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Native Plants: A Mini Wildflower Garden in Shade?

Plants that could make a start of it.

In our neighborhood, welcoming trick or treaters also means a chance to catch up with neighbors and I definitely look forward to it. In between visits from Naomi Osaka, an awesome anglerfish and more Draculas than I can count, we get a chance to share snippets of conversation. This past Halloween, a neighbor mused about whether a row home front garden dominated by a gorgeous mature native tree could support a native wildflower meadow and it got me thinking.

We have a similarly shaded front garden in a more formal style. Looking to promote native plants, I'm always thinking about countering the notion that native plants have to be wild or messy looking. Native plants can be styled any way you like -- from totally wild to totally manicured. The thought of a natural looking wildflower meadow is so enticing.

In nature, meadows always evolve and change. Often created by fires that remove larger plants and trees, a meadow will form through a succession of newly emerged plants. At times, the original landscape lost to fire is recreated, sometimes a century or more later. It's a pretty complex procession of plants specializing in very specific conditions often starting with annuals and grasses that ecologists spend careers studying.

I am thinking about something different, a collection of perennials, with a few sedges, blooming throughout the growing season and planted in a random fashion that we, as home gardeners could do in smaller spaces. Usually I write about things I have tried or share expertise of others. This is not that. These are ideas one could start with if you are bitten by the meadow bug. .

It would be important to have flowers for as much of the growing season as possible. Selecting plants with similar growth habits so that one plant did not end up taking over the others would give the planting more staying power. Conditions vary so much from garden to garden so you might have to go through some trial and error on this. It would also be critical to prepare the soil, particularly if it has been lawn or another potentially compacted surface. And, of course, I would be looking for plants that are readily available.

Early spring

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia Virginica) are native ephemeral wildflowers. They emerge in early spring and after blooming, the flowers fade back into the ground. They grow in average to moist soils. Celandine poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) are the native poppy of the Chesapeake region. Celandine poppies are very easy to grow and self sow gently. They can be ephemeral in drier conditions. In moist shade, the lobed foliage will often last most of the summer. Blue wood sedge (Carex flaccosperma) is an almost evergreen sedge that grows well in average soils from shade to partial sun. Its grass like foliage adds texture for much of the year.

Later in spring

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) thrives in partial to full shade with average to moist soil. This woodland plant will begin to send out runners which ultimately create a colony of plants in moist shade. Once established, foamflower requires no maintenance. Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a shade growing perennial with delicate flowers that dance in the breeze. Leave seed heads up to dry and columbine will spread on its own.


Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) thrives in our area. It will grow in part shade and shade but have fewer blooms than in sun. By August, coneflowers fade to a pale pink. The widely available heuchera cultivar Heuchera 'Autumn Bride' grows well in shade. White flower spikes in August, swaying in a light breeze, are awesome and often last into November. Heuchera foliage emerges very early in spring and lasts through late fall, and often into winter. Along the way, he three foot high and wide mounding plant provides springy lime green color early in the season which morphs to a slightly darker green in summer.

Early fall

Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) is a perennial with a very small flower. Its best attribute is an ability to spread, so great if you want more plants without great expense. The small flowers, when massed, provide just enough color to make a difference. The foliage also really takes off in August giving you a very fresh green when you need it most. It grows in sun as well as shady sites and thrives in dappled shade. It is easy to pull if you get too much of it.

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) is noted for reaching peak bloom in late summer after many other perennials have finished blooming. Its rich fuchsia pink color is saturated even in shade. Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) is an August blooming perennial with flowers that last. It grows best in shade in moist soils though will take sun.

Late fall and winter

Zig zag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) blooms in dappled shade. It is an easy to grow perennial that does well in both shade and clay soils. White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) is a late season blooming plant with very small flowers that light up shady spaces. Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a semi-evergreen shade plant that can tolerate dry conditions. This fern will help provide color and structure in winter.

Have you tried a meadowette or mini-meadow in shade? If so, please share in the comments below. Those of us who garden in shade and envision a meadow swaying with summer flowers would love to know!

As always, thanks for gardening for the Chesapeake.

1 Comment

Reading in 2024 while looking for comments about natives in shade. Nice blog!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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