35 native wildflowers for the woodland/shade garden

What flowers grow in a woodland garden: Spring ephemerals are not the only flowers for a shade garden

Many gardeners considering designing a woodland garden or forced to work in the shade of mature trees ask: What flowers can I grow in a woodland or shade garden?

Well, there is something magical about a woodland in the early spring. Flowers you may never have noticed emerge from the fallen leaves adding a carpet of colour on the forest floor. In other areas, a small drift or clump of wildflowers create a woodland vignette that instantly captures your attention.

What flowers are found on the forest floor?

That carpet of colour on the forest floor begins with a plan to plant our native wildflowers (detailed below) in drifts that meld into one another to create magical carpet of colour.

That same magic can be captured in our woodland gardens with just a little imagination and planning. Look for areas of your garden where a colony of white trilliums would appear in spring later replaced with the delicate fronds of a select grouping of maidenhair ferns or Solomon’s Seal.

We have several drifts of Mayapple in various spots in the garden that provide cover and shade for small mammals, reptiles and amphibians that search the forest floor for food. The drift of Mayapple just outside our French door welcomes spring and shares space with wild geranium, wild ginger and a few colourful native columbine.

These, however, are just a few of the native woodland wildflowers that deserve prominent spots in our gardens both for the delicate beauty they bring and for the benefits to local wildlife.

Most of these plants, although native to Ontario, are also native to Northeastern United States and beyond. If you are looking for more detailed information about individual plants go to the North American Native Plant Society for a list local native plant societies. For a list of native plants, shrubs and trees for Britain, check out this informative post by the Royal Horticultural Society.

It is critical that we do not go into a local woodlands and dig up these native wildflowers. Although many of them are difficult to find at your local nursery, with a little effort these wildflowers or their seeds are available through local native plant societies (above.) If you are intent on going into the wild to collect specimens, please take a few minutes to read my posting on why we should not dig up wildflowers from public lands.

Here are quick facts on 35 plants relatively common in woodlands, but are also often widespread throughout North America, including the Eastern United States and parts of Europe

This extremely informative photographic composition was created and provided to Ferns and Feathers by Justin Lewis who runs an exceptional Facebook page on native plants of Ontario.

Be sure to check out my article on Wild Bergamot.

Photo collage showing Ontario's native woodland wildflowers.

This informative photographic collage was created by the talented Justin Lewis. if you are on Facebook and would like to see more of his work, please take a moment to visit the Facebook page on Ontario Native Plant Gardening where Justin shares his work.

35 Spring Ephemerals to get to know

Red Trillium: (Trillium erectum) Blooms April, May and June in parts of the United States and Canada. It likes humus-rich soil in part shade but where it gets ample sun in early spring before the leaves have emerged. Also goes by the names Red Wakerobin, Stinking Benjamin Wet Dog Trillium, Purple Trillium and Wakerobin. This single, nodding crimson flower with three petals has an unpleasant odour and is one of the most common eastern Trilliums. Its foul odour attracts carrion flies that act as pollinators.

Spring Beauty: (Claytonia lanceolata) Blooms April, May, June July. This quite small, low-growing delicate white and pink flower likes moist soils in spring and sunny conditions.

Squirrel Corn: (Dicentra canadensis) Blooms April, May and is native to Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia to Minnesota and through Northeastern United States. It is found in open deciduous woods in humus-rich soil and part shade conditions. Our native bleeding heart sends up a spray of creamy bleeding-heart-style flowers that are attractive to chipmunks and mice. These are poisonous in large quantities and can cause minor skin irritation when touched.

Marsh Marigold: (Caltha palustris) This cheery, vibrant yellow early spring bloomer from the Buttercup family, likes a medium to wet, Loam (sandy-clay) soil, making it perfect for wet areas of the woodland garden. Plants form large clumps and create attractive mounded clumps about a foot in height. Dark waxy leaves are the perfect backdrop for the emerging yellow flowers. Although they do best in marshy areas where they are often found growing naturally along stream banks and edges of ponds. Flowers attract pollinators and plants are generally deer and rabbit resistant.

Skunk Cabbage: (Symplocarpus foetidus) Blooms as early as February in some areas but March and April in most locations. This large (1-3 ft) plant grows in swampy, muddy locations in shady, humus-rich soil from Nova Scotia through to Ontario and Northeastern United States as far south as Georgia. This massive plant has large green leaves and a yellow-green flowering body. Bruised leaves give off a foul odour which gives the skunk cabbage its name. All parts of the plant are poisonous. Best planted in large swampy areas at the back of properties.

Mayapple: (Podophyllum peltatum) Blooms March, April and May with a large, mostly hidden 2-inch white flower (sometimes pinkish or purplish flowers). Prefers part-shade to shady locations in moist, humus-rich soil. The plants are drought-tolerant to some degree in its eastern deciduous forest range. Does not like a lot of competition with other plants. For more on the Mayapple, see my full story here.

Wild Leek: (Allium tricoccum) Blooms May June and July throughout parts of the United States and Canada in moist, rich, deciduous upland and floodplain woodlands. Small creamy-white flowers appear in May, June and July. Like many spring woodland species they grow best in locations where they get sun in early spring and shade throughout the heat of summer.

Cut-Leaved Toothwort: (Cardamine concatenata) This perennial woodland wildflower that blooms in March, April and May with lovely little white to pinkish flowers held above the foliage in a spike, is considered a spring ephemeral. It grows from a horizontal segmented rhizome which spreads producing colonies of plants and can be found growing naturally in rich woodlands, limestone outcrops, rocky banks and bluffs.

Foamflower: (Tiarella cordifolia) a member of the Saxifrage family, blooms in April, May, June and July, throughout parts of Eastern United States and Canada. The plants like to grow in cool, moist, deciduous woods and along stream banks in shady moist, well-drained, humus-rich soils. The white flowers grow on stalks that can reach between 1 and 3 feet in large drifts.

Yellow Violet: (Viola pubescens) Blooms in May and June in Rich, dry woods in part shade. It’s a common native plant throughout parts of Canada and the United States

Trout Lilly in the woodland garden.

Trout Lilly: (Erythronium americanum) Also goes by the name Adder's tongue and Dogtooth violet. They can be found in moist, fertile woods and meadows throughout Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswich and Nova Scotia into north eastern U.S. This low-growing, yellow flowered woodland wildflower forms large colonies primarily through its underground root system (corms) as opposed to extensive seed reproduction which is carried out by ants.

White Trillium: (Trillium grandiflorum) Blooms May and June in rich, mixed woods, thickets and swamps, in full sun, part to full shade. Trilliums like a rich hummusy soil made up of rotted or shredded leaves. More on the Trillium in my article here on spring ephemerals.

Blue Cohosh: (Caulophyllum thalictroides) A member of the Barberry Family, blooming April and May in shady, rich, moist, and well-drained soils. Blue cohosh is a large, multi-stemmed perennial that can grow between 1-3 ft. tall with a purplish-brown to yellow-green flower clusters that are followed by bright-blue berries. Solitary bees are regular visitors to these plants.

Wood Anemone: (Anemone quinquefolia) This early spring white wildlflower grows low to the ground easily forming its own drifts, in dappled spring sunshine in a woodland setting. They prefer moist spring soil often left behind by melting snow and plenty of leaf litter. The flowers can, at times give an impression of being pale lilac or even pinkish as they begin to fade. The daisy like flowers open in daylight and can follow the sun, but will close during rain, heavy cloud or as nightfall sets in.

Early Meadow Rue: (Thalictrum dioocum) This elegant perennial in the buttercup family, is grown primarily for its fine-textured foliage but blooms in early spring (April-May) as its name suggests. Native to Canada and the United States. The flowers are petal-less with yellow stamens that hang down. The female blossoms are purple and appear on separate plants. Grows 1-3 feet in moist, rich average soils in part shade.

Canada Violet: (viola rugulosa) These lovely little white flowers with yellow throats marked with purple stripes bloom from May through July in shady areas with rich, moist soils in open wooded areas. Ideal for woodlands or naturalized areas where they easily spread by seed. They often have a second bloom in late summer.

Bloodroot: (Sanguine canadensis) Blooms in early spring (April May) in rich, moist woodlands. Its cheery white flower with yellow centre emerges as a bud wrapped inside a leaf. The flower and leaf open simultaneously providing native bees and flies with early pollination possibilities. I have a more extensive article on Bloodroot here.

A lovely clump of native hepatica growing on the forest floor.

A lovely clump of Hepatica growing on the forest floor in the woodland garden.

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica More on the Hepatica in my story on spring ephemerals

Rue Anemone: (Thalictrum thalictroides) Blooms in early spring and is similar to the wood anemone but with different leaves. These are well suited to woodland gardens or rock gardens. A member of the buttercup family, it grows in clusters and spreads through its tuberous root system.

Wood Poppy: (Stylophorum diphyllum) These intense yellow flowers bloom in May to early June but is considered an endangered species in Ontario. It can be found in rich, mixed deciduous woodlands, often along wooded streams where it grows in full shade. The seeds are dispersed in late June when the greyish-green fruit splits open.

Large-flowered Bellwort: (Uvulaire grandiflore) These 1-2” long yellow flowers bloom mid-spring and lasts about two weeks. They prefer dappled sunlight during the spring and light shade during the summer when the tree canopy has filled in. Not unlike most woodland flowers, they prefer moderately moist, loamy soil with a generous layer of decaying leaves. The plants are pollinated by Bumblebees, Mason bees, Halictid bees and Andrenid bees and the seeds are distributed by ants. They are a favourite of deer and therefore in severe decline where deer are heavily populated.

Hairy Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum pubescens) (check out my earlier article for more information on Solomon’s Seal

Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) also goes by the name Mayflower and Plymouth Mayflower. White and pink flowers bloom on this shrubby perennial in March, April and May in sandy to peaty woodlands or open clearings in shade to part shade in moist acidic , well-drained, humus-rich, acidic soils. Of particular note is that this plant is very difficult to establish. It is slow growing, does not like to be disturbed and is susceptible to both drought and flooding conditions.

Jack in the Pulpit: Check out my more extensive article on Jack in the Pulpit.

Dutchman’s Breeches: (Dicentra cucullaria) these small white flowers produced in early spring are native to woodlands of eastern North America. These spring ephemerals are pollinated by bumblebees and their seeds spread by ants. The perennial that grows from a cluster of white teardrop-shaped bulblets, got its common name from their white flowers that resemble white breeches.

Virginia Bluebells: (Mertensia virginica) is another spring ephemeral native to eastern North America. The bell-shaped, sky blue flowers sit atop rounded, gray-green leaves on stems up to 24” (60 cm) and bloom in mid-spring in nodding, spiral shaped flowers that are usually blue, but can be white or pink. Most often pollinated by butterflies that perch on the flowers’ edges to sip nectar.

Canada Mayflower (Melanthemum canadense) also goes by the name false lily-of-the-valley, Canadian lily-of-the-valley, two-leaved Solomon’s seal. The plant is widespread throughout Canada and the Northeastern United States into the Applalachian Mountains. Flowers are produced from spring to mid summer followed by a mottled red berries in early summer that turn a deep red by mid summer. Grows naturally in moist woods but can also be found in sandy pine woods in more northern regions.

Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) Blue, white or purple flowers appear in late spring. This herbaceous perennial native to Eastern North america spreads by rhizomes where it can form large colonies in woodland areas. Also spreads by seeds.

Wild Geranium: (Geranium macultum) These tender spring-blooming pinkish-purple blooms prefer shade or part shade in medium to wet sandy loam, but can survive in full sun. They grow to about 1 foot in height, forming very manageable clumps that flower profusely.Their dissected leaves take on a reddish-orange colour in the fall. The spring flowers are pollinated by both bees and butterflies.

Wild Ginger: (Asarum canadense) This attractive, low-growing ground cover really doesn’t have much of a bloom to speak of. A dark red-purple flower blooms under the plant for a short period in early spring but it takes real effort to get a look at the bloom. Lift one of the 6-inch heart-shaped leaves in spring and you’re likely to see it. The shade-loving plant grows to about 6-inches tall in a woodsy, sandy loam with medium moisture.

False Solomon’s Seal: (Maianthemum racemosum) Another impressive, native woodland ground cover that blooms in masses of creamy white flowers in late spring followed by edible pink berries that ripen in the fall. These plants can often be found growing along streams or ponds in a woodland setting, preferring moist acidic and highly organic soil in part shade. the six-inch- long leaves turn lovely shade of yellow in fall. Spreads through underground rhizomes.

Woodland Phlox: (Phlox divaricata) These impressive, spring-blooming blue flowers grow in loose clusters at the tips of stems, (zones 3-8) and are the perfect addition to a woodland garden. They prefer partial shade, in well-drained, medium moisture in partial to full shade.spread slowly. The flowers are fragrant and attract a host of pollinators, including bumblebees, tiger swallowtails, skippers, hummingbird clearwing and sphinx moths. The plants roots form a loose mat of foliage that grows about a foot high (31 cm)

Wild Columbine: Please go to my more extensive post on the native columbine here.

Common Blue Violet: (Viola Sororia) Blooms April-August throughout the eastern halp of the United States, Canada through to parts of Mexico. They grow happily in rich, moist, well-drained woodland areas, but will easily make themselves at home in lawns and weedy areas. They are host plants for the caterpillars of fritillary butterflies that feed on the plants which are also food for wild turkeys, rabbits, deer, mourning dove and white-footed mice, just to name a few. They are pollinated by mostly native bee including the Mining bee as well as Mason and Halictid bees.

Twinleaf: (Jeffersonia diphylla) Flowers from early to late May in most areas. The flowers are solitary, white and born on leafless stems. The plants are quite rare in Ontario but more common in the United States where they are found from Wisconsin south to Alabama and east to the coast, but not up into New England. Minnesota in the northwestern edge of the plant’s range where it is native to counties at the very SE corner of the state.

Solomon’s Seal: Please go to my more extensive post on the Solomon’s Seal.

More links to my articles on native plants

Why picking native wildflowers is wrong

Serviceberry the perfect native tree for the garden

The Mayapple: Native plant worth exploring

Three spring native wildflowers for the garden

A western source for native plants

Native plants source in Ontario

The Eastern columbine native plant for spring

Three native understory trees for Carolinian zone gardeners

Ecological gardening and native plants

Eastern White Pine is for the birds

Native viburnums are ideal to attract birds

The perfect Redbud

The Carolinian Zone in Canada and the United States

Dogwoods for the woodland wildlife garden

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tellamy

A little Love for the Black-Eyed Susan

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.


Pocket forests: A growing idea finds a home in urban settings


Wildlife Rescue: Volunteers are lifeblood for Rescue and Rehabilitation Centres