Grasses are mostly used in our gardens in sunny sites to bring texture, contrast and movement to our planting schemes, but in shade their are few that will thrive and offer us the same qualities. Instead we tend to use similar looking alternatives such as sedges (Carex sp.) and woodrushes (Luzula sp.). Whilst very useful, these are generally low or rounded forms which are not the most dramatic for setting up contrast within a woodland floor situation which tend to consist of a low and flat perennial layer punctuated by understory shrubs.
There are of course grasses adapted to shady situations such as the Wood Melic (Melica nutans and other species) and Wood Millet (Milium effusum) but these tend to be either short growing or light and whispy in appearance, and whilst there are taller-growing species of Bromus which are happy in shade, my experience is that they are aggressive seeders that you will long regret ever having introduced into the garden.
For something upright and interesting to use in a shady scheme there is one grass that I could not be without, the American native, the Wild-oat or Wood-oat:
This grass forms upright, vase shaped clumps of distinctive wide leaves and when in flower the form is afforded greater presence by the large flattened infloresences and subsequent seed heads which dangle like earrings above and around it.
Lets use it to make an interesting perennial meadow scheme for partial shade. The scheme I have in my mind would work in what we tend to call a woodland edge situation – partially shady thus and not excessively dry.
To make the most of the upward arching form of the grass we need to surround it with a lower, fairly uniform matrix of vegetation which sets up interesting foliage contrasts both within itself and with the grass. Flowers are therefore of secondary consideration and can probably be introduced by adding additional complementary plants to the scheme.
Five totally reliable theme perennials make up this scheme:
2 x 3 Chasmanthium latifolium
2 x 1 Pachyphragma machrophyllum (see post in Top Perennials section of this site)
3 x 1 Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’
2 x 3 Dryopteris erythrosora
3 x 1 Omphalodes Cappadocica ‘Starry Eyes’
The pachyphragma, the epimedium and the omphalodes are all spring flowering in white, puple and blue, respectively; each with very different leaf colours, shapes and sizes. The dryopteris fern is unique with metalic bronze tinted floliage arranged horizontally whilst the upright, pale green grass not only contributes form and texture, but also goes on to develop interesting autumnal tints.
The flower colour in spring could be augmented with any number of spring flowering woodland bulbous plants such as snowdrops and winter achonites to name just two. A fine addition to this scheme for a summer splash of colour would be the intense blue flowered Gentiana asclepiadea. These and all of the plants used in this new planting scheme are included in other schemes presented in my Shady Perennial Meadows eBook together with descriptions and photographs. As you can see, meadow style gardening has applications in many different parts of our gardens and not only open sunny meadow sites.