Good to Grow: Made in the shade with brunnera

As many of you know, I have been working on my shade beds this year and I continue to seek plants that will grow, spread and create interest in these areas.

The little house on a big hill is shady. I have several trees that provide cover for much of my garden. That’s lucky for me on 90-degree days, but a challenge when creating a garden.

My latest addition is brunnera (brunnera macrophylla), a plant native to the woodlands of Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. Let’s hope it is happy in Charleston.

This perennial is a low-growing, mounding plant that will reach 12 inches to 20 inches tall. The real height comes from the spikes with blue flowers that appear in mid-to-late spring. Blooms can last up to four weeks. I can’t wait for this to happen in my garden next year.

Brunnera is happy with dappled shade and OK with morning sun. The one thing to remember is keep it well watered. Brunnera likes moist soil, especially the first year. Remembering this, I just took a quick break to go give my new plant a big drink to help it withstand the heat of this day.

Rich, organic soil will produce a healthy plant. Mulching helps enhance the soil, while keeping it moist and cool, mimicking the conditions of the woodland gardens or naturalized pond areas where it is often found.

There are different varieties of brunnera, with the most common being the Siberian bugloss. Despite the name — bugloss is derived from the Greek word meaning ox tongue — the leaves are quite lovely, silvery and with prominent dark green veining. Another popular variety has variegated leaves and works well in container gardens, but I choose to stay with the more traditional Siberian.

Throughout the season, the older leaves may begin to look messy; it’s OK to cut them back during the summer. As fall approaches, hold off on pruning and let the leaves cover the crown of this herbaceous plant through winter. You can clean it up in the spring when new growth appears.

Let’s do a quick review of plant terms. Herbaceous means the plant does not have woody stems, and will reach its full height and produce flowers within one growing season, dying back for the winter then doing it all over the next year. Perennial generally means the plant will live for more than two to three years. A plant can be both herbaceous and a perennial.

Now, remember those spikes that bloom in the spring. This is how the plant self-seeds and expands. Because it is deer resistant, brunnera can be a nice replacement for hostas. It also pairs nicely with bleeding hearts, hellebores and irises.

This is not a plant that will cause “ooohs” and “ahhhs” over its beauty, though the leaves are pretty, even appearing to be covered in silver dust, and the blooms appear in shades of blue and are long lasting. I think of it as more of a filler than a thriller.

In my garden, this plant will serve to brighten a shady spot and add that much-needed variation of green and texture to keep the space interesting.