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10 Herbs to Grow in Shade (Not an Oxymoron)

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10 Herbs to Grow in Shade (Not an Oxymoron)

March 20, 2023

There is a prevailing garden myth: Herbs must be grown in full sun. It may be a symptom of unconscious bias, one that perceives the Mediterranean as the center of it all, and whose native herbs have become staples in many kitchens. And it is true that rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, and savory demand full sun (despite what some listicles about shade-loving herbs will tell you). But many other aromatic and flavorful plants that are used as herbs or spices thrive in shade. For culinary gardeners (or horticultural cooks?), this is exciting. This (by-no-means exhaustive) shortlist of herbs for shade includes plants that evolved in conditions where they receive protection from the sun, be it in valleys, mountainous ravines, or lush tropical forests. They can all be grown at home.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: My Brooklyn terrace is a fine mess—but also a laboratory for shade-loving herbs.

Over the course of several gardens, two of which were defined by shade, I learned that my own view of culinary herbs was narrow. But some great teachers broadened my own perspective: experience (in those gardens), curiosity (what is that, and how can it be used?), and the immense variety of cuisines that simmer within the five boroughs of New York City. (Seeing what is on your plate can be highly inspiring and motivating for a gardener obsessed with flavors.)

Pepper Elder

Above: Peperomia pelucida – pepper elder, shiny bush, rat-ear, crab-claw herb.

And then there are gifts. Michele Palladino, the founder of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Nursery, gave me some unfamiliar, rooted seedlings one spring. With a native range that includes much of the globe (tropical Australia, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean), pepper elder—Peperomia pelucida—is a tender annual in cold climates (it is hardy from USDA zones 9b – 11). Its glossy leaves on sappy stems are gently aromatic, crunchy, very tender, and juicy. It has many common names, in many languages, and it is used medicinally as well as eaten in a slew of cooking traditions. In Jamaica pepper elder may be cooked with jerk pork. In Vietnam it could top a hot-sweet-sour salad. I add its glossy leaves to quick pickles, serve them in a heap alongside spicy food, or wrap them into summer rolls, for their bulk, flavor, and crunch. Pepper elder’s flower spikes set dozens of tiny black seeds, and they germinate readily. In climates without freezing winters this gives pepper elder invasive potential. Keeping it in a pot will narrow its range and add green grace to your shade garden. And it makes a handsome houseplant.

Sand Ginger

Above: Sand ginger, Kaempferia galanga, with lemon basil (right).

Lesser galangal, aromatic ginger, kencur, and resurrection lily are a few of sand ginger’s many common names. Kaempferia galanga is native to forest edges in South and Southeast Asia, and is used fresh in Malaysia and Indonesia. In China, the dried rhizome is important, particularly in Sichuan cuisine. And it is deployed widely in its native range as a botanical medicine. Sand ginger is frost-tender, and only hardy to USDA zone 9a, but it is easily overwintered indoors: it goes dormant, losing all its leaves, and requires no water for the duration. Move it outdoors once nights are about 50 degrees Fahrenheit again. Outdoors, it prefers high, dappled, or full shade; left in the sun its leaves will curl inwards in protest. It relishes humid summers. Its delicious leaves are crunchy in salads, make wonderful edible plates, and infuse cooling drinks.

Read our full story about how to grow and eating sand ginger.

Galangal and Friends

Above: Galangal—famous for its rhizome, also has statuesque and aromatic leaves.

Meet the houseplant you didn’t know you needed. Galangal—Alpinia galanga—is known for its tough, aromatic rhizome. At least, tough when you are lucky enough to find it in a supermarket in the US. When you harvest your own, as I can once or twice a year, you understand the appeal of the fresh root. It is highly perfumed and very sliceable. And it keeps for weeks wrapped in the fridge. Native to Indonesia, galangal is widespread in South and Southeast Asia. It is a key ingredient in a variety of curry pastes and dipping sauces, defines tom yum soup, and is delicious grated into any lime-based salad dressings. Cold-averse, galangal must overwinter indoors, out of direct sunshine, in climates colder than USDA zone 9. My own plant is divided once, sometimes twice, a year, and that is when I collect the rhizomes. The huge leaves—rolled and crushed lightly—are delicious infused in coconut-based curries, Filipino-style adobes, or your favorite drink.

Other familiar members of the ginger family, like turmeric and ginger, can be grown in the same way, or as annuals in cold climates, and harvested at the end of the growing season.

Above: Fresh galangal rhizomes, harvested when the plant has been divided, for repotting.

Myoga

Myoga buds in early autumn.
Above: Myoga buds in early autumn.

Less ubiquitous than turmeric and ginger in the kitchen is highly seasonal myoga (Zingiber mioga). Native to East Asia’s mountains, its plump, pink-tinted buds seem magical when they appear at the base of the plant as late summer cools into autumn. Their fresh, aromatic crunch is exceptional in salads, or with sashimi. The plant is cold-hardy to USDA zone 7, but I find that in pots it is safer to overwinter myoga indoors (not because of cold but because of the freeze-thaw cycle that ruptures and rots its roots). The plant is winter-dormant and, like sand ginger, disappears into hibernation for months.

Learn more about growing and eating myoga.

Vietnamese Mint

Above: Persicaria odorata—hot mint, Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese coriander (with sand ginger in bloom, behind.)

My first taste of Vietnamese coriander—or hot mint—came via a take-out order from Pok Pok, a Thai restaurant founded in Portland, Oregon, by Andy Ricker, with an outpost in Brooklyn. The herb’s fresh stems accompanied ultra-crisp, spicy fish sauce chicken wings, and quick pickles. That combination was eye-opening and addictive. The herb was pungent, deeply aromatic, and chewy, and it cut through the salt and fat of the wings. Pok Pok closed, and I vowed to recreate the experience at home. First, I needed the herb. It is very easy to grow – too easy, by some measures. Vietnamese coriander needs a roomy pot, ample water, and shade. In-ground, in warm climates, it will take off. If you use it often, the clipping of its stems will keep its sprawling habit in check. Persicaria odorata is hardy to USDA zone 9, and can either be overwintered indoors (where it tends to become lanky) or grown as an annual (my preference).

Basil

Above: Purple basil relishes partial to high shade.

Despite its reputation as a sun lover, most basils will thank you for giving them at least a half-day of shade, or full-time, high shade in hot climates. For the curious: Despite basil’s association with pesto and the Mediterranean, basils are native to tropical Asia and Africa (esoterica: purple, or opal, basil was developed from a hybrid created in Connecticut in the 1960’s). Thai basil, lemon basil, holy basil—all prefer shade to full sun in hot summer climates.

Above: Sweet basil growing in afternoon shade.

Sweetfern

Above: Comptonia peregrina—sweetfern, is a North American native shrub.

If you have ever absently crushed the leaves of sweetfern, perhaps on a hike anywhere in the Northeast, you will appreciate that this native shrub— not really a fern—has enormous culinary potential. Unusually, for a plant that is not a legume, it also fixes nitrogen in the soil, and is good for garden soil-health. Sweetfern relishes dappled shade, or part shade, and grows natively in forest clearings and on its edges. The fragrant leaves are wonderful cooked with baked fish, scallops, or root vegetables, and I like to grill with them in summer. They infuse hot toddies and play well with bourbon. More and more native nurseries are stocking the attractive plant, which is hardy from USDA zones 2 – 6 (although I say 7…).

Read more about growing sweetfern and how to use it in the kitchen.

Ramps

Above: A ramp flower setting seed, growing from a potted plant.

Ramps (Allium tricoccum), the wild leeks native to eastern North America, demand summer shade to thrive. They also need spring sunshine. Planting them beneath deciduous trees is ideal, but they also grow well in pots that see sunshine in springtime. Their garlic-flavored leaves are very versatile in the kitchen, and harvesting only their foliage allows the bulbs to keep growing, undisturbed. While ramps root rather readily, from market-sold bulbs with roots attached, it will be a few years before they begin to propagate. They are notoriously slow to spread, which is why cultivating them to conserve wild ramps is encouraged.

Here’s how to grow ramps, and why.

Field Garlic

Above: Chives? No—field garlic, Allium vineale.

Why are some plant herbs and others weeds? Usually, it’s about invasive potential. But if you have a shady garden and love sun-preferring chives, consider field garlic. No one will be selling it, so you will have to dig up your own from a forest—or lawn—near you. It thrives in shade and dappled shade, and grows especially lush in humus-rich soil. Cut its green leaves for their strong garlic-chive flavor, and pull up its white bulbs as they mature and get fat (use like garlic cloves). It is dormant after summer, and reappears again in cold weather. Allium vineale is hardy from USDA zones 4 – 9.

Read more about how to use field garlic in our foraging story.

Bay

Above: A potted bay tree in Brooklyn.

Bay trees may like full sun in temperate climates, but in hot summers they appreciate high shade. My own tree moved back indoors (after a couple of terrace-years) when I noticed that it was suffering from sunburn – and that only from morning sunshine in New York’s tropical summers. Thousands of miles away in Cape Town, my mother’s 20-foot bay is shrouded by tall shrubs and trees, and relishes their shadows. I learned that bay trees grow naturally in ravines in the southern Mediterranean. Bay is a handsome houseplant, and its fresh leaves are incomparably better than dried.

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