I hear more complaints about dry shade than other situation. “Nothing will grow there, whine, whine.” Wrong! Dry/ shade situations are usually created by the root systems of the trees that are creating the shade. These trees absorb most of the available moisture and most have root systems that are composed mainly of tiny feeder roots near the surface. Planting under these trees is a tricky business. If too many of these roots are destroyed during soil preparation and subsequent installation, the tree will suffer serious damage and could even die. For this reason, I recommend never rototilling under such trees, and suggest using small plants that will mature while barely disturbing the roots.
One of the best perennials for dry shade is Asarum. The best known species is Asarum europaeum (European Ginger) which is hardy to zone 5. It is easily recognized by its shiny, kidney-shaped, evergreen foliage that only grows six inches in part or full shade. It does bloom but the strange brown flowers are hidden under the foliage and are not terribly attractive.
This is an excellent groundcover for a small space. It grows very slowly, particularly in dry shade, but if given regular moisture and slightly acidic to neutral, humus-rich soil, it will spread more quickly.
Even though Asarum splendens (Chinese Wild Ginger) is not evergreen, it has lovely silver markings on the heart-shaped or arrowhead-shaped foliage. The markings vary considerably from one source to another as does the height (from six inches to twelve inches but usually on the shorter side). It is more vigorous than A.europaeum but is hardy only to zone 6.
Another deciduous ginger is A.canadense (Canadian Ginger) and it is hardy to zone 4. The heart-shaped foliage has a matte finish and grows about twelve inches high. One of my clients had a large mass of it on the north side of the house where it fended for itself. During installation of the design, we transplanted this ginger and it was off and running with no apparent distress.
Any of these gingers provide great textural contrast for other shade perennials like Astilbe, Aquilegia (Columbine), Dicentra eximia (Fringed Bleeding Heart), Carex (Sedge), and Epimedium (Barrenwort), or with Adiantum pedatum (Maidenhair Fern), Athryium flilix-femina (Lady Fern) and Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ (Japanese Painted Fern), among others.
Happily none of these gingers are palatable to deer.