Woodland Perennials for a Shady Garden

Here are four pretty  shade perennials I recently bought to plant under the trees. Trillium grandiflorum (great white trillium), Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) and Arisaema sikokianum (Japanese jack in the pulpit) are woodland perennials that emerge to bloom in the spring. The Trillium and Sanguinaria have white flowers, while the Arisaema has a white interior on the hooded spathe and a conspicuous white spadix in the middle. The Arisaema is going to be borderline hardy, but is so captivating, that I had to give it a try. The new Onoclea sensibilis (sensitive fern) has nicely shaped fronds. These plants are still in their pots as they pose for their photo shoot, before being planted in the garden.

Arisaema sikokianum (Japanese jack in the pulpit)
Arisaema sikokianum (Japanese jack in the pulpit)

The Arisaema sikokianum (Japanese jack in the pulpit) is a striking plant that grabs your attention with its unusual flower shape and colour contrast. There is a long dark coloured spathe (hood) that rises up from behind, with distinct stripes on the interior. The inside of the cup is a pure white. Within the cup is the equally white spadix. The unique form is eye-catching, along with the bright white contrast. The light colour shows up well in the dark of the shade. There are two leaves, one with 3 lobes, and one with 5. This woodland plant will be planted under the trees, where it should be right at home. I only purchased one plant, because I’m not sure if it will be entirely hardy. It is rated for zone 5, and the garden is in zone 3, but I’ve had fairly good success with other perennials that were borderline. I’ll make sure that the jack in the pulpit is covered with leaves in the fall, and the snow cover should help too. Since they are not very common yet, it’s possible that this particular type of jack in the pulpit just haven’t been tried much in zone 3. I’ll let you know next spring if this perennial survives an Alberta winter. Update: They survived a very cold winter, with only tree leaf cover, and flowered the next season.


Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot)


Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) has distinctive, deeply lobed and rounded leaves. Although I haven’t broken a stem yet, they are supposed to have a red sap. This is the origin of both their common name and Latin name. It has been a while since I took Latin, but for a dead language, it comes in handy once in a while. I haven’t decided whether to plant these perennials in the garden next to some lacy ferns, or beside some Pulmonaria (lungwort) that have long leaves. Being a woodland plant, they should enjoy the same shade as these perennials. You can see these in bloom in this followup post on Sanguinaria canadensis and their flowers.

Onoclea sensibilis (sensitive fern)
Onoclea sensibilis (sensitive fern)

I’ve  picked up  a new fern, Onoclea sensibilis (sensitive fern). Although the plant is still in its pot, it looks good in the dappled light under the tree. These ferns like it moist, so I’ll add lots of organic matter to the soil. They are found throughout eastern North America, and now in an Edmonton garden too. Sensitive ferns are hardy to zone 2, so they won’t need any coddling. This fern won’t be for fall interest, since the fronds quickly die back when the frosts come. The fertile fronds are supposed to persist, much like ostrich ferns.


Trillium grandiflorum (great white trillium)


Aren’t the three petalled  Trillium grandiflorum flowers pretty? I remember these plants from the woods of Ontario. They are perfect for a shady garden.

I’ve decided to plant some real Trilliums this year. A year ago I bought some ill fated trillium rhizomes in a plastic package from the store. I knew they were not a good idea, even as I was buying them, but they were so inexpensive (another bad sign), that I thought I’d give them a try, with nothing much lost. Well, I carefully prepared the soil and planted the rhizomes underneath the maple tree, where they’d be sure to get lots of leaf litter in the shade. I watered them, and waited, but  no hint of green appeared. Since trilliums often die back for the summer, I thought perhaps they might appear later. All summer I tended the area, and even when I brought home new plants, I reserved the spot for my phantom trilliums. In the fall, when I needed space for some new perennials, I refrained from planting anything too close to the spot with the nonexistent trilliums. Well now, a year later, nothing has emerged from underground, so I’ve given up the fantasy that there were ever any real trilliums there, and I’ll plant these new beauties. Their lovely white petals, and nicely shaped leaves, in groups of 3, will look much better than a carefully tended bare area.

I look forward to seeing if these new woodland perennials spread next year. I’d love to have a little colony of trilliums. Even though they are in a suburban garden, I hope the new woodland plants appreciate the shade of  the trees, surrounded by fallen leaves.

Here is a follow up post about how the woodland flowers are growing.

40 thoughts on “Woodland Perennials for a Shady Garden”

    1. Joanne, I’m going to do a little bed extension and rearranging this week to make room for the new plants. This will be the first digging I’ve done since last year. The trillium space is already set.

      Gail, the Japanese jack (I’ve seen it called gaudy jack too) is very distinctive. The spathe is large, and a deep purple colour, so it emphasizes the smooth white of the interior.
      I usually avoid the suspiciously packaged plants sitting on shelves, but those trillium rhizomes in a bag were very tempting, and cheap enough to take a chance on. My new healthy trillium plants should fill in the space nicely, and have already proven themselves to be at the flowering stage. The lemon trillium sounds interesting.

  1. Hi NS, Love your perfect woodland garden choices. I have native Jack in the Pulpit and Green Dragon, but the Japanese Jack…is gorgeous! I remembber falling for the trilliums in a bag, too…now I get new ones from a grower specializing in native plants…I’ve added a Lemon trillium,T luteum, it would look sweet in your garden. gail

  2. NS ! I would love to have that Jack in my garden too ! .. I also have fallen for the dry root bag of bargain thing .. I’m thinking all those Halcyon hosta I planted will probably take ages to even look like a hosta .. and I did 8 of them in the shared space with my neighbor.
    My Jack is emerging nicely .. we have rain predicted for the rest of the week .. we are also still a deckless house with a construction site style LOL

    1. Joy, hosta should be reasonably adaptable. Perhaps with time they will grow, and a group of 8 will look impressive. The rain should encourage your garden along. I hope it doesn’t scare off your construction team. After the deck is finished, you should be looking at a lush garden from your lounge chair on the deck, with just the sounds of birds to serenade you – hold on to that vision. :)

      Marnie, the Arisaema sikokianum is a real standout in the garden. The hood is large and showy. If it survives, I’d like to plant more to make a colony. I’m assuming I won’t get any seed with just one. They are supposed to be able to change sex too. I thought the bloodroot had buds on it, but maybe they’re the swollen seed pods instead. I’ll see what happens in a few weeks. The foliage itself is attractive enough to enjoy.

      Barbara, Even yesterday, I was examining the ground carefully to see if anything looked like it was pushing through where the trillium rhizomes were planted. I’ll look carefully for any signs of green when I plant the new ones.
      The hood on the Arisaema sikokianum is actually upright, with a slight bend at the top. The interior is visible naturally. A group of these would be a real sight under the trees.

      Katarina, I’ve always admired trilliums, and I’m not sure why I didn’t plant some before. They are very reasonably priced now too. They must be getting better at propagating them.
      Many of the borderline hardy plants that I’ve tried have done well, even with our regularly cold winter, so I’m getting quite reckless in what I’ll try. :) It’s easy to get good leaf coverage in the fall under the trees, and that really seems to help. I did just start with one Arisaema sikokianum, just in case.

      Birgitta, I’m hoping that they will all settle in fine too. I’m having fun deciding how to make everything fit right, with the minimum number of plant moves.

  3. I wasn’t aware there was a Japanese variety of Jack in the Pulpit. It really is more striking than the one my father has.

    His bloodroot bloom long before the leaves unfurl. You may have to wait a year to see yours bloom.

  4. Trilliums, a girl after my own heart! Can’t blame you for trying the bits in a bag – you may be surprised – I’ve had a number of woodland plants that I thought were dead and gone poke up after several years. The Arisaema is a stunner – do you have to lift up the hoody bit to see the great colour or does it reveal itself that way?

  5. Beautiful selections! The Arisaema is stunning.

    These are woodland plants in the truest sense. And yes, the trilliums remind me of others woods I played in as a child :) Lovely.

    1. The Garden Ms. S, I do hope they feel at home in my suburban woodland. I return a lot of the leaves and tree detritus to the garden, which should make for familiar soil. They will get some sun, before the deciduous trees leaf out. It will be interesting to see how they adapt.

  6. A gardener after my heart! You will love the A. sikokianum with each passing year! Although not as quick to clump as our native, it is breathtaking and will be the talk of the garden for years! A good mulching in the winter will help as it is quite hardy!
    Go with next to the lacy ferns as a companion to the bloodroot If you happen to see the double flowering ones – Sanguinaria canadense f. multiplex, grab one or two as they have sterile flowers. The native doesn’t last longer than one or two days! It is divine…. and yep, the sap is a reddish orange! It is very easy to divide and spread through the garden.
    A word of caution with the Onoclea sensibilis…. very rambunctuous… and that is an understatement! I ended up putting mine in a container as it wanted to overtake the entire garden, and was threatening the smaller woodlanders!
    A gardener can never have too much shade or too many Trilliums! If you can locate it, try Trillium rivale, a smaller pink one, as well as Trillium cayesbyi…… but this last one requires a hands and knees approach to appreciate the downturned gorgeous pink flowers!
    Please share more of your shade garden plants….. as a shade gardener, I thrill when I see shade related postings!

    1. Teza, thanks for the information. I’ve gone outside to see the A. sikokianum a number of times, since it is so fascinating. I keep turning it from side to side to study the structure. I like the rounded lobes of the Sanguinaria leaves, so I think they would look good next to a feathery textured fern. A few of my plants will be shifting around to make room.
      I’ll keep my eye on the Onoclea sensibilis, and I won’t put it right next to a more delicate plant. I haven’t had too much trouble with other ferns (even the Matteuccia struthiopteris) being invasive here, but it’s always best to know ahead of time.
      Trilliums remind me of walks through the forest in Ontario.

      Shady Gardener, how nice to be able to share plants with (and from) a relative. I quite like the little bloodroots so far. I’m enamored of the new jack in the pulpit, and its fascinating structure. I’ve been noting the different trilliums that other gardeners have mentioned here. I will have to check them out.

  7. Northern Shade, What wonderful choices!! I have the bloodroot (courtesy of my Aunt MEA!) and it’s doing So Well! :-) I have no Jacks-in-the-Pulpit, nor the very interesting looking fern that you’ve picked. I do have trillium, but not that variety. The native I found is what I’ve identified as Trilliam Recurvatum Beck ‘Bloody Butcher.’ (Crazy name!) I’m going to visit Teza, as she sounds as though she’d have interesting things to say about Shade Gardens! Happy May!!

  8. It’s so exciting to have these wild beauties where we can enjoy them. Enjoy watching your white trilliums turn pink! They are stunning!

    1. Becky, yes, it’s great to have a mini woodland in the garden. So far, the Trilliums are at the pure white stage, reflecting the smallest bit of light, and glowing. They look great in the shadows. I hope they will spread, if they like the garden.

  9. I love the Arisaema – such a contrast between white and dark. I’ve added it to my “I’d like that plant” list! I like Onoclea sensibilis – my soil is fairly light and dry but even so it has spread quite a bit – every year it surprises me when it pops up, it dies completely back in winter and I forget it’s there.

    1. Easygardener, the structure of the Arisaema sikokianum is so interesting that I’ve photographed it from every angle now. It’s quite large too, and easily noticed.
      My Matteuccia struthiopteris fern has not spread much, despite its tendency to do this in warmer zones, so perhaps the Onoclea sensibilis will not either. Even so, I won’t put it next to an easily overwhelmed plant, until I see how it does in the garden.

  10. hi northern shade. your jack in the pulpit is out of this world. I planted bloodroot last spring just after they bloomed. One year later, the wait to see them bloom in my garden was worth it. I thought the plants were gone but they reappeared and actually seem to have multiplied. you will love them. I planted sensitive fern last year too. it is back with a vengeance. I don’t mind though because I’ve got space to fill. enjoy your shade lovers.

    1. Irena, The jack in the pulpit is very different from any of my other plants. The unique shape is very appealing.
      I hope my bloodroot plants will multiply like yours. What sort of soil do you have then in?
      I will make sure to give the sensitive fern its own space. It sounds like I only need one to get started. :)

    1. Jackie, there are some very pretty plants for the shade. It’s nice to have some woodland plants that revel in the shade, instead of just tolerating it. They soak up the sun in the spring, before the deciduous leaves come out. The buds on my trees are just starting to open this week.

  11. when i started my woodland garden i stripped off the top layer of turf and the top few centimeters of soil. I filled it back in with triple mix. the bloodroot are loving it. I have taken extra care to keep them moist. good luck…i hope we can both one day brag about our bloodroot colonies.

  12. Lovely choices! I had the Arisaema in my hands at Holes the other day but then I saw the $45 price tag and carefully returned it. It is spectacular but I have too much ground to cover to spend that much on a marginally hardy perennial. I hope it survives for you!!

    1. Willa, you wouldn’t want to start out carpeting a woodland with them. : ) I think that some of the borderline perennials have more trouble surviving on the open prairie, without protection. They have a better chance in a protected garden, but it is always a risk still.

  13. Hi Northern Shade: Spectacular choice of woodland perennials! I’ve been glancing longingly at the bloodroots at Hole’s the last few springs. I remember them from the Eastern Deciduous Forests of my youth (along with assorted trillia, jack-in-the-pulpit), so partly it has been nostalgia, but bloodroot flowers are spectacular (if ephemeral), the leaves attractive, and the seed pods and their ant-dispersed seeds interesting. Alas, I’m in the same cart as Willa when I see the price tag (although only half that of the arisaemas) and they’ve all gone carefully back on the shelf. Besides, all my moist, cool, shade areas are already chock-a-block, and the dry shade I still have to deal with isn’t appropriate. I wonder if I couldn’t use raised beds, though, and irrigation? It’s not like I ever get away from Hole’s without spending a fortune, no matter how many plants I put back, so perhaps I’ll give in this year (not until after Wednesday morning’s now predicted -6 though).

    You may know of these sources already, but Ernest Small and Paul Catling’s “Canadian Medicinal Crops” (NRC Research Press, 1999) has a section on Sanguinaria canadensis that is chock-full of information. William Cullina’s “Wildflowers, A Guide to Growing and Propagating Native Flowers of North America” (The New England Flower Society, 2000) also deals with bloodroot, trilliums, and the arisaemas that grew here before European colonization. I haven’t found much on Arisaema sikokianum other than a brief comment in John Bryan’s “Bulbs” – ‘A beautiful, hardy plant…’. Best of luck with it.

    1. Dave, yikes, -6 C (21 F), you would think we gardened on the 53 N parallel. :) I was chastising some of my plants that have not yet emerged, but their survival strategy is probably wiser than the foolhardy rush of early blooms and buds. It will be interesting to see how the different plants handle the temperature drop. It’s not exactly time to plant the impatiens; is it?

      We’ll see how these perennials of the deciduous forest flourish, halfway between the Grasslands and Boreal Forest. Thanks for the excellent book references. I will have to check them out. Here is an earlier post, where I reviewed two good shade gardening books that I find useful and inspiring.

  14. You have exceedingly good taste in plants. It’s my dream to put together a collection of arisaema. One day, one day. At the moment I make do with an Arisaema costatum, which I grow in a large pot.It’s just come to life – the shoot is about 2in at the moment, but will eventually hold a flower 20in high. It’s a beauty.

    1. Martyn, a collection of Arisaema would be great. I keep peering at the A. sikokianum from every angle. The elaborate structure around the flower is quite interesting. If this overwinters fine, I will try others. Your A. costatum must make a real focal point in a pot.

  15. Hi Northern Shade :) I have the white trillium and bloodroot on my To Find List as they’ve been talked about on blogs this spring. They are really beautiful and will do great under your trees.

    1. lynnsgarden, I like the deep, rounded lobes of the bloodroot leaves, and the trillium has great blooms. Their subtle beauty looks great in the dappled light.
      The garden is back in a suspended state again as we have had more snow flurries. The new plant shoots had better grow quickly to make up the delay.

    1. Shady Gardener, most of my planting has been delayed by cooler weather. It is supposed to go below freezing again at the beginning of next week. I do like lacy foliage next to broad, flat leaves. They make a nice combination.

  16. Hi Northern Shade!
    I took your advice from last year and I’m trying three different kinds of campunula in my garden this year! You seem to have good luck with them in your zone so I’ll keep my fingers crossed. I have chosen some of the same varieties that you have posted.

    1. Beth, I think you will find the Campanula charming, with their pretty blue flowers and long bloom time. My Campanula ‘Haylodgensis has reappeared. It is a dwarf Campanula with numerous double blue flowers, which I planted last year, that was rated for a warmer zone, but seems to have done fine. My Campanula are some of the first plants up in the spring, with lots of fresh, green foliage. before many other perennials have emerged. They seem to have handled the flurries we’ve been getting lately fine too.

    1. Beegirl, The elaborate flower structure of the Arisaema is still looking good three weeks later. There are a few spots inside the spathe, and the tip of the hood is now curled forward, above the spadix. You can still see the white interior, without moving the hood.

  17. I have missed several of your posts NS and all good ones too. Glad to be catching up with you. Lovin’ your new woodland plants. The Japanese Jack has to be my favorite. The striping on the hood reminds me of the Lady Slipper orchid I purchased this winter. Which, by the way, add a Lady Slipper to your mix of Jack in the Pulpits and Trillium and you’ve got my all-time favorite woodland plants. I’ve never tried any of these in my current garden but like so many other’s I’ve fallen for the rarity in a bag trick. No luck here either. If they do well in your garden, I may have to consider it for next season.

    1. Kathleen, The zippy stripes on the large hood definitely set this Arisaema apart, along with the extra smooth, milky interior. I’ve been looking at getting some lady slippers, but the ones I really liked, with white and green flowers were too expensive. Maybe I’ll luck out, and find them on sale later. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.