11 Best Ornamental Grasses for Shade

Do you have a shaded landscape but will want to add a few ornamental grasses? Grasses typically perform best in full sun, but there are plenty of grasses and grass-like plants that will not only grow well but look fantastic in your shade garden. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen introduces 11 of the best shade-loving and showy grass plants that you can grow.

Close-up of blooming ornamental grass for shade - Sisyrinchium. This perennial herb forms tufts of slender, iris-like leaves that are grass-like in appearance. The foliage provides an emerald-green backdrop to the star-shaped flowers that bloom in purple. Each flower has a distinctive yellow center.

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Finding ornamental grass varieties for a shade garden can be tricky. If you want to fill a shady area, you will discover that most grasses perform best in full sun. Luckily, there are several grasses, sedges, and other grass-like plants that thrive in shaded habitats and boost the beauty of your landscape.

Growing a shade garden can be a very enjoyable and rewarding project. You can grow smaller shade-loving plants in the shadows of trees, shrubs, fences, and buildings. Your shade garden can occupy a few containers on a shaded deck or expand throughout a larger wooded area. 

Find ornamental grasses that grow low to the ground, making an excellent ground cover for smaller areas. You can also find giant grasses to use as a privacy screen. Whether your shady site is large or small, you are sure to find some ornamental plants to liven up your landscape.

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If you think of grass as your typical lawn grass, ornamental grasses are very different. Lawn grass requires a tremendous amount of maintenance, including mowing, fertilizing, and weeding, to keep it looking good. Ornamental grasses tend to grow in bunches and clumps. Many species have attractive flowers, and they are very low-maintenance. 

The key to choosing the right grasses and other plants for your landscape is to choose the varieties that grow best where you live. Check out the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map and identify your zone. Check the light and soil conditions at your site as well. Do you have full shade, or do you have some sunlight during the day? Is your soil dry, well-drained, or wet? Once you know your site conditions, you are well prepared to select plants that thrive where you plant them.

Are you ready to learn more about ornamental grasses for your shade garden? Read on for more details about 11 beautiful and easy-to-grow grasses and grass-like plants to add to areas of your landscape that receive less sun.

Birdfoot Sedge

Close-up of a young tuft of Carex conica 'Snow Line' ornamental grass in a garden. This evergreen sedge features narrow, arching leaves that form dense, fountain-like clumps. The leaves are variegated with a vivid contrast between the white edges and the central green stripe, creating a visually appealing "snowy" effect.
Native to Asia, birdfoot sedge appreciates shaded, well-drained areas, forming attractive clumps.
botanical-name botanical name Carex conica ‘Snow Line’
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 1 – 1.5 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5 – 9

There are plenty of varieties of sedges that perform well in the shade, but many can become weedy and aggressive. The birdfoot sedge is native to Asia and tends to be fairly slow-growing and non-aggressive. Grow it in a shaded area with rich, moist, well-drained soil.

Birdfoot sedge is a great plant to use along a woodland edge, walkway, or other border. Its low-growing clumps make attractive mounds of striped green and white grass-like vegetation. It blooms in the spring or summer with rounded, spiky tufts of white to pale lavender flowers. Birdfoot sedge is primarily grown for its showy evergreen vegetation.

Blue-Eyed Grass

Close-up of blooming Sisyrinchium, commonly known as blue-eyed grass, in a garden. The plants form clumps of slender, sword-shaped leaves that are green or bluish-green in color. Rising above the foliage are wiry stems bearing small, star-shaped flowers of purple-blue color.
Native blue-eyed grass blooms in spring with various flower colors.
botanical-name botanical name Sisyrinchium spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 1 – 2 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3 – 9

Blue-eyed grass is a flowering annual or perennial plant native to North America. Although not a true grass, blue-eyed grass looks very grass-like with its bunches of narrow, upright, green leaves. It blooms in the spring with small but showy flowers. Flower colors range from dark purple to pale blue to yellow, depending on the variety. While not blooming, blue-eyed grass is very difficult to distinguish from true ornamental shade grasses.

There are many different species of blue-eyed grasses native to different regions. These plants grow well in partial shade, though they tend to flower less. Still, they are a beautiful addition to your woodland garden or other shaded location with moist, well-drained soil. Grow this plant along a border or edge where you can best appreciate its small size and compact nature.

Bottlebrush Grass

Close-up of Elymus hystrix, commonly known as bottlebrush grass, in a sunny garden. This native features grass long, slender blades that arch gracefully, forming dense clumps. The foliage is bright green and has a slightly coarse texture. One of the most notable characteristics of Elymus hystrix is its unique seed heads, resembling bottlebrushes.
Native bottlebrush grass does best in partial shade and blooms in summer, attracting birds with unique seedheads.
botanical-name botanical name Elymus hystrix
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial shade
height height 2 – 4 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5 – 9

Bottlebrush grass is an ornamental grass native to partially shaded areas of the central and eastern United States. It grows primarily in open woodlands and is well adapted to areas with dappled sunlight. Give it dry to medium-moisture soil. In warmer and sunnier locations, bottlebrush grass dies back after flowering, though it persists longer into the fall in cooler and shadier locations.

Allow your bottlebrush grass to grow into handsome clumps. It will self-seed and spread by rhizomes but isn’t aggressively weedy or invasive. The plant blooms in the summer, and, as the name implies, it produces seed heads that resemble spiky bottlebrushes. Birds are attracted to the seedheads and eat the seeds as they fall to the ground.

Giant Cane 

Close-up of Arundinaria gigantea in a sunny garden. Arundinaria gigantea, commonly known as giant cane or river cane, is a large and stately bamboo species. This bamboo exhibits a tall and robust stature. The canes are characterized by a vibrant green color and a distinctive jointed structure. The lance-shaped leaves, which are concentrated at the top of the stems, create an elegant and feathery canopy.
For naturalized woodlands, choose giant cane, a large bamboo native to the southeastern U.S.
botanical-name botanical name Arundinaria gigantea
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 4 – 20 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5 – 9

If you have a large shaded area to fill, you might be looking for a large ornamental grass-like species. The giant cane, also called canebrake bamboo, is a large bamboo native to the southeastern United States. It grows best in rich, moist, well-drained soil. While it often grows alongside rivers, streams, and wetlands, it does not like prolonged periods of soggy soil. 

Giant cane is a great plant for a naturalized woodland area and makes an excellent hedgerow. It produces a dense stand of numerous, thin, upright stems that stay evergreen throughout the year. These provide superb cover for birds and other small animals. However, ensure you have enough space for this plant because it grows tall and spreads far. But if you want a large native bamboo, give the giant cane some serious consideration.

Gold Fountains

Close-up view of Carex dolichostachya 'Kaga Nishiki' in the garden. The narrow leaves exhibit a striking contrast between the creamy-white edges and the dark green centers, creating an eye-catching variegation.
This sedge originates in Asia and flourishes in shade, boasting elegant striped leaves.
botanical-name botanical name Carex dolichostachya ‘Kaga Nishiki’
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 0.5 – 1.5 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5 – 9

The evergreen sedge cultivar, ‘Gold Fountains’ originates in Asia. It thrives in moist, well-drained soil with plenty of shade. This sedge is slow-growing and non-aggressive.

‘Gold Fountains’ sedge has clusters of thin, arching leaves. The leaves have green and pale yellow stripes, creating an elegant foliage display. Grow this plant along borders and edges in your shade garden or around a small pond.

Clusters develop and spread gradually, and fully mature clusters reach almost two feet across. If your gold fountain clumps start to outgrow their space, you can dig them out, divide them into smaller clusters, and replant them.

Japanese Forest Grass

Close-up of Hakonechloa macra in a sunny garden. Hakonechloa macra, commonly known as Hakone grass, is a graceful and ornamental grass prized for its elegant appearance. This deciduous grass forms cascading mounds of arching, slender blades that create a cascading fountain-like effect. The leaves are dark green and glossy.
A clumping ornamental from Japan, Japanese forest grass lives in shaded, rich soil, forming cascading layers.
botanical-name botanical name Hakonechloa macra
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 1 – 1.5 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5 – 9

The luscious Japanese forest grass is a beautiful clumping ornamental grass native to Japan. It is a popular landscaping plant, and there are many very attractive cultivars available in the gardening trade. Japanese forest grass does best in a shaded location with rich, moist, well-drained soil. 

This grass has dense clusters of slender, arching leaves. The stems and leaves drape over each other to form a cascade of different layers. Some varieties have solid green leaves, others are variegated, and others display shades of purplish red in the fall. Grow this low, mounding grass along a shaded edge or as a border of a woodland walkway.

Liriope

Close-up shot of a flowering Liriope spicata plant in a sunny garden. Liriope spicata, commonly known as creeping lilyturf or monkey grass, is a low-growing perennial appreciated for its attractive ground cover qualities. This plant features arching, grass-like leaves that form dense tufts. The linear leaves are deep green and have a slightly glossy texture. Liriope spicata produces slender spikes adorned with tiny, lavender to violet flowers.
A tough and adaptable Asian native, liriope forms an evergreen ground cover with pinkish summer flowers.
botanical-name botanical name Liriope spicata
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 0.5 – 1.5 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4 – 10

Liriope, also known as monkey grass or mondo grass, is native to Asia. Liriope is not a true grass but a densely mounding herbaceous perennial flower. This plant is both tough and adaptable and can be grown in almost any combination of soil conditions.

The thin, grass-like leaves are evergreen and grow in thick clumps. Plant them close together in densely packed arrangements to create an excellent ground cover or lawn substitute for low-traffic areas.

Liriope also makes a great choice for planting along shaded edges and borders or in areas where you need erosion control. Ornamental spikes of tiny pinkish flowers bloom in the summer for extra appeal.

River Oats

Close-up of Chasmanthium latifolium in a sunny garden. This perennial grass forms clumps of bamboo-like stems with broad, arching leaves. The flattened seed heads, resembling oat spikes turn from green to bronze, creating an enchanting visual display.
Native river oats, adapted to shade and moist conditions, enhance wildlife-friendly landscapes with showy seed clusters.
botanical-name botanical name Chasmanthium latifolium
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial shade
height height 2 – 5 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5 – 9

River oats are an attractive ornamental grass native to central and eastern North America. This plant grows naturally in moist, shaded woodlands and along woodland edges. River oat plants are well-adapted to shade and moist to wet soil conditions. This grass is a good option for growing along a wetland edge or in a naturalized setting. 

River oats plants spread readily by self-seeding and by rhizomes. The flowering panicles bloom in late summer and fall with showy, flattened, oat-like seed clusters. River oats are a good option for a wildlife-friendly landscape because birds feed on the seeds. This grass is also a larval host plant for the northern pearly-eye butterfly.

Switch Cane

Close-up of Arundinaria tecta, commonly known as switch cane or giant cane, in the garden. This bamboo forms dense colonies with tall, sturdy culms. The lance-shaped leaves are concentrated at the top of the stems, creating a lush, feathery canopy.
This versatile native bamboo subsists in wetlands, offering cover for wildlife.
botanical-name botanical name Arundinaria tecta
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to deep shade
height height 6 – 10 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 6 – 9 

Switch cane, also known as small cane, is a native bamboo found in wetland areas throughout the southeastern United States. It is quite versatile and grows well in both full sun and full shade. This tall species prefers rich, moist, well-drained soil and tolerates periodic flooding.

Switch cane produces tall, leafy columns with a denser cluster of leaves towards the top of each stem. It spreads quickly by rhizomes and makes a good plant for a large, naturalized area or privacy screen. The vegetation provides excellent cover for birds and other wildlife and would be a welcome addition to your wildlife-friendly landscape.

Tussock Grass

Close-up of Deschampsia cespitosa in a garden among other plants. This cool-season, perennial grass forms dense, tufted clumps with slender, arching stems. The delicate, narrow leaves have a vibrant green color. Feathery, open panicles of small, airy flowers emerge, creating a soft and elegant display.
Native to northern North America, tussock grass forms dense clusters, perfect for borders.
botanical-name botanical name Deschampsia cespitosa
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 1.5 – 3 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4 – 9

Tussock grass, also known as tufted hair grass, is a densely bunching grass native to a broad region of northern North America. This species thrives in cooler environments and typically dies back by mid-summer in bright sunlight and hot climates. You can grow tussock grass with rich, moist soil in a shaded location.

Tussock grass creates very dense, rounded, clumping clusters of very thin, bright green leaves.  It stays compact and makes a good edging and border plant. The flowering panicles bloom in late summer or fall and, if left on the plant, create attractive seedheads for winter interest. Birds come to feed on the ripe seeds in the fall and winter months.

Zig-Zag Bamboo

Close-up plan of growing Shibataea kumasaca in the garden. This clumping bamboo species features slender, upright canes. The canes are adorned with small, delicate leaves that give the plant a fine-textured and lush appearance. The foliage is a vibrant shade of green and creates a dense, bushy effect.
This bamboo is a low-maintenance, spreading evergreen ideal for shaded gardens.
botanical-name botanical name Shibataea kumasaca
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 2 – 4 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 6 – 9

Zig-zag bamboo is an evergreen grass native to China and Japan. It thrives in shaded areas with moist, well-drained soil. This plant spreads by rhizomes but does not grow as aggressively as some bamboo varieties. Therefore, it is easy to grow and maintain in the home garden.

This bamboo has reddish stems that form a zig-zag pattern between the broad leaves. It can be used in a naturalized area where it has plenty of space to grow. It also works as a natural low-growing hedge along a wall or fence. The densely growing foliage provides excellent cover for birds and other small animals. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you recommend other shade-loving plants to grow with these ornamental grasses? 

It can be a challenge to find shade-loving plants for your woodland garden or shaded landscape, but there are some good options. To compliment grass-like foliage, try growing some other plants with unique leaves. Hostas love shaded areas with moist, well-drained soil. Their broad leaves look great with any other plant. Ferns have delicate lacy foliage, and many perform exceptionally well in the shade. Lenten rose is a highly adaptable plant with tough, evergreen foliage. With the right plants, shade gardens can be surprisingly diverse and beautiful.

Will ornamental grasses be aggressive and take over my landscape?

You will find that some species of grass do grow quickly, spreading by self-seeding and rhizomes. Do a little research about any plant you consider for your yard, grass or otherwise, and make sure it’s not invasive in your area. If you want to keep your ornamental grasses well-contained, choose species that are slow-growing and non-aggressive. If you find unwanted seedlings sprouting in the spring, simply pull them out before they grow larger. However, if you have a large area that you want to cover with vegetation, choose a faster-growing grass variety that provides quick cover and excellent erosion control.

Do I need to mow ornamental grasses?

When growing ornamental grasses and other grass-like foliage plants, you won’t need to do any mowing. You may, however, want to do some trimming and thinning. Many plant species grow larger and wider and eventually spread beyond where you initially planted them. Additionally, certain species go dormant for the winter months. The foliage and seed heads then turn brown, but these plants often look attractive in the landscape throughout the fall and winter. Trim them back in early spring to help make way for fresh green foliage.

I want to grow a garden in a shaded area, but the soil is terrible. What can I do?

One of the easiest ways to deal with an area with poor soil is to garden in raised bed. Raised beds are versatile and easy to use. If you have a small shaded area and want to do grow pretty plants, purchase a raised bed (or several beds if you have the space), fill it with high-quality soil, and you have a ready-to-go garden plot! You can even grow ornamental grasses in your raised bed, just choose a variety or two that stays fairly small and compact.

Final Thoughts

If you have a shaded area in your landscape, you can still grow a gorgeous garden. Many shrubs, flowers, ferns, and grasses will grow well in a shaded location. Shade-loving grasses are a great option because they are easy to grow and add diversity, complementing your other plants with their graceful foliage. Look for more compact varieties for smaller spaces, and think big for larger naturalized areas. There are beautiful grasses for just about any garden project!

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