Native Plant Landscaping in New England: Perennial Shade Gardens

Spring Blooming Perennials Native to the Northeastern U.S.

Winters are notoriously long here in the chilly Northeastern U.S., which is perhaps why this New Englander experiences so much delight in admiring the native plants he finds on his spring nature walks. When it's time for my wife and I to shed our cabin fever and hit the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires of Massachusetts for some long-anticipated spring exercise, observing particular wildflowers is as important as any other aspect of the hike. Thanks to years of haunting these woods, we know where these special flowers live: they are old friends whom we make it a point to visit annually.

If you're like-minded and live in or near this region, you may wonder about the feasibility of incorporating the native perennials I feature below into your landscaping. The main thing you need to know about the eleven spring flowers described below is that, generally speaking (click the links accompanying the images for more specific information on each), they will work best in shade gardens that have partial shade; deep shade (especially in spring) will not be optimal for growing them. Note also that most are spring ephemerals, so don't expect an attention-grabbing summer display from them. But if springtime is as special a season for you as it is for me, and if you wish to celebrate it with wildflowers in your landscaping, inquire about these beauties at your local certified native plants nursery. 

  • 01 of 14

    Hepatica: Native Plant Standout for Shade Gardens

    Hepatica flowers in pink
    David Beaulieu

    If I could have only one of these native perennials in my shade garden (due to space limitations), I'd choose Hepatica. For one thing, this native perennial can make a big splash without taking up a lot of space, as you can see from my image. It also stays in bloom longer for me than most of my native shade plants. And gardeners who don't have the greenest of thumbs will be glad to learn that it's not overly fussy. 

  • 02 of 14

    Bloodroot Plants

    bloodroot plants
    David Beaulieu

    While I'm not averse to traveling many miles in some cases to visit but a lone native plant when it's flowering, some of the wildflowers I present here, happily, are quite gregarious. They are colonizers who spread to form a mass over the years. If you know approximately when they flower (it varies year to year according to weather conditions) and are lucky enough catch such a mass in bloom, the view can be breathtaking.  

    The native plant featured in this closeup picture is bloodroot. I also provide a photo of the plant growing in a massive colony as proof that, as pretty as just a few bloodroot flowers can be, a mass of them will make a deep impression on the plant lover. That bloodroot colony is one of the sites in the Berkshires I make it a point to visit every spring.

    Bloodroot didn't thrive as I had hoped in my native plant shade garden the first time I tried it, probably because the location I chose for it was deep shade rather than partial shade. Lesson learnt.

  • 03 of 14

    Dutchman's Breeches

    Dutchmans breeches
    David Beaulieu

    There's a north-facing banking on the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires that furnishes an epic display of Dutchman's breeches in the spring, with some related squirrel corn plants mixed in for good measure. It is here that I first fell in love with Dutchman's breeches. The magical slope furnishes evidence that, under the right conditions (including partial shade in spring), this native perennial can colonize with all the vigor of the Dutch empire of the 17th century. 

  • 04 of 14

    Jack-in-the-Pulpit: Not Your Typical Perennial

    Photo: jack-in-the-pulpit lacks a nice floral display but has berries. These are red.
    What jack-in-the-pulpit lacks in a floral display it makes up for with resplendent berries. David Beaulieu

    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 something of an exception on my list (along with interrupted fern), in that one would not be tempted to grow it specifically for its flowers. The features of this shade-garden plant in which most people are interested are the spathe and spadix (terms which I explain in the article linked to here) formed in spring. As a bonus, the plant can display a wonderful bunch of berries (as shown in my photo) later in the year -- provided that pests don't eat them.

    Continue to 5 of 14 below.
  • 05 of 14

    Bunchberry: Dogwood Comes in a Groundcover, Too

    As my photo shows, bunchberry (a type of dogwood) is a short plant, not a tree or shrub.
    David Beaulieu

    You probably don't think "groundcover" when you hear "dogwood." Instead, you perhaps think of such specimens as:

    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is the runt of the litter. That's OK with native-plant enthusiasts in New England, because little bunchberry makes a valuable groundcover for a shade garden.

  • 06 of 14

    Trout Lily

    trout lily
    Trout lily bears a single yellow flower in spring. David Beaulieu

    Trout lily is just one of the lilies that are native to the Northeastern U.S. that I discuss in this article. Another, bluebead lily, shares a few traits with trout lily: both can be treated as shade plants and both are good plants for wet areas. These lilies are colonizers, but don't expect any empire building to happen overnight!

  • 07 of 14

    Mayapple or "American Mandrake"

    mayapple leaves unfurling
    David Beaulieu

     I switch between referring to "New England" and "the Northeastern U.S." in the present article for a good reason. My own experience in gardening is as a New Englander, but I don't want to convey the impression that the perennials I'm introducing to you are limited to that region. In fact, the best encounter I've ever had with the marvelous Mayapple came in Upstate New York, as I relate in the piece on Mayapple linked to here. Those of you attracted to curiosities may find Mayapple the most appealing of these native plants to try in your own partial-shade garden.

  • 08 of 14

    Fringed Bleeding Hearts

    Fringed bleeding hearts (image) are a popular choice. Gardeners like the leaves.
    David Beaulieu

    Fringed bleeding hearts are related to the Dutchman's breeches featured above and to common bleeding hearts. I, myself haven't seen them growing in the wild. Nor do I have personal experience with the next entry, Virginia bluebells, as a wildflower. But both are, in fact, listed as being indigenous to the Northeastern U.S.

    Continue to 9 of 14 below.
  • 09 of 14

    Virginia Bluebells

    Photo: Virginia bluebells start out pinkish. They become blue later.
    David Beaulieu

    The flower buds and young blooms on this spring ephemeral are pinkish. They mature to blue. At some point during the springtime, though, you'll have both pink and blue flowers on the same plant. Those of you familiar with Italian bugloss, lungwort (Pulmonaria, another of the earliest spring bloomers, although not a native), and similar plants won't be totally surprised by this rather quirky feature. 

  • 10 of 14

    Meadow Rue

    Meadow rue picture.
    David Beaulieu

    Meadow rue frequently greets me on my spring walks out in the forest, although not in the form shown in the image (namely, Thalictrum aquilegifolium), but as a white-flowering perennial (Thalictrum polygamum) dubbed "tall meadow rue." Indeed, if you desire a native perennial with some height in your shade garden, Thalictrum is a good choice, along with Solomon's seal and interrupted fern (see Page 2). These plants acquired the "rue" label due to the resemblance their delicate leaves bear to the garden herb, common rue (Ruta graveolens), even though they're not related.

    Thalictrum aquilegifolium is listed for full sun to part shade, although mine is planted in more than just partial shade and has performed quite admirably in spite of the lack of sunshine. Nonetheless, if you want to play it safe with a shade-garden pick, stick with Thalictrum polygamum, which is indisputedly suited to partial shade.

  • 11 of 14


    Foam flower (image) in the spring woodland of New England.
    David Beaulieu

    If you can't place the native plant, foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), yet it looks familiar to you, there's a reason for that. Foamflower and Heuchera are the parents of the popular garden groundcover, Heucherella (see the article linked to above). But whereas some types of Heucherella want quite a bit of sun, foamflower is a solid shade plant.

  • 12 of 14

    Interrupted Fern

    interrupted fern
    David Beaulieu

    I'm something of an old curmudgeon when I'm working in my garden, preferring to be left alone rather than socializing with the neighbors (there, I said it). I get so wrapped up in communing with nature that I really don't want the experience to be interrupted by humans. But there is one interruption I'll tolerate: that offered by so-called "interrupted" ferns (Osmunda claytoniana). Stick some of these foliage plants in the back row of your perennial shade garden and let them provide a gorgeous background for your smaller plants.

    Continue to 13 of 14 below.
  • 13 of 14

    Woodland Phlox

    woodland phlox
    David Beaulieu

    Woodland phlox has a place on this list, but with a disclaimer: namely, that it is native to only two New England states -- Connecticut and Vermont. But the blue-flowered types could easily tempt this resident of Massachusetts to overlook such technicalities.

  • 14 of 14

    White Baneberry, or "Doll's Eyes"

    Image of white baneberry with its pinkish-red stems.
    David Beaulieu

    Common names are known for being more engaging than botanical names, which, while they provide consistency, can be rather dry. But some common names tickle the fancy more than others. Actaea pachypoda is sometimes commonly called "white baneberry," because it is toxic ("bane" always equals "poisonous" in plant names). But the common name I prefer for this plant is the whimsical "doll's eyes" (take a good look at the picture!).

    To explore the wonderful world of perennials native to the Northeastern U.S. further, please browse my gallery of pictures of native New England plants.