Down Under Flowers

Some flowers point towards the sun to beckon to high-flying bees and butterflies. Other flowers, including many of our native lilies, point their flowers towards the ground to attract pollinators that fly near ground level. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

What are Down Under flowers? Nope, not plants from Australia, although those are worthy of an article too. Down Under flowers are those native plants with flowers that hang underneath their foliage and point towards the ground. These are the flowers that you sometimes have to get right down to ground level to actually see…

Why do native plants bloom when they do? It’s no coincidence that many of our native spring-blooming woodland plants and trees produce flowers early in the spring. They’re taking full advantage of the sunshine that hits the forest floor before trees have fully leafed out yet. After the trees develop their leaves and shade the ground for the remainder of the season, many of these plants go too seed and fade into the background for the rest of the season. Some will go dormant, disappearing entirely until the following year.

Some plants take this evolution strategy one step further – by producing foliage that shelters their own flowers from the sun of the increasingly longer days of springtime. Perhaps they also do this to provide a protective area for pollinators to safely investigate their flowers. Many short-statured native wild flowers have flowers very near to the ground to tempt some of our less gregarious pollinating insects, such as beetles, flies, or tiny ground-nesting bees.

One of my favorite eastern American Down Under plants is Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), a bold woodland plant with enormous leaves shaped like parasols when they emerge in early spring. The flowers are pure white cups that appear underneath the leaves so you’ll have to get low to enjoy them:

Several tiny pollinating insects are investigating this Mayapple flower. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

Mayapple thrives in a moist soil and will spread to form large colonies over time. Pollinated flowers produce large fruits in the fall that are a favorite food of box turtles –  but the flowers require cross-pollination (they are self-sterile) with other Mayapples to set fruit. Because they grow in clonal colonies, you may need to search around for another Mayapple of a different genetic line to plant nearby.

Because of its spreading nature, give Mayapple a spot all its own for a thick mat of greenery through the summer:

A patch of Mayapple at Garden in the Woods, Framingham Mass.

Another pretty native American Down Under plant is Large Merrybells/Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora). Its soft yellow bell-shaped flowers have a sweet fragrance, but to enjoy the scent, you’ll probably need to lay right down on the ground to get in close enough:

I confess that to take this photo, I had to lay on my stomach of a trail at Garden in the Woods to get my camera low enough. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

Large Merrybells is generally found in areas of soils high in limestone, so it’s not very common in New England’s acidic woodlands. More commonly found is the related Wild Oats (Uvularia sessifolia), which is smaller than Merrybells but has similarly exquisite slender Down Under flowers tinged with shades of pale peach and pink.

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) sports fascinating white/pale green spring flowers that dangle like baubles from stems below each leaf base. This plant grows generally about a foot or two in height, but a larger variant form known as Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) grows much bigger, up to 7′ in rich, moist soils. The flowers are pollinated by buzz-pollinating native bees.

Giant Solomon’s Seal adds a touch of elegance and drama to shade gardens. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

Eastern native Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), commonly planted as a ground cover in native plant shade gardens, has flowers which appear in early spring just as the leaves emerge. The flowers are not showy, but a reddish-brown color that suggests their pollinators are ground-dwelling beetles or perhaps tiny flies that inhabit areas with rotting plant matter. I can’t confirm this because, try as I might, I’ve never seen pollinators in the act of visiting these flowers. Perhaps they emerge at night, or I haven’t grown wild ginger long enough to establish populations of their associated pollinators.

Wild Ginger flowers often lay flush with the ground, probably to attract ground-dwelling pollinators. If you have this plant growing nearby, please share information about any pollinators you’ve seen visiting the flowers! Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

Wild Ginger is useful as a woodland ground cover and combines nicely with ferns and other woodland native plants:

Wild Ginger used as green edging at Garden in the Woods.

Checkerberry/Teaberry/Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is a low evergreen groundcover of cool, shady woods of the north, making it an excellent choice for gardeners struggling with dry shade. The white “Down Under” flowers appear in summer, just a few inches above the ground, and if they remind you of blueberry flowers, they are indeed related, as fellow members of the Ericaceae plant family.

Checkerberry flowers are buzz-pollinated by tiny native bumble bees. Photo by Jerry Drown, University of Tennessee Herbarium.

Lucky for us, although checkerberry flowers are discreet, the berries are anything but:

Bright red checkerberries usually persist right through winter, and they’re especially showy against a light blanket of snow. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

The berries are edible, useful as a strongly-flavored fruit additive to cakes and muffins. They must not be very tasty to birds, though, because they usually linger into the following spring.

I’ll finish off by mentioning the white flowers of the south-eastern native Carolina Silverbell tree (Halesia tetraptera), which hang below the tree branches like clusters of miniature church bells. Unfortunately, I cannot include a photo of this lovely herald of spring, because my dear husband went on a pruning spree recently and cut my Carolina Silverbell sapling right down to the ground. Yes, the beautiful tree which bloomed for the first time just last year. The one I had carefully nurtured for the past 7 years after buying it as a tiny whip from Tripple Brook Farm. Not to worry, I’m not bitter, I’ve forgiven him because he has since bought me 2 Carolina Silverbells as a replacement. So, if you check back in, say, another 7 years or so, perhaps I will have some photos to offer. In the meantime, if you can’t wait that long, here’s a photo from a Fine Gardening magazine article about this very pretty American Down Under flowering tree.

Photo linked from FineGardening.com

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Comments

  1. Rob Sousa says

    It was a mistake. After my pruning spree, Ellen came in the house and told me what I had done (cut down her Silverbell) and I felt very bad about it. But I didn’t realize just how bad it was until she leaned against the window, put her face in her hands and said, “I’ve been nurturing that plant for seven years. SEVENNNNN YEARRRRRS.” Oooops. Sorry, my sweet and wonderful wife. This should be a lesson to all … tag your precious trees so they’re not chopped down by an over-zealous husband who’s only trying to help. :)

  2. says

    I think we all have had the over zealous spouse…mine kept ripping out young plants as weeds…I love that he tries to help…Ellen, I adore many of these and they grow in my garden…I think I love them especially for their down under flowers..it makes them special and rare indeed.
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best-April

    • says

      I suppose I should have known many years ago when we got married – we were given a bunch of bare-root crabapples right before we went on honeymoon – I didn’t have time to plant them so I heeled them in underneath an old lilac tree to await planting. Rob went through and hacked them right to the ground thinking they were weeds….I’ve never let him forgot how he mowed down an entire orchard of mine in one fell swoop :)
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  3. says

    Wow! You guys do a really professional job. Your posts are well-written and informative – I guess I look for things like that because I’m a writer :) I, too, am motivated to add some shade-loving native plants to my fledgling rock garden.
    Jo Ann Abell recently posted..renewal

  4. Emily DeBolt says

    I was just out today lying on my stomach to photograph my wild ginger and mayapple that was starting to bloom! they are such lovely flowers – and I think having to know to look for them makes it even more exciting when you find them! another ‘down under flower’ that is a great treat is twinflower!

  5. Sue Sweeney says

    Ellen – Rob id you a favor with the silverbell. This southeastern native has gone rogue at the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford CT.

  6. Sean Solomon says

    Ellen, Thanks for featuring the Mayapple. I also want to include Trillium cernuum into the conversation. Rob, so kind of you to show remorse. i have been there. Now its, if i dont know i dont touch it.now we got new and interesting native species flourishing in our yard!

    • says

      Oooh, Nodding Trillium, that’s a good one! Wish I had that growing nearby but I’ve never seen it, in the wild or cultivated.And your policy is a good one, Sean. A lot of times, something might look like an unwanted weed until you identify it as a desirable local native…Blue Eyed Grass (Sysyrinchium) is one of those plants that looks like barnyard grass, until the day that you notice its tiny lily blooms. I have mistakenly pulled too many of those over the years…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  7. says

    I have Solomon’s Seal in my backyard that I didn’t plant. The strange thing is that False Solomon’s Seal is our native plant (it doesn’t flower downwards, which is how I can tell the difference). Salal flowers also open downwards.
    Mike B. recently posted..Bee Fly Won’t Bother Me

  8. says

    I admire your tenacity to get the down under photos. I admire your restraint in not killing your husband

    I admire my own good sense not to get remarried although barbequing was a helluva lot easier back when. ;)

    great stuff Ellen!
    Loret recently posted..2012 Bird Broods II

  9. Kirk M says

    Wonderful article! The thing about Solomon Seal is…..it SPREADS ALL OVER! I have enough solomon seal to have a tuber dinner for 20 wild food enthusiasts! And it doesnt need rich soil either. It grows well in the worst ledge junk-fill clay you can find! At least in my yard. But I love it anyway.

  10. Tom says

    Is that bristly leaf aster the purple flowers in the margins of this page? I have a clump that I rescued from a construction ditch in Durham County NC and transported after a season to a pot in East Harlem, then to my garden in Putnam county NY, now in Westchester. Its a hardy plant, unfazed by the moves, and blooms for weeks.

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  1. […] underneath!  These pale purplish bulbs are Wild Ginger flowers.  As described by Ellen Sousa in a very interesting post on Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens (where I contribute), these flowers bloom close to the […]

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