14 Spring-Blooming Native Plants for Shady New England Gardens

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), River Trail, Estabrook Park
Susan Ruggles / Getty Images

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 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 part 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 14 beauties at your local certified native plants nursery. 

Gardening Tip

Spring wildflowers in New England generally like rather cool soil conditions and often die back as the heat of summer approaches. Applying a layer of mulch over the root zones will keep the soil cool and moist, prolonging the foliage, sometimes through the entire summer.

  • 01 of 14

    Hepatica/ Anemone (Anemone or Hepatica spp.)

    Hepatica flowers in pink

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    Some botanists categorize Hepatica as its own genus, while others consider it a part of the Anemone genus. Whatever you call these plants, the various species are among 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. 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. 

    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). These are early bloomers, flowering in March and April

    In other regions, this plant may be known as Anemone hepatica.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: Purple, white, or pink

    Sun Exposure: Part shade

    Soil Needs: Rich, moist, well-drained soil

  • 02 of 14

    Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

    bloodroot plants

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    Many wildflowers 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 will easily spread with very little attention in your woodland garden or in rock gardens.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: White, sometimes tinged with pink

    Sun Exposure: Part shade

    Soil Needs: Dry soil

  • 03 of 14

    Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

    Dutchmans breeches

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a common plant to see flowering along the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires in the spring. Dutchman's breeches is closely related to the cultivated bleeding hearts popular in many gardens. This wildflower grows about 12 inches tall, blooming with white flowers sometimes tinged with pink in March. In the wild, you normally see it on forest floors and along streams, and this is one flower that does fairly well in full shade.

    In dry soils, this plant is ephemeral, disappearing by early summer but reappearing the following spring.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–7 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: White, often tinged with pink

    Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade

    Soil Needs: Medium moisture, well-drained soil

  • 04 of 14

    Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

    Jack in the pulpit

    Masahiro Nakano/a.collectionRF/Getty Images 

    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.

    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.

    USDA Growing Zones: 4–9 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: Greenish-purple

    Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade

    Soil Needs: Fertile, medium-moisture to wet soil

    Continue to 5 of 14 below.
  • 05 of 14

    Bunchberry (Cornus cnadensis)

    bunchberry (a type of dogwood)

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    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" grows to only about 9 inches tall and blooms with white flowers from May to July. It is an excellent ground cover for large woodland gardens. However, it does not tolerate foot traffic, so it should planted in protected areas.

    USDA Growing Zones: 2–6 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: White

    Sun Exposure: Part shade, dappled sun

    Soil Needs: Rich, moist, acidic soil

  • 06 of 14

    Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

    trout lily

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    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. Individual plants have two tulip-like leaves and a single flower. 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, trout lily 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.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: Yellow

    Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade

    Soil Needs: Moist, humusy, acidic soil

  • 07 of 14

    Mayapple/ American Mandrake (Podophyllu peltatum)

    mayapple leaves unfurling

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    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 generally goes dormant and vanishes in summer.

    The flower of this plant gives way to an edible fruit that can be used in jellies and preserves, but the leaves and roots are toxic.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: White

    Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade

    Soil Needs: Medium moisture, well-drained soil

  • 08 of 14

    Fringed Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia)

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

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    Fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) is related to Dutchman's breeches (described above) and also to common bleeding hearts popular in perennial shade gardens. It grows to about 15 inches, with fern-like leaves. Although native to the Northeast, it is rare to spot one in the wild. It 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. It may occasionally reflower if the weather cools in late summer or fall.

    In the right conditions, this plant will self-seed in the garden and gradually form small colonies.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–9 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: Rosy pink to purplish-red

    Sun Exposure: Part shade

    Soil Needs: Medium moisture, well-drained soil

    Continue to 9 of 14 below.
  • 09 of 14

    Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

    Virginia bluebells

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    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 grows 12 to 24 inches tall with oval, bluish-green leaves. It produces 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 spreads through self-seeding in the garden, and the volunteer plants can be transplanted to other locations. Plants growing in the wild should not be harvested, however.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: Pink, gradually turning blue

    Sun Exposure: Dappled sunlight to full shade

    Soil Needs: Average to moist, well-drained soil

  • 10 of 14

    Meadow Rue (Thalictrum spp)

    Columbine meadow rue.

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    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.

    Taller plants may need staking, especially when growing in shady garden conditions. The rhizomatous roots can be divided to propagate new plants.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8 (USDA); varies by species

    Color Varieties: White, greenish-white, or purple, depending on species

    Sun Exposure: Full sun to dappled shade, depending on species

    Soil Needs: Moist, humusy soil

  • 11 of 14

    Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)

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

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    Foamflower (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. It can be found growing wild over much of the Northeast and northern Midwest. Foamflower 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.

    Removing the flower spikes after they bloom will improve the look of the foliage. In zones 6 and south, this plant will be semi-evergreen.

    USDA Growing Zones: 4–9 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: White

    Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade

    Soil Needs: Well-drained, humusy soil

  • 12 of 14

    Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana):

    interrupted fern

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    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. 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.

    Interrupted fern can be propagated by collecting and planting the spores. Small volunteer plants can also be transplanted to other locations.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: Non-flowering

    Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade

    Soil Needs: Medium-moisture to wet acidic soil; tolerates neutral soils

    Continue to 13 of 14 below.
  • 13 of 14

    Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata)

    woodland phlox

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) has a qualified place on this list because it is native to only two New England states—Connecticut and Vermont. 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.

    A light mulch in summer will help keep the roots cool and retain soil moisture. Over time, this plant will spread to form small colonies in the garden. Pieces of the root sections can be transplanted to propagate new plants.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: Rose, blue, or lavender

    Sun Exposure: Part shade to f ll shade

    Soil Needs: Humusy, well-drained but fairly moist soil.

  • 14 of 14

    White Baneberry/ Doll's Eyes (Actea pachypoda)

    white baneberry

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    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. 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.

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8 (USDA)

    Color Varieties: White

    Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade

    Soil Needs: Rich, moist, well-drained soil