It’s always a thrill, when walking through the woods in the spring, to discover a Trillium or Jack-in-the Pulpit in bloom. The element of surprise and delight, along with the simple, classic beauty of the flowers, make a springtime walk in the woods a joyful experience. Many gardeners would love to re-create that experience in their own gardens. With the appropriate growing conditions and wise plant selection, we can come close.
The term “wildflower” is a very loose term, and can apply to any native herbaceous plant with a reasonably attractive flower that is found growing in the wild. In this article, however, I’ll focus on what I refer to as woodland wildflowers, as opposed to meadow or field flowers. Woodland wildflowers are found in shady, wooded areas and generally bloom in early spring, whereas the meadow or field flowers grow in open sunny areas and bloom in summer or fall.
Site selection for the woodland garden is paramount to its success. Choose a site that is at least partially shaded, because you’ll want to duplicate the conditions in which the wildflowers grow naturally. Most woodland wildflowers prefer moist, humus-rich soils, but in nature, you’ll usually find certain species growing in the wetter parts of the woods, and others in the drier sites. Take notice of these clues when deciding on which wildflowers to grow in your own garden.
Woodland wildflowers are often called spring ephemerals. The word ephemeral, according to the dictionary, means “lasting for a brief time”. Woodland wildflowers are ephemeral in the sense that they go dormant shortly after they bloom. Most emerge during the month of April, do all of their growing during the spring, then bloom and set seed. As the seed ripens, the foliage begins to decline, and by mid-summer, has disappeared entirely. The root or tuber remains underground, increases in size, and develops both leaf and flower buds for the following spring.
In the garden, the ephemeral nature of these wildflowers poses both a challenge and an opportunity. Because the plants disappear during the summer, they are ideally partnered with plants that are a bit later to emerge. Hostas are great companions; their shoots don’t emerge until May, and as they grow, their broad leaves hide the declining wildflower foliage as it matures. Ferns, bleeding hearts, and Brunnera are also excellent companions. Bear in mind that hostas, Brunnera and some ferns and bleeding hearts are not North American natives; if one wishes to plant a completely native garden, other species should be chosen as companions. Our catalog provides lists of native woodland and meadow plants.
The most popular of the woodland wildflowers is undoubtedly the Trillium. The Great White Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, is the quintessential Trillium, and has been used as a logo for many Northern Michigan products. T. grandiflorum has large flowers that start out pure white, taking on shades of appleblossom pink as they fade. Great swaths of this species can be found in many areas of Michigan where the soil is appropriate. It is generally found in rich, diverse woods with moist soil.
A companion to Trillium, particularly in damp to wet soil, is the Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, which possibly rivals the white Trillium in popularity. The flower consists of a hooded spathe, surrounding a white club-shaped spadix, which is the true flower. The hood can be green, purple or brown, and often is a combination of all three colors, along with stripes of white or silver-gray. A cluster of bright red-orange berries follows the flower. The root is a corm, similar in appearance to a crocus corm, and increases in size each year. Mature Jack-in-the-Pulpits make spectacular specimens, and can attain a height of 3 feet. Their broad, three-parted leaves are quite attractive as well.
The Virginia Bluebell, Mertensia virginiana, is one of the most beloved of all wildflowers. With its true blue pendant flowers, and glaucus gray-green foliage, this plant can be mistaken for no other. In a garden situation, Mertensia makes a memorable companion to early blooming daffodils. Another favorite is the Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. This easy-to-grow wildflower has pure white open-faced flowers with yellow stamens in the center. The flowers emerge before the large, kidney-shaped gray-green leaves. A prolific self-seeder, Bloodroot will naturalize in the garden and eventually make a colony. The double flowered form, ‘Flore-Pleno’, is highly coveted. Unfortunately it is sterile and cannot be grown from seed; hence plants, if available, are costly.
More popular wildflowers that adapt to the woodland garden:
Aquilegia canadensis – Eastern Columbine. Elegant pendant red or coral-orange flowers with yellow corolla. Adaptable to sun or shade, many soil types. 18-30”
Hepatica acutiloba – Sharp-leaf Hepatica. Very early flowering, usually white, occasionally pink or blue; dry woods and banks.
Iris cristata – Crested Iris. Light blue flowers marked with white and yellow. Thin creeping rhizomes make a slow-growing goundcover. Best in partial shade.
Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s Seal. Small white dangling flowers hang beneath arching stems in May, 1-3 ft tall. Gently spreading plants.
Tiarella cordifolia – Heartleaf Foamflower. Foliage is often shaped like a maple leaf. White wands of flowers, often pink-tinged, on low growing plants in spring.
Trillium sessile – Toadshade. Foliage is mottled with purple and silver patches. Dark burgundy red flowers in the shape of praying hands. Flowers in May.
Uvularia grandiflorum – Merrybells. Pendant yellow lily-shaped flowers dangle beneath the oval green leaves. Prefers moist woods.