UNITED STATES—Modern urban lifestyles are becoming less conducive to gardening all the time. Bigger and taller homes cast larger shadows over smaller garden spaces. The taller fences between these homes do not help. The densely evergreen trees employed to obscure the views of other larger and taller homes also obscure sunlight. Not much sunlight reaches the ground where shorter plants need it.
While all this is going on, we are supposed to be gardening with more sustainable plants that demand less water. Smaller, shadier and more sheltered gardens should naturally use less water than larger and more exposed gardens need. Yet, the plants that do not mind the shade naturally want more water than plants that want more sunlight. There are not many that are drought tolerant.
Drought tolerant plants are naturally endemic to dry climates. Many are from chaparral regions. Some are from deserts. In such ecosystems where water is too scarce to sustain much foliage, there is not much competition for sunlight. Shade tolerant plants are just the opposite. They are from forested ecosystems with taller and shadier trees. Such ecosystems are sustained by rainfall.
There are quite a few plants that do not mind a bit of shade. Heavenly bamboo, flowering maple, hydrangea, camellia, azalea, rhododendron, holly, daphne and andromeda (Pieris spp.) are some of the more familiar shade tolerant shrubbery; but alas, none are drought tolerant. Nor are the various ferns. Even small shade tolerant trees like dogwood want to be watered regularly.
Most of the plants that tolerate shade but are not too terribly thirsty are groundcover plants or perennials. They are not exactly drought tolerant, but can survive with minimal watering because they do not dry out so much in the shade. Once established in a cool shady environment, plumbago, lily turf, periwinkle Saint John’s wort and coral bells (Heuchera spp.) only need to be watered occasionally through summery weather, although they are thirstier in sunny spots. Both English and Algerian ivy need nothing in the shade.
Highlight: flowering maple
It is impossible to say who the parents were. So many specie were hybridized to develop the many cultivars of flowering maple that the Latin name of the collective group is simply Abutilon X hybridum, which means exactly what it looks like. They are hybrids of various and rarely documented species of Abutilon. The ‘X’ dispels any doubt. ‘Chinese lantern’ is another common name.
Flowers can be yellow, orange, red, pink or pale yellowish white. They look like small hibiscus flowers that do not open all the way, and some only open half way. Many hang vertically. Some hang at about forty-five degrees. Bloom is sporadic all year, and more abundant while weather is warm. The rather sparse evergreen foliage looks somewhat like maple foliage, with variable lobes.
The largest flowering maples do not get much taller than the eaves. Short types stay shorter than two feet. Stems can be awkwardly angular, even if pruned back to promote fluffier growth. Roots can be unstable, necessitating staking or pruning to lighten the load. Flowering maple prefers partial shade, and can tolerate significant shade, but can also do well in full sun if watered regularly.