7 of the Best Flowering Bulbs and Tubers for Shady Backyards That Will Help Your Outdoor Space Come to Life

Getting the right plant for the right place is more important than ever if your garden is filled with shade. Our expert tips show you how to lighten things up

pink and blue spring flowering Camassia leichtlinii
Shade-loving pink and blue spring flowering Camassia leichtlinii
(Image credit: Ellen Rooney/Alamy Stock Photo)

If sunlight is scarce in your backyard it's important to choose the right shade-loving plants to make the best of the space. Plants that adapt easily to shade conditions tend to be understated varieties but once you get to know them you'll find they add a special charm to small, urban, overlooked gardens or forgotten spaces where you thought nothing would grow. 

It makes sense to welcome these growing conditions and find the best flower bulbs for shady backyards that will suit the space. Shady gardens are often a feature of overlooked urban environments, but remember they offer a microclimate of warm, sheltered conditions too, which means you might be able to push out the flower search to include more unusual shade-loving tropical bulb varieties.

Be generous when buying flower bulbs as they always look better in big drifts or clumps rather than dotted here and there as a solo act. The good news is, if your growing space is limited to a shady courtyard or balcony garden all these ideas work well for planters and containers too.

1. Cyclamen hederafolium

pink cyclamen hederifolium flowers

(Image credit: Graham Prentice/Alamy Stock Photo)

Hardy cyclamen are the go-to plant when it comes to shaded areas of the garden. They create a splash in shady places where other plants struggle to flower. Often one of the first signs of fall is seeing drifts of pretty pink or white Cyclamen hederifolium flowers beneath trees and shrubs. The dark evergreen patterned foliage is attractive through the seasons too.

'Cyclamen hederafolium is an autumn flowering species of cyclamen with magnificently marbled foliage,' says internationally acclaimed garden designer Jacqueline van der Kloet. 'It's hardy and will even hold its own in dry shade. It does surprisingly well under beech trees – not the easiest of trees when it comes to planting underneath them – and will begin flowering in September.'

They are tuberous perennials (rather than bulbs) and once you have hardy cyclamen in your garden, they'll spread themselves about.

2. Chocolate lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis)

Fritillaria camschatcensis flowers (chocolate lily)

(Image credit: I love Photo and Apple/Getty Images)

If you’re looking to make a bold statement in flower beds or container gardens, Fritillaria are majestic beauties that will do just that. The nodding, purple-black flowers of the camschatcensis variety are dashed with yellow and will add a delicate flower detail to your planting scheme. They are one of the best flower bulbs for shady backyards. 

'Fritillaria are a diverse group of spring bloomers that grow from fall-planted bulbs,' says flower expert Jenny Rose Carey. 'This genus is full of some strange but interesting flowers. Most fritillaries need really good drainage. Plant seeds [like these chocolate lilies from Walmart] on a bed of gravel, and lay the bulbs on their sides in the planting hole.'

Easy to grow, the camschatcensis will thrive in a slightly shaded spot, whereas most other types of Fritillaria prefer full sun. It grows up to 24 inches tall, and flowers from May to July. It's a hardy plant that grows vigorously but won't take over the garden.

3. Begonia tuberosa

Begonia tuberosa ‘Majestic White Pink Picotee’ flower

(Image credit: Thrillerfillerspiller/Alamy Stock Photo)

Tuberous begonia varieties are one of the best flower bulbs for shady backyards. They are a great option for planting in containers and tubs for a balcony or courtyard garden that's shaded from the sun, and will also thrive in a shady corner of the garden.

'Finally a fantastic flower for dark spots!' says Jacqueline van der Kloet. 'And it will certainly flower – from June to November. Because tuberous begonias need soil that is moist at all times, it's better not to put a container of begonias in the sun, but in the shade or partial shade. Colors such as white, pink and apricot stand out better in the shade too.'

It's not technically a bulb though. From spring onwards you can buy the tubers from garden centers and nurseries to plant up from February to June. Alternatively for the easiest option you can buy potted plants, like these peach begonias from Burpee, to transfer straight to your container gardens.

4. Caladium

Caladium leaves and fern plants

(Image credit: Alexey Stiop/Alamy Stock Photo)

Stars of the shade garden, these striking ornamental plants are all about the color show offered by the heart-shaped foliage. The splashy bright pink, white, and green leaves prefer shade with a little morning sun, then full shade for the rest of the day. Or plant them in moist locations in dappled sunlight. Too much light will cause the vibrant leaf colors to fade and the leaf edges to go brown. 

The vivid red leaf venation lightens shady spots and looks particularly eye-catching when partnered with other shade-loving plants like ferns and hostas. Caladium work well as an accent plant in containers for shaded patios and courtyards too. 

If the conditions are right caladium produce a single arum-type flower with a green or pink spathe surrounding a short white spadix, making it one of the best flower bulbs for shady backyards.

They are easy to grow each spring from tuberous bulbs, and will quickly become established in the right conditions. If you live in a cooler climate then lift the bulbs in the fall or bring the plants in as houseplants once the chill begins to set in.

Caladium are tropical perennials that grow from tubers underground and can be grown by purchasing either a plant or tubers. 

5. Summer snowflake

white Leucojum flowers (summer snowflakes)

(Image credit: Clare Gainey/Alamy Stock Photo)

Also known as Leucojum, the elegant summer snowflake is a late spring-early summer blooming bulb that is similar to snowdrops but grows at least twice as tall (up to 20 inches) and blooms about two months later in April and May. 

In the wild, it grows at the edge of woodlands where the plants are lightly shaded. This means it will thrive in your shady garden too. The clumps of pretty white, bell-shaped flowers are tipped with a lime green accent and form clusters on arching stems. The bulbs are reliable and will flower year after year once established. 

'I love these oversized snowdrops,' says planting design specialist and shade garden expert Susanna Grant, author of Shade (available on Amazon). 'They are excellent for instant impact and work as brilliantly in a large pot as they do in a partially shaded bed. I find them really unfussy about conditions and they grow happily under the trees in my garden.'

Plant summer snowflake bulbs in fall in moist, well-drained soil, at a depth of 4 inches, with the pointed end facing upwards. For natural looking drifts, gently scatter the bulbs and plant them where they land.

6. Californian quamash

Camassia leichtlinii 'Alba' white flowers

(Image credit: RM Floral Alamy Stock Photo)

Flowering in May and June, Californian quamash (Camassia leichtlinii, also known as wild hyacinth) has large racemes of star-shaped creamy white petals with yellow anthers and pale green centers. Blooms open in a cascading effect starting from the lowermost portion of the buds and slowing moving upwards.

'These are lovely bulbs and should be grown more often as they are reliable and hardy, and work in tricky spots such as dry or damp shade,' says Susanna Grant. 'There’s no need to lift them once planted. 'Alba’ has tall, sturdy stems with star-shaped, creamy-white flowers. Also try ‘Pink Star’ for pale pink flowers, although this is harder to get hold of.'

Useful for shady and dappled beds and borders in late spring and early summer, this plant will also do well in pots and for container gardening, and makes a good cutting flower. Plant the bulbs in fall about 4 inches deep. They grow to around 30 inches tall so make a good vertical accent in shade gardens.

7. Lily of the valley

lily of the valley flowers

(Image credit: Elizabeth Whiting Associates/Alamy Stock Photo)

The delicate and beautiful lily of the valley produces scented white flowers that look like dainty bells in late spring and early summer. There's a darling pink variety too (Convallaria majalis var. rosea) which is super pretty if you want to add something unexpected to your planting scheme. 

These shade-loving plants thrive in beds where other plants struggle, and also do well in the dappled shade under trees. They are drought tolerant in shaded areas, but it's best to apply a 3-4 inch layer of mulching to help with soil moisture and insulation. Once established, lily of the valley plants are long-lived. 

Lily of the valley doesn't grow from bulbs exactly but from small rhizomes called 'pips' — you can buy these Lily of the Valley seeds from Nature Hills Nursery. Once planted, the pips spread rapidly underground, and this helps to create a large carpet of these pretty white flowers. They can be invasive, so growing them in containers is a good way to keep the plant under control.

These are some of the best flower bulbs for shady backyards you'll find, and each one will add a beautiful little touch to your planting scheme.

Lifestyle journalist Sarah Wilson has been writing about flowers, plants, and garden design and trends since 2015. Having already studied introductory garden and landscape design as well as a course in floristry she is currently adding to her list of qualifications with an RHS Level 2 course in the Principles of Plant Growth and Development. In addition to livingetc.com, she's also written for homesandgardens.com, gardeningetc.com, Modern Gardens and Country Homes & Interiors magazines.