Ligularias — the divas of the shade

By Lynette L. Walther | Aug 23, 2019
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther Ligularia "Desdemona's" burgundy foliage spices up landscapes throughout the season. Late season, stalks of saffron-colored, daisy-like flowers rise above the lush foliage.

All it takes is a couple of really hot days to make us view our shade gardens in a whole new light, appreciate them, too. For most folks, a shade garden means hostas, and they are one of the best plants for those locations with limited sun. But truth be told, they can be — ahem — boring.

But the real stars of any shade landscape are the ligularias. The genus Ligularia includes a number of robust Old World herbaceous perennial plants in the groundsel tribe. That places them within the sunflower family. Indeed, many of them produce yellow or orange composite flower heads with brown or yellow central disc florets that look a lot like daisies. Others in that tribe produce spikes of many small yellow blooms. All are native to damp habitats, found mostly in central and eastern Asia, with a few species from Europe.

There are a number of reasons I love these plants. Aside from their ability to grow in deep shade — something my garden has in abundance — they are also hardy, returning year after year, no matter what the previous winter or summer has thrown at them. They have big, bold foliage and are a great presence in the shade beds. Pests are few, but can include a bit of slug or snail damage late in the season. I can depend on their rich, taxicab yellow flowers to bloom in late summer and hold for weeks.

In other words, these shade perennials are easy to grow and often spectacular to behold. And there are many varieties. Over a couple of decades, I have added a few of these commonly called leopard plants to my shady gardens.

My first foray into this group was a ligularia hybrid, "Bottle Rocket" (L. stenocephala), with thick, large serrated leaves and mustard-yellow spikes of blooms that come late in the season. Like all ligularias, it is very cold-hardy, performing well down to Zone 4.

Next I added another called "Goldenray," a big-leaf ligularia, which is every bit as big as "Bottle Rocket," both of which top out at about five feet tall. It also produces tall spikes of deep yellow blooms that last for weeks. Next came purple-leaved "Desdemona," which is a bit more prone to slug damage, but its sizable purple lily-pad leaves make up for that. Topped with tall spikes of mustard-yellow, daisy-like blooms in late summer, the combination is mesmerizing. "Britt Marie Crawford" is similar in size, color and stature.

My newest addition to my collection is a jaw-dropping "Chinese Dragon" (L. Japnica) specimen. This one gets huge, topping out at a little over five feet, with tall stems topped with big bold, cut-leaf foliage. Yeah, it too produces yellow daisy-like blooms that butterflies and bees flock to, but I am growing this handsome plant for its dramatic foliage power alone. I would recommend planting this one with big hostas that can create a textural contrast and a solid-color framework to enable the "Chinese Dragon" to stand out. "Empress Wu" or "Sum and Substance" would make good partners.

An interesting fact about the "Chinese Dragon" is that it is hermaphroditic (has both male and female organs) and is pollinated by insects. Grow it in friable, rich soils with plenty of moisture, as is recommended with all ligularias. Most well-stocked nurseries will have ligularias, but the "Chinese Dragon" is not easy to find. I discovered mine at Fernwood Nursery up in Montville, where they have a mature specimen growing in their gardens to give you some idea of how big it gets. And it does get big.

There are many more varieties, and in time I hope to add more to my collection, especially a dwarf by the name of "Little Lantern." It is commonly called an elephant ear ligularia and accordingly has big, round leathery leaves, with rather showy conical heads of yellow blooms. It tops out at three to four feet and would be good for smaller gardens, too.

Many ligularias are still blooming now in gardens all around, putting on seasonal displays that light up the shade. Come fall, the foliage puts on a colorful show as well, as divas tend to do.

"Bottle Rocket" ligularia blooms light up shaded beds, beginning in mid-summer. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
Big, dramatic foliage and sculptural bloom buds of the "Chinese Dragon" ligularia stand out in a shaded landscape behind a native fern. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
After the blooms are gone, the foliage of ligularia puts on a fall show. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
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Comments (2)
Posted by: Lynette Walther | Aug 25, 2019 19:53

  • Linda: A good foundation of improved soil helps, and remember the definitions of partial sun or partial shade or shade when selecting plants: "Partial Sun or Partial Shade - an area that gets 3 to 6 hours of sunlight each day. Shade - an area that receives less than 3 hours of direct sunlight per day. The light intensity is low because incoming light is at an angle in early morning or late afternoon." A good plant nursery can help with your selections."

Posted by: Linda Hillgrove | Aug 25, 2019 13:30

Thank you, Lynette, there is hope for my sunless garden. The pictures are of great benefit to see if they would fit in my small garden.

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