Fall tends to be a quiet time for flowers in the forests. Long gone are many of the showier shade perennials like Woodland Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) and the Meadowrues (Thalictrum species). And the spring ephemerals like Trilliums and Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) are a distant memory. But it doesn’t mean the shade garden has to be bleak. There are some lovely shade plants that come to life this time of year – either with late season blooms, colourful berries or lovely fall foliage. Here are a few that can make your shade garden look nice as autumn rolls around.
Let’s start with fall flowers. In my gardens, Asters are the fall showstoppers. Whites, blues, purples and pinks abound. Mix in the yellows of goldenrods (Solidago spp) and Woodland Sunflowers (Helianthus divericatus) – at least into September – and you’ve got a winner. If your shade is moist, you may even have Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Blue Lobelia (L. siphilitica) or Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) lasting well into September.
But the true Autumn flowers for shade are the whites of White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata), Schreber’s Aster (E. schreberi) and Large-leaf Aster (E. macrophylla), and the blues of Blue Wood Aster – aka Heartleaf Aster – (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), Lowrie’s Aster (S. lowrieanum) and Short’s Aster (S. shortii).
If you have light or partial shade, you can add the pinks and purples of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), the blues of Sky Blue Aster (S. oolentangiense) or the whites of Arrow-leaved Aster (S. urophyllum) or Flat-topped White Aster (Doellingeria umbellata). Even the purple Swamp Aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum) can handle part shade if the soil is moist enough.
For a splash of yellow, consider Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) or even Green-headed Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata). And Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) will give you lovely sprays of yellow well into September as well.
White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) starts flowering with its umbels of white in midsummer and is going to seed by early September, but I find that it often sends out a second flush of flowers (even while the seeds are forming) that can last to the end of September and some years into early October.
And if your shade garden has room for some shrubs, the frilly yellow flowers of Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) appear in October to November here in southwestern Ontario.
Leaves and Berries
Flowers aren’t the only things to provide autumn colour in the shade garden, though. Several fruiting shrubs and vines also provide colourful seeds and berries, or golds and purples of fall leaves. One such shrub is Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) with its candy-apple red berries and bright yellow leaves in the fall. Another shade tolerant shrub with red berries that is loved by the birds is Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) though, unlike the common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), the berries are not edible for humans. In the southern Great Lakes region, the fruit of Red Elderbery can often be found on the plants (providing the birds don’t find them first) well into November.
If you want a woody perennial, but don’t have room for a tall, spreading shrub, a ground hugging forest shrub (or short vine) with intriguing fruit is Running Strawberry Bush (Euonymus obovatus). Its rough pink seed pods open to display bright orange berries. But if you plant these, know that (in my garden, at least) the rabbits eat it back to stubs just about every winter.
A long lasting understory plant is False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum) that produces plumes of beautiful white flowers in the spring that become clusters of Vitamin-C rich edible red berries in the fall.
Another medium-short forest shrub with blue-black berries in September and pink to purple leaves in October is Maple-leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium). This dainty beauty prefers moist shade.
And ferns are always a good structural plant for shade gardens all season long. These plants provide filler when the spring ephemerals disappear and keep your garden looking lush well into the fall. There are so many to choose from, though some of my favourites are Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina), Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and Bulblet Fern (Cystopteris bulbifera) as these particular ferns look great in a wide range of soil types and moisture regimes. Perhaps I will put together an article on ferns in the not too distant future.
Happy Native Plant Gardening – in the Shade.