lighter colors. You can forget variegated (two-colored) plants under shaded conditions. It takes bushels of light to keep two-toned plants producing their multicolored patterns.

All plants need light. If it’s so dark nothing grows, put in rocks. They work wonderfully under those conditions. But don’t think all is lost; here is a very short list of plants that grow under limited light conditions.

• Ajuga is an excellent, showy ground hugger under shaded conditions. It comes dressed with dark-green, spoon-shaped leaves that take on a purplish blue effect as the weather cools. In spring, spikes arise about ankle high, and tiny blue flowers cover the spikes from spring into early summer. Ajuga is especially good when used to fill in along walkways, or around the edges of patios. It will take some foot traffic, so plant between stepping stones.

• Potentilla makes a fine ground cover in shaded areas, too. Its delicate, strawberry-type leaves are smaller, but not as dark. Small, bright-yellow flowers cover the "carpet" in spring and reappear in the fall, though not as dramatically. Plant this shade lover between stepping stones, because it tolerates some foot traffic, or under shrubs or over bulbs. To keep it dense and full, enrich soil before planting.

• Winter creeper euonymus is versatile and deserves wider use. It covers the ground, climbs walls with support or spills over planters, in dimly lit areas or broad daylight. The leaves serve to break the monotony of year-round green, changing to reddish purple in the fall and continuing through winter. To keep it looking beautiful and compact, trim it before new growth emerges in spring.

• Myer’s asparagus fern is the stiff-stemmed member of the asparagus group. Not as floppy and wide spreading as the other types of ferns, it is an excellent choice for gardens with some shade, and may grow to almost 2 feet tall and spread gradually to cover an area 6 feet or more across. The bright green fronds remind me of a calming underwater garden.

• Creeping fig vine does best on the shaded side of the house. During its young stages, creeping fig gives little indication of its potential vigor. However, those delicate, tiny, heart-shaped leaves will wallpaper themselves to a chimney or stucco wall in a short time. These neat little leaves ultimately develop into large, leathery, leaves. This vine will cover an unlimited area if anchored in rich soil.

• Cat’s claw is a vine with forked tendrils or claws. It climbs high, wide and fast to make beautiful patterns on those shaded walls and ceilings. Pairs of semiglossy leaves evenly space themselves along the vine. Yellow trumpet flowers, 2 inches long, perfume the air in the early spring. It’s becoming a real favorite across the valley.

• Boxwood does well in shaded areas with its small, neat, dense, long-lived growth. It’s ideal for training into topiary shapes, formal hedges and mazes or shaped into globes, tiers or pyramids in containers. However, it is very pleasing in an informal situation. Prune boxwood throughout the year to maintain its shape. It makes a nice background for annuals.

• Podocarpus is Las Vegas’ answer to the yews of colder climates, because it looks much like yews, with its soft, needlelike leaves. And it does well on the shaded side of the home. Its shape is distinctly columnar, and the plant is used in exceptionally narrow spaces between windows where tall, narrow plants offset and complement the architectural lines of the structure. Use it in planters on patios, or in the shaded areas. The emerging lime-green foliage makes a striking contrast with the older foliage in the spring and fall.

• Twin-flowered agave is a rare find if you want a cactus-type plant in your yard. It can tolerate full sun or full shade and looks gorgeous under both conditions. It has long, thin, flexible dark green leaves that relax to form a softer silhouette. The toothless leaf margins allow for safe use as a potted plant near your patio, but you might want to nip off the sharp tips. Flower stalks arise to about knee high with reddish to purple twin flowers spread along the spikes. Like other agaves, when it flowers, you need to replace it.

• Japanese aralia has huge, star-shaped leaves. It also brings the tropics to your shady landscape and adapts well to containers. Candelabralike stalks bear golf-ball-sized heads of creamy flowers, soon followed by clusters of shiny, black fruit. It makes a striking impact in shaded entryways, but protect it from the wind or leaves will scorch.

• Gold dust plant foliage looks as if a painter took a paintbrush and stippled the leaves with gold dust, hence the name. It is valued for its tolerance of shade with its leathery, large, evergreen leaves, and the relatively compact size makes the plant a valuable option for the small garden. Bright red berries become attractive in fall. Keep it in shaded places or leaves will sunburn and turn black. It also does well in containers, but prune it to keep it dense.

• Burford holly requires the shaded side of the house or leaves burn. Its pointed leaves are extremely handsome, dark and always appear polished. It’s an excellent addition to any landscape at Christmastime because of its bright red berries.

• Sago palm is a very attractive plant that resembles a palm. Its leaves sit closely together and come off the trunk looking like a miniature palm. Because of its smaller features, sago palm is excellent in shaded areas and grows slowly, meaning it rarely needs repotting or transplanting. A new flush of growth appears each spring, and it slows through summer with no growth through winter. Sago palms will survive many years in small pots.

• Philodendron is an amazingly tough tropical-looking species that does extremely well under shady conditions. This giant plant can reach a basketball hoop if it gets some support. Under ideal growing conditions, leaves can exceed 3 feet in width.

Bonsai workshop: The Las Vegas Bonsai Society is having its annual workshop at Plant World Nursery, 5301 W. Charleston Blvd., from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. Bonsai is a relaxing hobby and enables your creative juices to run wild as you miniaturize trees. Watch demonstrations to see how it is done.

Clark County Fair: "Catch the Experience" is the theme of this year’s county fair in Logandale, 60 miles east of Las Vegas, April 10-13. If you want to enter your vegetables, fruit, flowers and flower arrangements to earn a blue ribbon, take your plants to the fairgrounds between 8 and 11 a.m. April 10. For more information, go to and look under exhibits or call (702) 812-3776.

Melons, cantaloupes, pumpkins etc.: Do you want giant watermelons, juicy cantaloupes, crenshaws, honeydew melons and mammoth pumpkins, along with bushels of squash? Join Helen Brown and me as we show you how to produce the ambrosia of your garden at 8:30 a.m. April 12 at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, 333 S. Valley View Blvd. Call 822-7786 to reserve your seat.

Linn Mills writes a gardening column each Thursday. You can reach him at or at the Gardens at the Springs Preserve at 822-7754.

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