Native Shade Gardening

… at a former place of worship. i On Niagara.

The Native Garden was installed by volunteers at the historical Lewiston Museum in Lewiston, New York. The Museum was originally built as a church in the early 1800’s, and the cornerstone was laid in 1835. The Lewiston Museum is a facility operated by the Historical Association of Lewiston, a private, non-profit organization. It is maintained mostly by volunteers.

As you might realize by looking at the plants used in this shade garden, many are true natives. Many of which you might find growing in fields and woodlands. The photo above, shows only about half of the slim bed. The Trillium are seen to the far right of the image.

The volunteers brought in some plants from their gardens, others were purchased for the bed lining the property line, and some existed in this location originally. Our garden club purchased the plant markers to designate the native plants within the garden.

Many interesting things can be learned from native plants, like medicinal properties. Some true natives have not been ‘bettered’ for our gardens and would be very at home in their natural settings.

Trillium, above, is one of many plants whose seeds are spread by ants. Trillium seeds have a fleshy organ called an elaiosome. It attracts them and the ants eat the decaying ovary. The ants discard the seeds in a rich growing medium where the seed develops to produce more Trillium. The White Trillium is the official flower of Ontario, Canada, and also the official wildflower of Ohio.

Here are few of the plants both blooming and those yet to bloom.

The Yellow Wood Sorrel forms colonies which arise from a slender, but tough underground stem.  When the pods dry, they disperse seed up to ten feet away with just the lightest of touch, often by some passing woodland or field creature. This plant is considered a weed by most, but it is tough and can withstand some light foot traffic. It grows robustly in a variety of conditions, including degraded habitats. What it does not like is competition with taller plants.

True Violet

A few things about Spring natives is that they are fleeting. Ephemeral is the perfect descriptive word. They often have very small, ground hugging blooms. Some exceptions in this garden are the Dame’s Rocket and Bloodroot. But, even though many flowers are delicate and tiny, leaves are often large in comparison, and very interestingly shaped or colored.

For example, there are many varieties of Viola growing in this garden. Honestly, I cannot really tell one from another, but some do hold their heads lower.

Purple Violet

I find the native woodland plants a group that gets you to look very closely. There is much variety and subtlety found, but the sunlight hits very sparingly where they generally grow. As much as I appreciate and admire them, my preference for garden natives are the showier plants of late Summer, like aster, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Monarda and phlox. My garden is filled with these and the pollinators just adore them. I have been to this garden a few times this Spring and did not see one bee, although I am sure they must visit.

I do have shade natives in my garden, located by the Viburnum, but I show them very rarely and never feature them, mainly because they are such tiny specimens. Many live in my small moss garden. The ferns, Heuchera and Hosta are just starting to get some height now.

I showed this garden at the encouragement of a friend and fellow garden club member, and will show my ‘woodland’ garden a little later, when a little more color arrives. I put woodland in quotes, because just like meadows, I don’t pretend to have these garden types in my small city garden. A walk at the farm is where I find true woodlands and meadows. I guess you can say I am a bit spoiled by this!

Dames Rocket is member of the mustard family, and has flowers with four petals. It looks similar to Phlox and fooled me when I first saw it. It was not until I got home and looked at the photos where I saw the toothed leaf and four petals rather than five for Phlox.

It readily propagates from seed like Phlox though. It is planted here in a shade garden, but seems to be less invasive than in many other areas where it is found. Like Motherwort, seen below, it is native to Eurasia, but occurs many places throughout the country. It was introduced to the US in the 1600s.

An early Spring arrival, the flowers will fade fast.

Mayapple just starting to unfold.

The garden is only a few feet deep on the shady side of the Museum.

Motherwort is originally from central Eurasia, but now grows in many parts of the world. The leaves and flowers of this plant are used medicinally. It is very useful for a variety of ailments, much like stinging nettle or dandelion. The plant contains the alkaloid leonurine, which has a calming effect on smooth muscle tissue.

False Solomon’s Seal, Smilacina racemosa

I thought False Solomon’s Seal was not a true native, yet I found out it is and found throughout the country. The flowers are pollinated by a great variety of small bees and flies and a very diverse number of small beetles. The fruit of the false Solomon’s Seal are eaten by a wide variety of birds. So it really is a very beneficial plant to wildlife.

Polygonatum biflorum

This native perennial plant is about 3 feet tall. The central stem is round and the plant head leans over to one side. The alternate leaves are spaced fairly close together along the stem.

Typical growing conditions are light shade to partial sun, with moderate levels of moisture, and light loamy soil. This plant is fairly tough and tolerates a variety of growing conditions.

Is this a tulip? I am trying to find out what this flower is.

Red Admiral

This butterfly migrated through our area in large masses. This was far too early this year and I am sure many perished with the cold and snowy weather we had. My garden, shown above, had about thirty of them at one time. I saw them all over our neighborhood too.

Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis and Golden Privet, Ligustrum ovafolium Aureum.  One native and one that is not (invasive). This Redbud is not in the Museum garden, but I think it would fit in beautifully for the added Spring color.

Redbud buds. It was threatening rain late today, very dark and dreary, but this tree brightens any Spring day.

The next post is a place of worship also. It was to preceded this one, but I thought you might want to see some local native shade gardening first, while the ephemerals were still in bloom. Our photography group ‘went on assignment’ in the next post. Actually, we meet different places and shoot as a group, but our images are posted so the church can use them as they wish.


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
This entry was posted in Architecture, FLOWERS, garden, Native plants, Nature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Native Shade Gardening

  1. Patty says:

    Mmm, all very lovely. Natives are my great garden interest, You can never have enough.

  2. Martha says:

    I love our woodland garden and shade gardens. Truth be told though, we had to build rock walls, fill the area with compost and add shade plants to achieve the result. This is a lovely post. Thanks.

  3. Catherine says:

    What a pretty native woodland garden. I really love the early spring bloomers. The Solomon’s Seal is a favorite, I just noticed mine blooming here. The Mayapples are cute little plants, I’d only seen them once before in person.

  4. Marguerite says:

    I loved the native garden tour. When I lived on the west coast and conditions were damp and shady almost everywhere I grew to love these kinds of plants. There’s so much to see if you look closely.

  5. Grace says:

    The Redbuds are blooming here too. With such a dark, cloudy day, the flowers sure brighten things up. Gorgeous natives.

  6. Indie says:

    I had no idea about seeds being distributed by ants – very interesting! I love the dainty, diminutive blooms of the violets and many of the ephemerals. I am very interested in native gardening, so it’s great to see some examples!

  7. A very interesting post – some of your natives are applicable here too – it is surprising just what is able to grow in the shade.

    • It is surprising how nature adapts to just about anywhere. The Discovery special I noted in a post a bit back had plants growing in really arctic conditions, although for a very brief time.

  8. b-a-g says:

    I love spaces planted and cared for by volunteers. You can sense it.
    Redbud is new to me – the pink buds trace the shapes of the branches, rather than forming clouds like cherry blossoms.

  9. This looks like the type of garden a Master Gardener group would install and maintain. It is wonderful to see other volunteer organizations doing similar work. I wonder if they installed the garden to promote native plants or if they choose natives because they adapt better and require less maintenance. Regardless, this is a great educational garden in native plants as well as a sanctuary. I agree many natives aren’t as showy but they sure have a lot of other qualities that make them great additions to gardens. I often prefer the very tiny blooms but they are difficult to photograph. Thanks for the tour!

    • The women maintaining this garden are all garden club members, I believe. The one who started the garden was a former member. I am the only MG of our group, but these women don’t need the certificate because they really know their stuff.

  10. Mac_fromAustralia says:

    Fascinating post, beautifully photographed. I found the description of how trilliums are spread especially interesting.

  11. deborahelliott says:

    Great post! i have many of the same natives in my own woodland garden, though I am in the southernmost part of the country. You are right that a woodland garden is not noted by its flowers, as charming as they may be. A woodland is all about foliage, texture, color, and mood. The ephemerals give us a reason to get out there regularly for a leisurely stroll, so we won’t miss them!

    • I actually thought of you when I first visited this garden. You have such a beautiful woodland on your property. I have a client where we are carving out the woodland with mulch paths and trails. I am specifying many of these plants for her journey through the woods. She likes ornament too and out first acquisition was a bat house, both interesting to watch and a nice thing to do for the bats. We picked a few nice trees that they will be happy and she can view from her stroll.

  12. I am glad to see this native garden and can’t wait to see yours even if it’s in the city. The yellow flower looks like Tulipa sylvestris, wood tulip, which grows in full shade, not native though.

    • I am pretty sure you are right Carolyn, even though a couple of garden club members who are those maintaining the garden said it is not a tulip. They said it commonly grows around here in large masses. But I was pretty sure it was a tulip, but they had me wondering. There was only one and it was not opened to see the anthers which would have been a good indicator.

  13. Lea says:

    Very beautiful, the church/museum and the plants!
    Happy Spring!
    Lea’s Menagerie

  14. Alistair says:

    Loved all of these interesting plants. We also have an area in the garden where we very loosely refer to it as the woodland. Very beautiful picture of the yellow flower just about to open, it wouldn’t perhaps be a form of Erythronium?

  15. Lovely photographs Donna! I learn a lot when you show us shade gardens … I’m particularly taken with that ‘true’ violet. Very pretty.

  16. Beautifully written and illustrated, Donna. The violets brought back childhood memories of when I would proudly hand my mom a bunch that I had gathered for her,

Comments are closed.