Every plant comes with one – a little plastic label tucked into the pot with an icon on it that lets you know what level of light it needs. It’s surely a tribute to the horticulture industry that plant lines have been developed to keep things so easy and give us gardeners lots of options for design possibilities. But in real life – in nature – “light” is a lot more complex.

Dappled Shade

Ever-changing dappled shade is gorgeous, but it can be tricky gardening under the canopy of trees.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens


Bloodroot sparkles in early spring sunshine before a tree’s leaves fill out to create dappled shade.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Flower Close up

Don’t be afraid to move your plants to different light levels until you find the right spot where they’ll thrive.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Differences in light can be crucial to whether a plant thrives or just sort of limps along. And the more you learn about plants, the more adjectives you’ll find describing the many shades of shade. To top it off, the descriptions of habitats appropriate for natives are open to a lot of interpretation. Of course, this is lots of fun for those who like such challenges, but for most of us, simple is better.

So let’s shed some light…on light!

Full sun” means just that – nothing blocks the sunshine from dawn to sunset. This is what you find in the center of a meadow, an old field, a swamp.

Sun” means the “full sun” is trimmed a bit – usually due to tree lines that limit the flow of sunshine to about eight hours a day. (Move a bit closer to the edge of the meadow to find this area.) Most of the time the differences between “full sun” and “sun” are really slight for sun-loving plants, but there are species that insist on a full day or they’ll get grumpy.

Along the edge of the meadow – often called “wood edges,” “roadsides” or “larger openings” – we encounter a vexing pair of phrases: “part shade” and “part sun.” Both suggest there’s a full blast of sunshine for part of the day, but these phrases generally imply what part of the day.

Part shade” usually involves providing sunshine in the morning (when the rays are less intense), then offering shelter from the really strong afternoon rays.

Part sun” means a few hours of really strong sunshine, likely in the midday to afternoon hours.

So the question regarding the edge of the woods becomes, which edge – east or west?

Well, when it comes to those descriptions of native plant habitats, you need to break it down similarly. “Found along roadsides” (usually dry) or “along stream banks” suggests that there will be a hefty shot of sunshine at midday and then the shelter of shade before and after.

The shade levels under big landscape trees can seemingly throw a wrench into things, but it’s actually quite simple. These mature deciduous trees form two distinct habitats: “open shade” and “dappled shade.”

Open shade” can be stretched to mean “part sun” (we all try to cheat a bit here because those sun-loving perennials are so nice to have), but it usually means your plants below will get some weaker sunshine in the morning and late-day hours and bask under the shady canopy of leaves in between. I’ve seen habitat notes that mention “open shade,” but more often this kind of light is found in thickets – kind of brushy areas that take the edge off full sunshine but still allow a lot of light to reach the ground.

Dappled shade” is the kind most loved by those who garden under a canopy of trees. You’ll enjoy the show of flowers in early spring, usually before the leaves unfurl. You’ll see drifting pools of summer sunshine forming marvelous puddles of varying colors on the ground, creating mesmerizing interest all day long. But you’ll also have the fun of working with some of the subtle differences.

For years I’ve enjoyed native windflower (Anemone virginiana), a dappled shade lover, but one patch struggled at midday. It just sort of half-wilted and then perked up later. The pool of sunshine was a big one and just too intense. Moving my plants to a more protected spot was a simple solution.

Full shade” is found at the dim end of the dark spectrum (also sometimes called “dense shade” or “deep shade”). This is the spot under shrubs in a forest or under conifers and pockets of ground surrounded by huge tree trunks. It’s a specialized habitat and a great place for a whole collection of plants ranging from native orchids to many kinds of ferns and mosses. But just as “full shade” implies, there’s little or no direct sun at any time of the day.

And that’s it – well, at least for the major light distinctions for the plant kingdom. Despite understanding the different kinds of light plants take, prepare for surprises when some species pick their own spots. I struggled for some time to launch a patch of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in what I thought should be an ideal location. Those that survived managed to set up a thriving colony in a more preferred location about 15 feet away. I couldn’t tell the difference, but the bloodroot could, and that’s all that mattered. Just remember, part of the fun of gardening is learning to work with nature, not against it!