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For The Garden

Full-Shade Plants for the Desert

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: April, 2013, Page 118
Many heat-loving plants thrive in filtered shade, such as those pictured. But only a select few will do well in full shade (see list at bottom of article).

Desert Gardening 101

Siting plants in their preferred sun exposure is a basic component of smart landscape design. Choosing plants with exposure needs that match each gardening area can be tricky. We often find ourselves replacing plants or juggling their locations until we get it “just right.”

Placing plants in the ideal exposure is worth the effort because it enhances their blooms, health and longevity. Plants that endure more sun or shade than they are adapted to will eventually become stressed and weak; and research shows that pests seek out stressed plants to attack. For the best results, determine the light requirements for flora that interest you and compare those to the exposures in your landscape before you buy.

Keep in mind that sun exposure in any given location changes through the seasons and over time. In winter, the sun angle is lower in the sky and northern exposures against your home may be in full shade. In summer, the sun rises to a point more directly overhead and those same northern exposures may receive full sun. As trees mature, the shade they cast transforms once sunny surroundings into understory planting areas bathed in dappled light. Also, buildings and walls may be erected that block direct sun completely.

Full shade is the most challenging exposure for desert gardeners. Finding suitable plants is no small feat. Unable to predict that garden-loving humans would come along to erect protective shade structures, native desert plants evolved over eons to tolerate a lot of intense sun. Others survived by germinating in the partial shade beneath the canopy of a protective “nurse” tree. Consequently, our desert plant palette does not include many full-shade choices. In addition, importing exotic shade lovers is not a practical alternative, because most have evolved in moist woodland conditions with organically rich, acidic soil and cooler weather. Because of this, they will never be happy in our alkaline desert soil and intense heat.

Nevertheless, a handful of intriguing native and desert-adapted perennials and succulents perform well in full shade (they didn’t get the memo). If you fulfill their other cultural requirements, they may be “just right” for that shady spot in your landscape.

Finally, be prepared for a little trial and error. Some plants may do better in a slightly different locale, so move them as needed. Also, unexpected weather extremes may take their toll, and sometimes a particular plant may not be genetically strong enough to survive. But don’t give up! Persistance will ultimately pay off.

Elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra)

Gasteria (Gasteria sp.)

Golden columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha)

Manfreda (Manfreda maculosa)

Medicinal aloe (Aloe vera)

Native dicliptera (Dicliptera resupinata)

Scarlet monkey flower (Mimulus cardinalis)

Snake plant (Sansevieria sp.)

Twin-flowered agave (Agave geminiflora)

Wedelia or yellow dot (Sphagneticola trilobata)

White plumbago (Plumbago scandens)

Yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica)
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