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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
The prior posts in this series are:
- Native Shrubs and Small Trees for Southern New England
- Native Trees for Southern New England
- Southern New England’s Native Vines
- Native Plants for Southern Connecticut Rain Gardens and Wetlands
- Nature’s New England Winter Garden Design
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