Native Woodland and Shade Garden Plants for Southern Connecticut

Stamford CT
To continue the series on  native plants in Southern Connecticut, this post covers native plants for shady woodland conditions.

To have a balanced yard and garden, you need some shade and some sun.  Sun is for vegetables, fruits, and meadow plants that need sun from 10AM to 4PM in the summer.  Cooling shade, though, has its place, particularly here in Connecticut which is naturally mostly forest.  Besides, in summer, it can be up to 10-15F cooler under a shady tree.  This is particularly true with a good breeze, so consider air circulation when making your landscaping plan.

New York Fern, Stamford Museum and Nature Center

“Shade”, however, does not mean the dense, dry shade found under invasive Norway maples – about the only plants that will survive there are some mosses, common blue violets, and, may be, woodbine.  In Connecticut’s natural woodlands, “shade” means dappled shade or midday and afternoon shade with morning sun.

For most of our native shade plants, the ground should be moist but the well-drained.  The way our forests do it, the moisture is conserved by the shade and a thick layer of leaf mulch; plus the overhanging trees release stored moisture into the air on low-humidity days.  Leaf mulch also helps raise the natural acidy of the soil to the levels which our woodland plants prefer.  If the ground is wetter than well-drained, then you can expand the plant choices to include those which prefer edge-of-wetlands.

Design note:

Color and interest in native shade gardening tend to be more delicate than in full sun gardening.  In early spring, be amazed by your tree buds and flowers, then capitalize on the wonderful wildflowers that bloom before the trees leaf out.  I, personally, am also partial to the shapes and colors of  newly emerging ferns.   For summer, go for contrasting foliage color, plant height, texture, etc.  In autumn, there are fall wildflowers and plenty of leaf colors.  For a natural look, add fallen logs and rocks.   Don’t overlook the beauty of the fallen leaves, of the mosses, and of the fungi that will grow in decaying logs.

You can get more summer “splash” (should you be into splash) with tiny sunny pockets where colorful, summer-blooming meadow plants can thrive.

Low-bush blueberry, Stamford Museum and Nature Center

Medium-to-Tall Native Trees for Shade

Let’s start at the top of the forest canopy with the trees that create the shade.  Almost all of our native trees are good choices, particularly if someone had the sense to plant them a few decades ago.  If not, start now.  If you have mature trees, don’t forget to add the young saplings that are tomorrow’s forest as well.  Many times they’ll be there under or near their parents and all you have to do is protect them from damage until they are big enough to take care of themselves. Meanwhile, if you don’t currently have enough mature trees for a good shade canopy, you can find, or create, shady patches near fences, walls, pergolas, etc.

See Native Trees for Southern New England for the  list of our wonderful native forest trees.  In a large area, I’d make sure to have a variety of oaks, hickories, maples, hardwood birches, etc.  About the only trees I’d skip for a wooded area are beeches which tend to form monocultures, and black walnut which are allopathic (poisonous to some other species).  Further, I’d save the sycamores and willows for the edge of a stream or wetland.  As the disease-resistant American chestnuts become available, I’d plant some of these too.

Some local evergreens are good for winter shelter for your critters.  The easiest conifer to introduce into a well-drained wooded area is very young white pine in small sunny gaps in the tree cover.  In addition, don’t forget American holly; young ones grow naturally in understory shade.

Autumn leaves on the forest floor — oaks, birch and tulip tree. Bartlett Arboretum.

Small Native Trees and Shrubs for Shade

To me, the small trees and shrubs are the heart of the garden – faster growing than the big trees but much more permanent than the herbaceous layer.  See Native Shrubs for Southern New England for a  list of our local small trees and shrubs, with short descriptions.

Many of these plants are niche players that thrive at the edge of the shady area where there’s a bit more sun and love the edge of the wetlands where there’s more sun and abundant water.  These transitory edge zones also support an amazing array of song birds which like to perch and nest in thick shrubs at the edge of clearings.  So, have at it along the border between your sun and shade areas.  I’ve divided our shrubs and small trees into those that occur naturally in the moist but well-drained, shady woodland understory; those that pop up anywhere there’s a bit of sun and average moisture (edge-of-forest); and those that you’ll find in the wetter areas (edge-of-wetlands).

Of course, you can mix and match.   Most edge-of-wetland plants will do OK with lesser moisture if you water during dry periods, and most part-shade and shade plants will do better with more, rather than less, sun particularly if they have adequate  moisture.

Mid-summer, in the deep shade of the forest, great color comes from fungi, ferns, and mosses.

Before we get to the list, for the forest understory proper, my two favorite shrubs for shade are maple-leafed viburnum and low bush blueberry.  The maple-leafed viburnum can turn into a 10- to 15-foot tree near a wet area, but usually the deer keep it to short-shrub height but still let it flower and fruit.  In good light, this viburnum has wonderful fall leaf color – usually purple or red.  Next for woodland shade is the low bush blueberry, which also has striking fall color; plant two for fruit – better yet add a couple of dozen but make sure that the plants are local genotype to prevent corruption of nearby native stock.

Small Native Shade Trees and Shrubs — Understory

  • Shadblow/shad/serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
  • Hornbeam/ ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana)
  • Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)
  • Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
  • American witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
  • American holly (Ilex opaca)
  • Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
  • Hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata)
  • Pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides)
  • American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)
  • Low bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
  • Maple-leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)

Small Native Shade Trees and Shrubs –Edge-of-Forest

  • Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)
  • Gray birch (Betula populifolia)
  • Sweet crabapple (Malus coronaria)
  • Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)
  • Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)
  • Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatic)
  • Shinning sumac (Rhus copallina)
  • American red raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
  • Black cap raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)
  • Choke cherry (Rosaceae Prunus)
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
  • High bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)

Small Native Shade Trees and Shrubs –Edge-of-Wetland

  • Speckled alder (Alnus rugosa)
  • Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)
  • American hazelnut/American filbert (Corylus americana)
  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
  • Swamp honeysuckle (Rhododendron viscosum)
  • Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
  • White Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba)
  • Swamp rose (Rosa palustris)
  • Pussy willow (Salix discolor)
  • Bebb’s willow (Salix bebbiana)
  • Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)

American toad, Henry Morgenthau Preserve, Pound Ridge, NY. Sadly, no vernal pools, no toads

Native Vines and Creepers for Shade

For a longer list of our area vines and creepers, with descriptions, see Southern New England’s Native Vines. The best vines and creepers for woodland and shade conditions are:

  • Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
  • Woodbine (Parthenocissus inserta)
  • Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa)
  • Fox Grape (Vitis labrusca)
  • Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
  • Dewberry (Rubus flagellaris)
  • Roundleaf Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia)
  • Cat Greenbrier (Smilax glauca)

Jack-in-the-pulpit, Bartlett Arboretum

Herbaceous Native Plants for Shade

In seasonal order, first, there are all of our wonderful spring ephemeral wildflowers. Then, there are the woodland ferns, mosses and grasses.  Finally, the fall bloomers, particularly our local sunflowers, asters and goldenrods.  Step one, here, is to see what nature brings you on her own.  Leave space for local stuff to grow and stand by with a wildflower guide in one hand, and an invasives manual in the other.  Repeatedly cut the invasives to the ground until they die; leave the natives.  (Notes: No matter how tempting: do not collect from the wild.  Also be on guard for Japanese stilt grass which is said to be able to tolerate 90% shade).

In the pre-deer era, there were too many local native herbaceous plants to even start to name.  It is good to re-introduce these where you can and to create deer exclusion zones to protect them.  Some that seem to survive no matter what include:

Spring Flowering Native Plants for Shade

  • Great Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum canaliculatum)
  • False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa)
  • Hairy Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum pubescens)
  • Canada May flower (Maianthemum canadense)
  • Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
  • May apple (Podophyllum peltatum)
  • Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia)
  • Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius)
  • Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenate)
  • Jack-in-the -Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
  • Wood Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
  • Violets, various species

Summer Native Ferns and Grasses for Shade

  • Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
  • Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)
  • Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana)
  • New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis)
  • Path Rush (Juncus tenuis)
  • Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
  • Broad looseflower sedge (Carex laxifora)

Fall Flowering Native Plants for Shade

  • Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia)
  • White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata)
  • Common blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
  • Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus)

Winter  Native Evergreens for Shade

  • fan club moss (Lycopodium digitatum)
  • Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
  • Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
  • Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Sensitive fern leafing out, Bartlett Arboretum

Some of the ones that I would like back are:

  • Rue-anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)
  • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis)
  • Columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis)
  • Wild Ginger (Asarum Canadensis)
  • Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis)
  • Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
  • Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis)

Wild Geranium (Cranesbill) Bartlett Arboretum, Stamford CT

Local genotypes of many of the above can be acquired at Earth Tones Nursery and a handful of other sellers of specially Connecticut native plants.  Please support them.

For a long list of what naturally grows here (or did pre-deer) see the Connecticut Botanical Society (has native, naturalized and some invasive species).  But always check more than one source to verify what is native to your local area.   There is a list of data sources for CT native plants at the end of  this post:  Native Shrubs for Southern New England.

Fawn with Solomon seal, Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve

End Note: The Deer and Your Native Plants

Here in Fairfield County, woodland shade (and practically everything else it seems) comes with white tailed-deer. We’re now at 6 to 10 times our sustainable population.  It has been suggested that the best deer-resistant garden is an all native one where the deer browse a little on everything.   If you plant only things that deer won’t eat and one or two plants that they love, guess what?  The “deer candy” is gone.

With the deer, come the deer ticks. If you live here, you know what to do for deer ticks.  To reduce exposure, consider a broad stone patio for your shade relaxation area, and wide, well-mulched paths through the shade garden.

Please, also, support efforts to reduce the deer population because excluding deer from the yards and gardens (via fencing, deer resistant plants, spraying, etc.) only puts more pressure on our precious remaining wilds and increases the number of deer dying due to car accidents, disease and starvation.

PS.: If you want to learn more about landscaping to conserve energy,  take a look at  Energy-Wise Landscape Design by NPWG contributor Sue Reed.

Cinnamon fern, winter, Bartlett Arboretum

Cinnamon fern, spring, Bartlett Arboretum

Cinnamon fern, summer, Stamford Museum and Nature Center

The prior posts in this series are:

© 2012, Sue Sweeney. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Melanie Wyler says

    Dear Sue:

    I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying your REALLY comprehensive series on native plants for all kind of situations in southern CT…………and the photography is great – really top-notch…….I have been making lists of your lists! Keep those terrific articles coming, I am really enjoying and learning a lot from all your posts, and from this website!!

    Best wishes,


    • Sue Sweeney says

      Melanie – nice to hear from you. I’m glad you’ve found the posts useful. So what other posts do you think ought to be in this series? What would you like to see?

  2. Melanie Wyler says

    How about something on meadows? As one of my projects, a formerly large expanse of lawn is reverting to meadow, and I am trying to do this with a minimum of expense….that is, I basically just stopped mowing to see what would come up! I am 2 years into this, so I am seeing a good amount of new things, but also a lot of stuff I don’t want)…….so am planting in pockets other plants from around the garden which I hope can compete (helianthus, bee balm, asclepias, etc). With all your experience at Cove, I would love to see what you have to say about this!


    • Sue Sweeney says

      I’ve been thinking about meadows but the trouble is, around here, there are no actual, natural native meadows to observe, and I’m sure that half the plants we’ve been told are native, aren’t.

    • Sue Sweeney says

      I agree meadow is important since that’s the conditions of most/many gardens (even if unnatural here). The Cove meadow was unnaturally created so it’s hard to say what would actually grow there (besides invasive mugwort that is).

      I’ve also been thinking about edge-of-pond — cattails, rushes, reeds, sedges, pickerel weed, arrow arum, arrowhead, smart weeds, waterlilies, frogs, … nice plant community. I did rain gardens but it would be fun to actually step a foot into the water.

      But then meadow, if we can get the plants right, means butterflies, song birds, and, most wonderful of all: crickets.

      In your meadow, are you using only local genotypes?

  3. says

    Sue this is a fabulous post with so much info for many in the NE as we look to our own natives. I have added many natives back to my once woodland setting. I always learn so much more from you as I find plants I have missed that are native to my area as well. I must say the picture of the fungi and moss is my favorite. As for deer, they will go for the exotic candy if you have it like hosta and lilies…although they love my native phlox too. As I have taken out the exotics, I have learned to share a bit with them.
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best-June

  4. says

    Some great lists of plants here Sue! I love the photo of the Cinnamon fern frond – makes me want to take a hand lens to ours ASAP.

    Canada Yew (Taxus canandensis) is an evergreen native that grows in cool, moist woods of New England. Deer love it of course but we still have good populations here in central MA where deer are not TOO crowded yet…

    Lovin’ this series!
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..Mulch – Use What You’ve Got!

  5. says


    This was a fun read. As a professional ecologist I love the idea of people working with the concept of native and natural gardens. As you point out choosing the correct plants for the soils and conditions on a site is critical. Also the order in which things are done is important. I know when I scope out restorations a lot of thought is given to not only conditions but the order of the plants to be planted. For example, the shade producers get planted well ahead of shade tolerant understory plants to provide the shade they will need to survive.

    Your photographs are wonderful. Thanks for posting this I really liked it a lot!
    Wild_Bill recently posted..Hot and Humid Immersion

  6. Melanie Wyler says

    Hi Sue:

    Finally getting back to you – I am trying to use local genotypes, but mostly so far just moving things around from my own garden……..I would love to see a post on your aforementioned edge-of-pond or bog plants. I have a “pond” that was probably dug out by the previous owner back in the 20s…………too shallow to be much of anything as the water temp rises in the summer, and I get an algae bloom, which I’m trying to fix using duckweed, pickerel weed, etc…..I am slowly turning it into a bog, and trying to shade the water as much as possible. BTW, the swamp rose we all propagated from the Bartlett is doing great! My problem is that it does sometimes flood in the spring, so anything planted, unless the roots are strong, is uprooted out……..Anyway, this is a SLOW process, and I hope to be finished in my lifetime! Best, M

  7. says

    Another extraordinary post Sue! Terrific list! I love the idea of standing before a wild area with a native plant book in one hand and an invasive plant book in the other . . . I am always cutting or supervising more often others cutting out the horrid bitter sweet and bishops weed along with another B . . . Bedstraw. Oh, and also that pernicious false bamboo I inherited. Your photography is equal and enhances your great text. I love your series!
    Carol Duke recently posted..First Days of Summer Walkabout


  1. […] know that grow in shade? You know that impatiens and begonias have zero wildlife value, but wonder which native plants look good in the shade and give the birds some food, too? Good news!  Shade is a natural component in many ecosystems, […]

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