Ask the master gardeners
Q: I’ve got lots of shade on my property. Are there evergreens that are shade tolerant?
A: Fortunately the answer is yes. One of the first things to remember is that the gardener who has this shade requirement should avoid any cedars (Cedrus) and junipers (Juniperus) because they require a great deal of light. That said, there are a number of choices to satisfy gardeners who wants to include evergreens in their shade gardens.
Both the common yew (Taxus baccata) and golden Irish yew (Taxus Baccata ‘Fastigiata Aurea’) are choices for someone who is interested in height. The former can reach 50 feet and the latter 25. Both are fully hardy in USDA Zone 7 and are viable in dry shade. Common yew has thread-like foliage and the Irish yew has an upright growth habit, making it an especially good choice for small gardens. Gardeners north of central Westchester and Rockland should probably make an alternative choice to yew since it might not survive a harsh winter.
The beautiful cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) certainly would fit the bill It is a member of the rose family, grows from 19 to 32 feet tall, attracts wildlife and, best of all, it tolerates air-borne pollution and high winds. Keep in mind that it is highly poisonous.
A favorite for Zones 6 and higher is the ilex aquifolium (English holly, common holly), which can get 80 feet tall. It has glossy leaves and the females bear yellow to red berries. There are many available cultivars.
For the gardener who wants something a little smaller there is mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). A native American evergreen shrub, it is a member of the blueberry family. It has showy white, pink, or red flowers in spring and can grow to 10 feet. And one must not forget the Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia), which is usually wider (14 feet) than tall (10 feet). It has nondescript flowers but is deer resistant.
Smaller evergreens that tolerate shade include Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium) and Japanese skimmia. The grape holly is slow growing and up to 3 to 6 feet tall and wide. It has showy yellow flowers in spring and dark green shiny foliage in summer that gives way to bronze foliage in autumn. Its name comes its grapelike fruit in late summer.
Japanese skimmia (Skimmia japonica) is only 2 to 4 feet high but has lovely white to yellow flowers with a mild fragrance in spring. And let’s not forget Japanese holly (Ilex crenata), which can take years to even reach 3 feet in height. It has a finer texture than American holly and the females produce black berries.
Another choice would be drooping leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana). It grows 3 to 6 feet tall, has green to bronze foliage (reddish purple in fall) and produces fragrant white flowers in spring. Another small gem is littleleaf boxwood (Buxus microphylla), which grows 3 to 4 feet tall.
Finally, there are the fabulous standbys rhododendron and azalea, which vary in size, produce gorgeous spring blooms and are guaranteed not to disappoint.
The above are just a few of the choices available to home gardeners for shady areas.
Judie Phillips, master gardener, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester