Foliage and texture in a woodland garden design

Jack in the Pulpit shown in lovely light in our front  woodland garden.

Jack in the Pulpit shown in lovely light in our front woodland garden.

Three native plants to consider: Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Solomon’s Seal and Mayapple

Woodland gardeners know that not all flowers need to be colourful, but all gardens benefit from incorporating highly textured foliage plants.

In fact, some of the most interesting woodland plants are very understated: flowers are often green and are even hidden beneath the plants’ own leaves.

Unlike the often bright colours found in many traditional perennial gardens, woodland gardeners have learned to appreciate the subtle beauty of these foliage-based plants. They know that it is the highly textured foliage of these plants, the different shades of green, leaf shape, fall colours and even the colourful berries, that make these understated plants extremely valuable in the woodland landscape.

When it comes to understated plants that rely on textures and foliage, three plants come to mind: Solomon’s Seal, Jack in the Pulpit, and Mayapple. But there are many others that add interest to our woodland floor that often go unnoticed.

Ferns, mosses, stonecrops, and so many other plants help to build the tapestry that make up a woodland garden.

In her book Foliage & Garden Design, garden writer Marjorie Harris turns her focus on the importance of using foliage as the star in garden design.

“The foliage garden is a restful place where beauty unfolds more slowly than in a perennial garden,” Harris writes. “It’s a place where the textures of leaves are far more important than the colours of flowers. Foliage plants can have blossoms and berries, lure butterflies and birds and provide a sanctuary and a shelter.”

She goes on to explain an important concept in a shaded woodland garden.

A fern glen in the woodland garden creates a large exapanse of texture in a sea of green.

“Establishing a foliage garden means entering a more sophisticated world both aesthetically and visually,” she explains.

Compared to the perennial garden that is often so dependent on great drifts of colour, gardens based on foliage are more muted and subtle. “Verticals and horizontals; distance and perspective; positive and negative spaces; mass and shape – these become your tools,” Harris explains.

If you are interested in pursing more about designing a garden with foliage, the Harris book is still available on the used market here.

Why are some plants’ flowers so understated?

In a world where colour plays an important role in attracting pollinators, birds and butterflies for a plant’s survival, the question needs to be asked: Why are some woodland wildflowers so understated? It’s possible that many plants in the woodland are understated for their own survival. By staying under the radar, they are able to escape many of the animals that might want to browse on them for dinner.

Whatever the reason, it’s important for gardeners to learn to appreciate their presence in the shady areas of our woodlands.

Three subtle plants that add interest through foliage

Jack-in-the-Pulpit stands above the crowd: Arisaema triphyllum, commonly named Jack In The Pulpit is a favourite in our garden as much for its unusual shape, as it is for its bright red berries that emerge in the fall.

The plant, which is found throughout the north-eastern United States and stretching into Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, earned its name for its resemblance to a preacher standing in a pulpit.

Dominated by a large, cylindrical and hooded flower that grows almost unnoticeable at first from beneath two large, glossy leaves, this mostly green flower with brown stripes can grow to between 1-3 feet tall.

By late summer, the flower is replaced by a large cluster of bright red berries that is an attractive meal for many birds and mammals. (Note that the roots and berries of this plant can cause blisters on the skin and irritation in the mouth and throat if ingested.)

Each berry in the cluster contains 1-5 seeds that are attractive to wood thrushes and wild turkeys as well as squirrels and even box turtles.

A 1980 study found that fungus gnats may be the most effective pollinators of these unusual plants. Pollination is performed when the gnat or other small insect makes its way to the spadix or column often referred to as the “Jack.” The columnar ends with a sheath called a spathe. The spadix contains male or female flowers (or both). Pollinators crawl beneath the hooded spathe, down the spadix collecting pollen from the flowers.

According to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Jack-in-the-pulpit is being threatened in natural woodlands by invasive alien species such as garlic mustard and buckthorn.

Solomon's Seal.jpg

Solomon’s seal is a favourite for shade gardeners

The arching stems of Solomon’s Seal rising above other plants in our front woodland garden is always a welcoming site in spring.

Polygonatum, also known as King Solomon’s-seal or just Solomon’s seal, is known for its zig-zag arching stalks that can grow up to 5 feet long and sport nodding, greenish-white, tubular flowers that hang in pairs below the stalks.

Their tubular whitish flowers, often among the earliest flowers to bloom in the woodland, droop down beneath the stalk and are attractive to hummingbirds.

Check out my complete article on Solomon’s seal.

Butterflies are also attracted to the delicate spring blooms of the Solomon seal flowers.

The green flowers eventually transform into large blue berries that are favoured by the Veery, American Robin, Wood Thrush and Bluebird

Solomon’s seal prefer a woodsy soil of moist, rich acidic soil but can also be found growing in more sandy or even clay loam.

If you are looking for a plant to grow at the base of a tree, consider growing a clump of them at the base of a tree.


Mayapple: An ideal shade-loving ground cover

The Mayapple earned its name from the large, apple-like fruit that grows under the umbrella of its large leaves where it often goes completely unnoticed by woodland gardeners.

The early spring wildflower, which can be highly poisonous provides much needed nectar for pollinators and the large, “apples” are eaten (only when competely ripe) by raccoons, skunks, opossums and even box turtles.

The mayapple can spread to incorporate large swaths of woodland where the conditions are right and are therefore excellent for use as a large, bold groundcover.

Mayapple is one of the first Carolinian zone wildlflowers to emerge in the spring in the woodlands of southern Ontario and the northeastern United States, so it became a magnet for many of us photographers just looking for something, anything, to focus on in the early spring woodlands.

So, you can imagine that it didn’t take long for me to start growing a clump in my yard. Turns out it was so successful that I was able to spread it around where it continues to thrive in swaths throughout the garden.

The Mayapple is actually in the Barberry family and grows naturally everywhere in the eastern half of the United States stretching as far north as Quebec and south to Florida and Texas.

For more on the Mayapple, go to my earlier post located here.

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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.

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