For shady areas, gardeners often seek low maintenance plants that do not grow rampantly, but provide color over an extended period of time. All four of the plants highlighted below are notable for their colorful foliage and one is also a prolific bloomer.
Schefflera: Although Shefflera is not considered reliably winter-hardy here in the Lowcountry, I have had no difficulty keeping a half dozen of these attractive plants growing outside for the last four winters. I purchased them in the houseplant section of one of the local big-box stores for $6 or $7 a piece — an expense, not an investment. My personal preference is for the varieties which have splashes of cream/yellow on the leaves. The variegation adds an exotic note to this tropical plant. Because it will grow larger outdoors, you may need to provide a support stake. I trim my Schefflera to 3’ in height because I do not want them to monopolize the walkway to the front door. Reducing the height also encourages the plant to develop denser branching in the lower section.
Choose a location with partial to full shade (early-morning sun only) and provide rich soil that drains quickly. “Sheffs” appreciate being kept moderately moist. They do not like a water-logged soil.
“Mona Lavender” (Plectranthus): I am one of the many gardeners who love this plant, which is not a lavender. In fact, the better known member of the Plectranthus family until ‘Mona’ came along was Swedish Ivy. The fuzzy, yet glossy, dark green leaves of Mona Lavender are purple beneath. It is practically a non-stop bloomer from mid-spring through Thanksgiving and beyond, especially when the showy lavender-colored flower spikes are removed as they finish blooming. They grow vigorously with an upright, bushy shape that is 2’ tall and wide. They perform best if shaded after 11 a.m. and grown in well-drained soils with regular and even moisture. They make stunning borders and are also frequently grown in containers or hanging baskets on partially shaded decks and patios. There are no serious insect or disease problems. Gallon-size plants cost $6-$9 and generally over-winter in our area quite-well.
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum): It is so named because of the spider-like plants (which start out as small white flowers) that dangle down from the mother plant like spiders on a web. This plant is another favorite of mine and many people think of it as a plant that is only grown in hanging baskets. All of mine are in the ground. My favorites are the variegated varieties; one of which has green leaf margins with a wide cream/white center-stripe, and its opposite, with cream-colored margins and a green center-stripe. Spider plants perform best with no direct sun; otherwise the variegation “bleaches out” and the contrast is not so clearly defined. Provide them with well-drained soil and water well, but not to excess. Plants which become too soggy will suffer from root rot.
Spider plants have few problems, and are excellent for shady borders along a walkway. The leaf colors provide a welcome contrast and shape when planted around or in front of bushy shrubs in shaded areas of the yard. This plant is easily propagated by division of the mother plant or by growing the babies in pots until they are large enough for a welcoming spot in the garden. A cold winter may kill the tops to the ground. Invariably, the plants will regrow once warm spring temperatures return.
Polka Dot Plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) are common houseplants with colorful leaves that are eye-catching when planted outdoors in shaded locations. They have been hybridized to produce a variety of colors (purple, scarlet, lavender and white) and types of leaf spotting. The plant produces an attractive mound which grows to 12”-15” tall and wide. They require well-drained but moist soil with plenty of organic matter. Older plants tend to get leggy, but you can control legginess by cutting the branches back and letting the plant fill in.
Frank Edgerton is a Hilton Head Island resident, garden consultant and plantsman. He can be reached at email@example.com.