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:
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:
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:
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.
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 is useful as a woodland ground cover and combines nicely with ferns and other woodland native plants:
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.
Lucky for us, although checkerberry flowers are discreet, the berries are anything but:
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.
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