Winters are notoriously long in the chilly Northeastern U.S., which is perhaps why New Englanders experience so much delight in admiring native plants while strolling on spring nature walks. When walking woodland trails, identifying and enjoying wildflowers offers unparalleled enjoyment.
Many of the same native perennials you see on along trails in wild nature areas of New England can be integrated into your own landscape. Just be aware that most wildflowers in wooded areas will require partial shade. Although there are exceptions, neither full sun nor dense shade is ideal for growing most New England native woodland flowers. And also be aware that woodland wildflowers in New England are typically spring ephemerals—don't expect an attention-grabbing summer display from these plants. But if springtime is a special season for you, inquire about these beauties at your local certified native plants nursery.
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Hepatica (Anemone): Native Plant Standout for Shade Gardens
Hepatica might be one of the very best native perennials for a shade garden. For one thing, this plant can make a big splash without taking up a lot of space, as shown here. It also stays in bloom longer than most native shade plants. And gardeners who don't have the greenest of thumbs will be glad to learn that it's not overly fussy.
Hepatica is a large genus of flowering plants in the buttercup family. The species native to the eastern U.S. is Hepatica nobilis, with two varieties commonly seen: H. nobilis var. acuta (sharp-lobed hepatica), and H. nobililis var. obtusa (round-lobed hepatica). In some areas, this plant is known as anemone (Anomone hepatica).
Wild hepatica is hardy in zones 3 to 8, and blooms with purple, white, or pink flowers in March and April.
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Many wild flowers are somewhat shy, requiring a hiker to walk miles to enjoy a single specimen, but bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a much more gregarious woodland dweller who will happily colonize to fill large areas in a colorful mass. Many colonies of this spectacular plant can be found across the Berkshires and other areas of the Northeast, where they bloom in March and April with white or pink-tinged flowers.
Bloodroot is hardy in zones 3 to 8, and is an excellent plant for dry soil in partly shady locations (it does not like deep shade). It will easily spread with very little attention in your woodland garden or in rock gardens.
03 of 14
Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a common plant to see flowering along the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires in the spring. Hardy in zones 3 to 7, Dutchman's breeches is closely related to the cultivated bleeding hearts popular in many gardens. This wildflower blooms with white flowers sometimes tinged with pink in March. In the wild, you normally see it along forest floors and along streams, and this is one flower that does fairly well in full shade.
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Like another native shade plant, Trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) bears three leaves. This fancifully named perennial, commonly found in the woodlands of eastern North America, is not normally grown for its flowers but for its spathe and spadix features—the structures that form the "pulpit" (the spathe) from which "Jack" (the spadix) preaches.
Hardy in zones 4 to 9, Jack-in-the-pulpit is normally found in wet soils and tolerates fairly deep shade. Its bloom period is April through May. Once established, it does not like to be disturbed. This is perhaps fortunate since the roots are quite toxic.Continue to 5 of 14 below.
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Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is a form of dogwood that normally spreads as a ground cover rather than growing as an upright shrub. This cold-weather deciduous "shrub" (hardy in zones 2 to 6) grows to only about 9 inches tall and blooms with white flowers from May to July. It requires a part shade location that receives a moderate amount of sun (dappled sunlight is ideal). It likes moist, rich soil with an acidic pH. It is an excellent ground cover for large woodland gardens.
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Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is also known as yellow adder’s tongue, yellow trout lily, yellow fawn lily, and yellow dog-tooth violet. In the wild, look for it on moist woods, wooded slopes and bluffs, and along streams. Hardy in zones 3 to 8, trout lily grows only about 6 inches tall and flowers in April. It tolerates deeper shade than many wildflowers, but still prefers some sunlight, such as that offered by dappled shade. Once established, it does not transplant well, so do not attempt to take this specimen (or any wildflower, for that matter) from its native location.
This is a good plant for wet areas, but it takes time to spread and to mature enough to flower. Be patient with trout lily.
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Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), sometimes known as American mandrake, can be found in both moist and dry woodland areas where it forms large colonies, blooming in April with white flowers atop 18-inch tall plants. The showy flowers are largely hidden by umbrella-shaped leaves.
This is a somewhat unusual specimen that will be a conversation piece in your woodland garden, but it goes dormant and vanishes in summer. It is hardy in zones 3 to 8.
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Fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) is related to Dutchman's breeches (described above) and also to common bleeding hearts popular in perennial shade gardens. Although native to the Northeast, it is rare to spot one in the wild. It is hardy in zones 3 to 9 and has a relatively long bloom period for a bleeding heart—April to July. Plant fringed bleeding heart in moist but well-drained soil in part shade—it does not like deep shade or too much sun.Continue to 9 of 14 below.
09 of 14
Virginia Bluebells: True Blue Flowers
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) is another native New England wildflower that is no longer seen all that often in native settings in the Northeast—though it is still common is many areas of the Midwest. Virginia bluebells is hardy in zones 3 to 8, and the 12- to 24-inch tall plants produce their blossoms from March to April in most climates. The flowers typically begin as pink, then deepen to a true blue; it is not uncommon to have both pink and blue flowers on the same plant. (This trait is similar to that of Italian bugloss, Anchusa azurea.)
Virginia bluebells does fairly well in rather deep shade, but like many wildflowers, it prefers dappled shade where it gets a bit of sunlight. It thrives in average, well-drained soil.
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Meadow rue (Thalictrum spp.) include several species that are narrow clumping plants with delicate foliage and flowers that are sometimes mistaken for those of columbine. They typically bloom a little later than most wildflowers in the Northeast. The common varieties of wild meadow rue found in the Northeast include:
- Thalictrum aquilegifolium, a 2- to 3-foot tall plant that blooms with lilac purple flowers in May and June. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
- Spring-Blooming Native Plants for New England Shade Gardens
- Thalictrum polygamum (tall meadow rue) is a white-flowering species that blooms from July to September. It can grow very tall—up to 8 feet—and is hardy in zones 3 to 8.
- Thalictrum dioicum (early meadow rue) is a 12- to 24-inch tall plant that produces greenish-white flowers with a purple tinge in April and May. Hardy in zones 4 to 7, it prefers a dappled shade location, though will survive in full sun. It does not tolerate hot and humid conditions. It is native to the Midwest but is sometimes found growing wild in the Northeast.
Most meadow rues will survive full sun, but they prefer dappled shade.
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Foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia) is one of the parent species of the popular ground cover plant, Heucherella (the other parent is Heuchera, coral bells). Unlike Heucherella, which tolerates some sun, foam flower is a dedicated lover of the shade. Hardy in zones 4 to 9, it can be found growing wild over much of the Northeast and northern Midwest. Foam flower is aptly named for its clumps of tiny, airy white flowers that bloom in May in most areas. This 9- to 12-inch-tall plant makes a good ground cover for woodland gardens or shady rock gardens. It despises wet soil, yet should not be allowed to dry out, either; well-drained, humusy soil is a must.
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The so-called interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) is a vase-formed, spreading fern whose broad fronts are "interrupted" in the center by spore-bearing leaflets that generally fall off by mid-summer. Hardy in zones 3 to 8, this fern prefers moist, shady conditions, though it will adapt to drier, sunnier spots. It is often planted with hostas in shady gardens or along water features. This foliage plant can grow up to 5 feet tall (3 feet is more typical), making it a good backdrop for other shade-loving plants.Continue to 13 of 14 below.
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Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) has a qualified place on this list because it is native to only two New England states—Connecticut and Vermont. Hardy in zones 3 to 8, this 12-inch plant blooms with rose, blue, or lavender flowers in April and May, and makes a good fill-in plant for borders planted with tulips or other spring bulbs. It does not tolerate much sun and likes a humusy, well-drained but fairly moist soil.
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Actea pachypoda carries two much different common names. It earns the name "white baneberry" because it is toxic (in horticultural tradition, "bane" always indicates toxicity). More whimsically, the plant is also called "doll's eyes" due to its unusual berries.
Growing 18 to 30 inches tall, white baneberry produces tiny white flowers in spring followed by unusual white berries on red stems. In the wild, it is found in deeply shaded woody locations with humusy but well-drained soil. It is hardy in zones 3 to 8. The fascinating berries are extremely poisonous, so be careful with this plant where children or pets are present. Wildlife generally knows to leave this plant alone so it may be an option in areas where deer are a problem.