In East Texas Gardens

By Lin Grado
Posted 5/13/20

Shade in your garden is a welcome respite during a Texas summer, but it can also be a source of beauty throughout the spring. May brings blooms on some of my favorite shade-loving plants.

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In East Texas Gardens

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Shade in your garden is a welcome respite during a Texas summer, but it can also be a source of beauty throughout the spring. May brings blooms on some of my favorite shade-loving plants.

Most shady areas in the garden receive some sunlight during the day, but garden areas such as the north side of the house are almost total shade in the spring. One of the best spring-flowering shrubs for full shade is the old-fashioned big leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), which include both the mophead and lace cap flower forms. Big leaf hydrangea generally grow from three to six feet tall and bloom on old wood (last year’s growth) – so don’t prune any living stems in the spring or you risk cutting off this year’s flower buds. You can change the color of many hydrangea blooms from pink to blue by adding aluminum to our East Texas acid soils; water throughout the growing season with a solution of one tablespoon of aluminum sulfate per gallon of water. It’s harder to change the bloom color from blue to pink – you’d have to raise the pH level of the soil to block absorption of aluminum. It might be easier to grow pink hydrangeas in pots or buy a variety that isn’t sensitive to aluminum levels.

Another shrub that blooms in full to part shade is sweet shrub or allspice (Calycanthus floridus and hybrids). These shrubs, also called Carolina allspice, grow six feet or more tall and will bloom for several weeks in the spring. The blooms are like small, fragrant magnolia blossoms, with colors from chocolate brown to maroon and even to creamy white. There are several hybrids on the market that have much larger flowers than the species, such as ‘Aphrodite’, one that we grow at the Wood County Arboretum. While the blooms can be extremely fragrant, the dark green leaves and twigs are, to my nose, more consistently fragrant, with hints of clove or camphor. Sweet shrub makes a wonderful specimen plant in your shade garden.

A third shrub for May which blooms in deep shade is weeping butterfly bush (buddleia lindleyana). The shrub itself has fine-textured leaves on cinnamon-barked branches. Each arching branch ends in pendulous lavender flower clusters that are a hummingbird favorite. What makes this shrub unique is that it thrives from full sun to deepest shade. Unlike other butterfly bushes, it does not require spring pruning to bloom, which moves it up on my list of carefree plants. Unfortunately, I have not seen this offered locally in nurseries; mine was a start from a friend, and I have shared it with many others since it spreads at the roots. I have a few offsets to share – if you’d like one; email me at the address below.

While my spring shade garden is dominated by shrubs, there is one underused native perennial that adds an exotic look each May. The Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) grows to about a foot or so tall, and each stem is topped with red upward-facing flowers with a yellow ‘star’ inside each bloom. Give Indian pink a spot in a moist woodland garden, and the clump will get larger each year.

Spring is a great time to enjoy the outdoors, and spring blooms will delight everyone in your East Texas garden.