5 Unsung Wildflowers Which Thrive in Dry Shade

I understand that there are areas of our gardens which only, well, tick us off and make literal nightmares. (I once dreamed that the entire area came over to indicate that one little problem spot meant I was a terrible gardener that no one should listen to.)

In the middle of my favored planting season — fall — I give you a bit of workhorse natives to the U.S. Midwest and East. Many of these low-care perennials gradually spread, and November is still a fantastic time to get them at the ground and provide a head start for quicker institution next year. Fall planting alleviates transplant shock, as cooler weather and fall rains ensure a less-stressful transition into garden soil.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Zig zag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) must be my complete (current) preferred for dry color. As my students say, it’s only stupid good. Native from the Midwest to the East Coast, zig zag blooms in early to mid-September over roughly two weeks. The 24-inch flower spikes are quite aromatic — in actuality they smell very much like my grandma’s perfume, so it’s a perennial I’ll never go without.

Zig zag is more attractive to pollinating insects. Plant it fully shaded to largely shaded spots, in wet to dry dirt, and it will gradually form a colony over several years. Zig zag is also rather simple to split and give to friends.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Big leaf aster (Aster macrophyllus) truly does have large leaves for an aster. This is much more a late-summer into early-fall bloomer, and can actually take full sun if the soil is moderate to moist. In color, dry dirt is great. I like to use this aster as a ground cover even though it can get up to 18 inches tall — the big leaves shade and cool the soil and also outcompete weeds, and the blooms can last a month. Big leaf aster will gradually spread by rhizomes, so it’s ideal for a place you just want something — anything — to grow in. It’s native from the northern Midwest and Great Lakes area on into Appalachia and the Northeast.

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I have mentioned Joe Pye Weed before, especially Eupatorium purpureum, as a fantastic accent plant which attracts in butterflies and is native from the Midwest to the East Coast. Usually folks plant this tall recurrent in full sun with moist soil, but dry soil in color works also — although it may not bloom as much. However, at about 5 ft tall and 2-3 feet wide once established, it has a uniquely commanding presence in a briefer shade garden.

Missouri Botanical Garden

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) just may be a winner for you. Insects with long tongues really like to nectar here, and it does attract hummingbirds. The flower spikes can catch up to 4 ft tall, so it may be a plant you set between Joe Pye Weed and also the briefer asters and goldenrod — you know, if you take my advice and use each of the plants in this ideabook. Foxglove is native by the Eastern Plains all the way up into New England, but much less at the Southeast.

Hugh and Carol Nourse

Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) can help the struggling monarch butterfly population, as it’s a caterpillar host plant. Blooming in early summer, poke milkweed can reach 3 to 5 ft tall — taller if there’s somewhat more sun and moisture. The stems are slender, so this sweet-smelling bloomer can fit in anywhere, perhaps underplanted with large leaf aster. Its decorative seedpods release a bloated, valuable cargo.

CYAN Horticulture

I have given you some tips for color and woodland plants which aren’t so common — we have loads of hostas and ferns and astilbe already, in my opinion. Additional plants you may try include Short’s Aster (Aster shortii) along with Early Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum). These North American natives may reap a plethora of pollinating insects and be as low maintenance as the more typical shade garden standbys we default to. Try one or two, and you’re going to make me a very delighted guy.

So what flowering natives for shade work for you? Let’s get a nice list going in the Remarks section!

More: Native Plants Inspire and Educate at NYC’s Botanical Garden

Native plants to the Western U.S.:
California native plants | Northwest native plants
Southwest native plants | Rocky Mountains native plants

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