What are some good plants for shade gardens? The first answers to that question that come to mind for most people are hostas and ferns, right?
There are better answers to the question. Native woodland plants provide beauty as well as ecological services in the form of food and shelter for insects, birds and larger animals and improve the soil for the many microscopic forms of life that live below ground.
One of the most recognizable and beautiful native shade plants is the large-flowered trillium. Each plant has a single, pure white, 2-4 inch wide, three-petaled flower with six bright yellow stamens. Plants are 10-18 inches tall and each has three leaves. Bloom time is late April through May. Flowers fade to a pretty pink near the end of bloom time.
Jack-in-the-pulpit blooms a bit later than trillium. One or two leaf stalks topped by three leaflets shelter its odd-looking flower. An upright, tubular, purple and brown-streaked structure called a spathe encloses and forms a hood, the “pulpit,” over “jack,” a finger-like structure called a spadix. Later in the summer the “jack” turns into bright red clusters of berry-like fruits. Plants self-sow, so you’ll find baby jack-in-the-pulpits growing near the parent plant that can be transplanted elsewhere or left in place. Both trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit prefer moist shade.
For moist as well as drier shade, wild geranium’s five-petaled, one-inch flowers bring a sparkle of pink to shady areas. Wild geraniums, Geranium maculatum, are not to be confused with the ubiquitous red-flowered plants that fill the shelves of commercial nurseries in spring. Those are actually pelargoniums. Wild geraniums are perennial plants that bloom from early May to mid-June. After bloom, fruits form that resemble a crane’s bill; thus another common name for wild geranium is cranesbill. In fall, foliage turns a muted red. Planting wild geranium in drifts makes for the most effective landscape splash. Divide in early spring or early fall.
Wild ginger, Asarum canadense, is a good ground cover for the entire growing season. It has pretty heart-shaped leaves up to eight inches wide. Flowers appear in spring, but it takes some close looking to find them. Small white-centered maroon flowers grow at ground level near the stems, usually laying right along the ground. Wild ginger prefers moist soil but tolerates drier soils. They are drought tolerant once established, but need adequate water to get a good start. Ginger spreads quickly to fill an area but doesn’t become invasive. Plants can be divided in spring or as they begin to go dormant in fall. Wild ginger is a good companion plant to spring ephemerals, which are plants that bloom in spring and go dormant in summer.
There are no hostas native to Wisconsin, but there actually are several native ferns. They include maidenhair fern, ebony spleenwort, lady fern, bulblet fern, marginal shield fern, oak fern, ostrich fern, sensitive fern, cinnamon fern, Christmas fern and a few others.