We wait for it with bated breath; counting the days 'til the vernal equinox. Then slowly, the light begins to change. Temperatures rise and the snow recedes, revealing tiny tips of green emerging from the soil. Spring has come at last. Already the forest surrounding my home is alive with the sound of birds, announcing the change of season. I look closely at the world around me on my morning walks, eagerly anticipating swollen buds and fleeting woodland wildflowers.
In springtime, North American deciduous forests go through a rapid and radical transformation. The magic begins with the arrival of spring's ephemeral wildflowers and early blooming trees and shrubs of the forest understory. As a garden designer, I find much to admire and emulate in the artful timing of mother nature's early show. By simply walking through the forest in springtime, there is much a gardener can learn about the design potential of native plants for shade. Some of the loveliest woodland wildflowers, including the early-blooming foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia); bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis); trout lily (Erythronium americanum); and later spring-blooming beauties like alum root (Heuchera americana); and cranesbill (Geranium maculatum); make attractive ground-covering plants for shady garden areas in any season. Native trees and shrubs of the forest understory tend to be most dramatic in spring, but they are also valuable additions to the garden throughout the year. Our native downy serviceberry (Amalanchier arborea); redbud (Cercis canadensis); and dogwood (Cornus alternifolia and C. florida); are as spectacular in domestic garden situations as they are along a woodland stream or mountainside.
I try not to play favorites with plants and authors, but it is true that there are a few treasured books sharing space with the ferns and orchids on my bedside table. One of the titles resting within arm's reach is Rick Darke's The American Woodland Garden. This incredibly beautiful book, filled with gorgeous, evocative photography, is not only a valuable shade gardening resource, but it is also truly inspirational for any nature enthusiast. As an author, Darke's words are as alluring as his artful photographs: poetic, entertaining, and informative. Woodland wildflowers and other ephemerals are covered in great detail in this oversized book, as are the structural shrubs and trees that hold a garden together in any season. I recommend it to every gardener struggling with shade. I am also currently working my way through William Robison's The Wild Garden, with new chapters and photography by Rick Darke. Originally published in 1870, this new and expanded edition is a feast for the eyes and the creative mind as well. I can't wait to tell you more!
Springtime is a great time to enjoy woodland flowers. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), and fragrant wild phlox (Phlox divaricata), are two of my favorite early bloomers; what ephemerals are you eagerly anticipating this spring?
Michaela grew up gardening, studying plants, and picking organic produce on the family farm. When she isn't spreading compost or pruning shrubs, she can usually be found writing articles or giving seminars on all things gardening. Michaela has worked as a gardening professional for 15 years and is author of the popular blog, The Gardener’s Eden.