Early May Blooms, Mixing Natives with Other Plants in the Shady Perennial Garden

9259In early spring many of the Midwestern woodland wildflowers bloom before the trees (mostly oaks) fully leaf out and create a shady canopy.  There are also a few garden perennials from other parts of the world that bring color in to the early May garden.  Let’s take a look a few that are at their peak of bloom right now. 

In the picture above, common violets intermingle with Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans).  Violets come in many shade of blue and purple, as well as yellow and bicolor blue and white.  The violets above were propagated from a naturally occurring population that had reddish purple coloration (difficult to capture in an image) that complements many other early bloomers, including Ruby Epimedium (Epimedium x rubrum), seen below.




The leaves emerge a bright chartreuse green on the Ruby Epimedium – planted where the morning sun highlights this stunning color.  The leaves turn a more standard green as they mature.  Epimedium sulfureum, a similar species, flowers  in yellow but does not seem to be as robust.  At a foot or so tall and wide, epimedium works well in part shade in groupings of five to nine (or more)  interplanted with other perennials. 

Trilliums, such at the White Trillium (T. grandiflorum) seen below, are often collected from the wild and sold in garden centers, there are, however, some ethical nurseries that propagate their plants from seed or divisions – easy to do, and should be purchased from those sources.  Timing is critical when collecting the seed, generally eight weeks past flowering, since the pods will eventually shatter and the seeds will drop to the ground – as long as the seeds are turning brown, they can be collected and planted in seed flats to expand a population of plants.


White Trillium, aka. Large Flowered Trillium – a easy to grow shade plant


Toad Trillium, T. sessile can have dark purple/black leaves as they emerge in the spring.

Trillium plants will fade after flowering and go dormant until reemerging the following spring, therefore it is best to plant them where the soil will not be disturbed – such as near the base of trees or large rocks.  Other native woodland plants such as Hepatica, seen below, actually send out their new leaves for the season right after flowering, and look great all summer, and stay green through the winter season, only fading the following spring.  Flowers, which range in color from pink, to white, to purpley blue, sometimes emerge as snow is still on the ground in late April.


Hepatica acutiloba now known as Anemone acutiloba, showing seed clusters

Rue Anemone, like hepatica, is a member of the short flowing buttercup family.  The flowers are pure white to slightly pink, with blue green leaves that remain throughout the summer if the soil does not dry out for an extended period.  Rue Anemone looks great tucked into nooks and crannies throughout the shade garden.  Leaves turn yellow in the fall months.



Rue Anemone, Anemone thalictroides aka, Thalictrum thalictroides.

Lenten Rose (Helleborus sp.) is native to Europe and blooms along with the native woodland flowers.  The large, coarse flowers can be an interesting complement to the other finer textured flowers in the shade garden.  These easy to grow perennials can be divided after flowering, by cutting apart divisions with a bread knife, to create more plants.


The flowers of Lenten Rose, ‘Ivory Queen’ last for several weeks

The low groundcover Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) is widely found growing in moist woods throughout Europe and Asia, it also mixes well with our Midwestern natives as seen below with Woodland Ginger (Asarum canadense). The leaves of both the Woodland Ginger and the Sweetwoodruff wil stay green all summer if the soil is kept moist during dry spells.


Wood Shield Fern (Dryopteris marginalis) and Christmas Fern (Polystichum achrosticoides) are two easy to grow evergreen ferns native to the Midwestern woods.  Wood Shield Fern’s, upright vase shaped growth, can reach two feet tall, while the Christmas Fern is more low spreading.  Below both are seen mixing well with Woodland Ginger (Asarum canadense), Wild Ramp (Allium tricoccum), and Woodland Geranium (Geranium maculatum) with its pink flowers just coming into bloom in Mid-May.


Christmas fern at lower left and Wood Shield Fern at upper right

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) is a neat low mounded woodland plant covered in sky blue flowers for a week, or so, in May.  The rest of the summer, the pinnate foliage looks great and work well, planted along the edge of the shade garden as a nice transition to lawn or other pathway materials.  The Jacob’s ladder often found in garden centers is a taller European variety, with variegated foliage – inferior in appearance to our Midwestern plants.


Polemonium reptans halfway through its bloom cycle

 Blue Wood Phlox can be found blooming at the same time as Jacob’s Ladder, and slightly after Jacob’s Ladder is finished blooming.  In May wiry flower stems shoot up a foot above the low evergreen foliage and put on a bright blue display that works well with other more sun tolerant Dutch bulbs such as Grape Hyacinth (Muscari sp.) and Tulips.  9453A mix of blues and whites in a rock garden I constructed at my home, gets plenty of sun in the spring, but is somewhat shaded by the overhanging Silver Maple in the summer:


9462In one part of the rock garden, the shade tolerant Sedum ternatum, native to Midwestern woods and limestone bluffs is just starting to put out its white, star shaped flowers.  The sedum stays evergreen the year around and works well as a groundcover in the shade garden.


Illinois Stonecrop, can be found on limestone bluffs as well as floodplains (Swink & Wilhelm)

Most sedums, this one included, can be propagated by pinching off a short stem and pushing the base of the stem into the ground where more plants are desired.  Occasional watering of the cuttings will promote quicker rooting.


Sedum ternatum with Blue Wood Phlox in the shade garden

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) is such a ubiquitous old fashioned perennial, that many gardeners are unaware that it also is a American woodland native – mostly found in flood plains, but very adaptable to well drained garden soils.  The charming bell-shaped blue flowers only last a week, then the plants begin to wane, turn yellow, and go dormant for the summer, it is therefore a good idea to note where these plants occur, so that the plants are not inadvertently disturbed while gardening in the summer months.  Interplanting Virginia Bluebells with others perennials that will help mask the fading foliage is something to consider as well.9438Virginia Bluebells can form large colonies by dropping its seeds in bare soil surrounding the mother plant, these volunteers are easily removed if desired.  The roots are fleshy and can be divided after the plants are finished blooming to create more plants.  Virginia Bluebells will do well in most decent garden soils.


A mass of Virginia Bluebells overtake the low evergreens when in bloom, only to quickly retreat with equal vigor

Another early blooming European native is the old fashioned Money Plant (Lunaria annua.)  Grown for the silver dollar sized papery seed pods (silicles) that are used in dried arrangements.  This plant will reseed around the mother plant, and in some soil types this may be a nuisance.  In my experience, the mother plants have survived many winters (unlike what the name implies) to rebloom in the spring and provided more dried arrangement material the following fall.


German Money Plant in the back of the herb garden – growing in very dry crumby soil


The four petals indicate that the Money Plant in a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae)

For a punch of bright orange in May, Trollius europaeus, or Globeflower, cannot be beat.  The plant, hailing from Europe,  prefers a bit of shade and consistently moist soil but otherwise is a rather carefree perennial.  It blooms at the same time as some of the Giant Purple Alliums  and Chives and the purplely pinks allium blooms could make for an interesting combination with the bright orange blooms of the Trollius.


9479Lastly, we get back to some Midwestern natives for the shade.  Many sedges do well in dry shade, Penn Sedge (Carex Pensylvanica) being one of them.  This sedge is one of the “sod” formers, as opposed to forming neat tufted “clumps.”  Use this growth habit to your advantage by interplanting such shade plants as the trilliums, noted earlier, violets, whose electric blue flowers play well with the bright green foliage of the Penn Sedge.


The course foliage of Ramps (middle right) works well with the grasslike foliage of Penn Sedge

The flowers of the Penn Sedge are a bit underwhelming, but the yellow anthers can sometimes be considered a bit showy in mass plantings.


Penn Sedge spikelet – not showing yellow anthers in this photo – few seeds, seen in front of lower finger, are produced and are difficult to collect, as they drop immediately when ripe

All Violets (Viola palmata shown below) look great interplanted with other woodland plants, especially Penn Sedge.


Palm Violet

  As do specimen plants such as Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).  While the plant itself goes dormant after bloom, a showy red seed mass forms to catch the viewers attention in late summer, very cool:

9371 Or Sessile Bellwort (Uvularia sessilfolia) whose foliage looks good througout the summer.  The dainty pendulous yellow flowers are curious, if not overly showy.



 These are just some of the interesting plants that come into flower early and can be combined with each other and with later flowering plants to great effect.

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Amaryilis Update: Blooms at Last!


Back in January I brought the potted Amaryllis out of the basement, and began the process of bringing the bulbs out of their dormancy and into bloom.  You can read about that (here).  By the middle of March, eight weeks later, they were starting to push up a few buds, just at the same time the daffodils were pushing up their leaves in the garden, you can see that update (here).  Now, a month later, and three months into the process, the bulbs are finally in bloom – both the Amaryllis, the white ones anyhow, and the Daffodils.  The red Amaryllis do not look like they want to push up any flower buds this year.  Maybe it’s time to repot them (next fall) with a fresh soil/compost/perlite mix.  I don’t want to repot them this spring, because that would damage the easily broken leaves, and set them back even more – since they need to gather the energy from the sun all summer, to produce next year’s flowers.  I will also set the pots in a sunnier outside location this year, than I had them in last year, in hopes that more sun exposure will help these Central and South American natives produces more flowers next spring.  While in bloom, however, it is recommended that the plants be kept out of the direct sun so as to prolong the bloom time.


One out of the three pots decided to bloom this year

The large white blooms look similar the the Easter Lilies (Lilium longiflorum)found for sale in supermarkets at this time of year, however, the Amaryllis do not give off any fragrance as the Easter Lilies do.  Though, in my case, my Calamondin Orange (Citrus mitis), a dwarf orange with golf ball sized fruit is currently in flower, as seen in the photo below, and is filling the room with a subtle sweet fragrance at this time.  Last winter the tree was covered in fruit, this year, just a few.  The tree will go outside after the danger of frost is past.  I purchased the tree in 1983 for a few dollars at a local flea market.  The only care it receives is consistent watering, applications of acidic liquid fertilizer (Miracid soluable fertilizer) once a month, and the old soil is replaced with new soil every three years, while at the same time pruning some of the roots to keep it from becoming root bound.


Just in time for Easter, the lovely blooms of Amaryllis


Meanwhile outside, the buds of the Daffodils opened at the same time as the Amaryllis this year

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Skunk Cabbage Up, Barn Down


Now that we’ve had a few days above freezing and no new snow storms for about ten days, the ground can finally be seen again afters many months under a foot of snow.  Just a week, or so, ago the scene above was a snowy one .. it’s now finally starting to feel like spring.


The ravines are running with snow melt, and entering the floodplains:


Vernal ponds fill with water, creating temporary breeding grounds for a variety of wildlife, both seen and unseen.  The cycle of life goes on.  This process has been going on for many thousands of years – since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, forming what we see today – an oak woods, wetlands, and a peaceful creek:


The creek is running high at this time of year and things are slowly starting to green up.  In the recent past, beaver have made their homes here.  Some of their handy work (damage) can still be seen on some of the trees near the creek:


Beaver damage showing on an old White Oak

Reaching  the creek, the snow is still holding fast, but losing ground as the temperature rises into the low 50’s today.


  As the snow melts, the plants start coming out of their winter dormancy:


Finally, I’m rewarded with one of nature’s first signs of spring – the flowers of the Skunk Cabbage:


Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is part of the opening ceremony of the eternal spring cycle events.  These hooded flowers waited underground all winter, forming as their leaves faded the previous fall, as Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary: “They see over the brow of Winter’s hill.  They see another summer ahead.”

This small colony of Skunk Cabbage has been making its appearance here for many thousands of years every spring – these jewels of nature can not be found in store windows or at garden shows, they are more precious than that.


The Skunk Cabbage gets its name from the acrid smell of its large, cabbage-like, leaves when bruised.   To me, they smell less like skunk, and more like burnt rubber.  The flower itself, which has the coloration of raw flesh,  is said to give off the odor of rotting meat – all the better to attract pollinators, which include flies, beetles, as well as bees. 

The  hooded flowers indicate that the plant is in the arum family, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and Green Dragon (A. dracontium) its woodland neighbors, rather than the cabbage family, as its name might indicate.  The leaves taste as bad as they smell and cause a burning sensation on the tongue and throat (oxalic crystals?) when eaten, as Euell Gibbons explains in his book “Stalking the Healthful Herbs.”  He was, however, able to make a flour out of the coarse roots, from which he made pancakes that were “something special,” tasting “a bit like cocoa but different.”


The flowers have been found to produce their own heat, a process known as thermogenesis, by biologist  Roger Seymour (Scientific American, March 1997.)  He found the temperatures inside the hood of the flower structure to be as much as 30° F warmer than the surrounding air, even at night.  This would help to explain the rings of melted snow sometimes found around the emerging plants:


While many of the upland parts of the woods were snow-free, the low mucky seeps where the Skunk Cabbage grows was still snow covered.  The useful advantage of this plant to produce its own heat is thus made clear.



A few other plants, including the Hepatica shown below, were also showing green leaves, these leaves, however, were survivors from last season.  Their semi-evergreen leaves help collect energy for these early bloomers, which should be in flower in about three weeks, after flowering, it will send up its new leaves for the season.  The dainty little flowers are in shades of pink, blue, and white – each flower lasting only a day.


Last year’s Hepatica leaves catching the early spring rays of the sun

The Blue Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata), also a semi-evergreen, will show off its sky blue flowers in a month, or so – when the daffodils are in bloom, but right now, its snow flattened leaves will help the plant make a quick spring recovery before the oaks leaf out and take away the sun.


The leaves of Blue Wood Phlox

Lichens and moss, love the wet, cool spring weather.


A happy lichen showing off its amazing coloration




The Woodland Onion (Allium canadense) was already popping up in the sandy floodplain:


While other plants, including the tree shown below, were at the end of their life cycle, no longer greeting the spring with new leaves, but rather through their decay, creating habitat for other organisms, including moss, fungi, and salamanders.




This old Bur Oak  (Quercus macrocarpa) was still standing tall however, a full five feet across at its base – a true survivor, greeting many springs before the nearby farmstead came to be established, and since then, somehow escaping the blows of a axe.


Other oaks, both White Oaks and Red Oaks kept it company nearby:



While acorns from one of the Red Oaks were hopeful of their place in the woodland landscape:


Red Oak acorns beginning to sprout, the start of a mighty oak begins here

I followed the deer path out of the woods and into the farm field.


When in doubt, follow the deer path

Passing the home of a Hobbit on the way:


When I emerged from the woods, I was disoriented, where was the farmstead?  Admittedly, there wasn’t much left to begin with, the farm house was long gone, and the barn was burnt down by the forest preserve ten years ago, but where were the grain silos?  Every last bit of the farmstead was scraped away this past winter.  My heart sunk a bit at the sight of it.


No more barn, no more silos.

Twenty five years ago this private farmland, established by the Rincker family in the 19th century, was purchased by the Will County Forest Preserve.  I took the photo of the old barn shortly afterwards.


barn composite spsm

It always makes me a bit sad to see old farm buildings rot away, a Morton Pole Barn is no replacement for an old wooden barn made of White Pine beams and rubblestone foundations.  At least I was able to explore this barn, and admire its construction, and imagine the proud farmer that built it when it still stood.  Climbing its rafters, I came across some old graffiti carved into one of the beams “O. Fricke ’90” – someone, a child? a laborer? had carved their name there back in 1890 – it was a bit surreal to sit there one hundred years later in the same place and think about the carver.  One year, owls nested in the barn, and I was able to see the fluffy football sized nestlings high up in their box – was it an old owl nesting box put there in the gable by the farmer many years ago?  I don’t know.

All that is left of the old barn now is a few bricks that made up part of the foundation, a few photos I took of it about 25 years ago, and my fond memories of it while I played “farm kid.”


Bricks once firmly laid to support the sill of the barn

The farmer was a frugal one, as most were, Yankees have nothing on Midwesterners when is comes to frugality, on one of the window sills was a rat-tail file with its tang stuck into a corncob handle – brilliant!  It had been sitting there a very long time, as I touched it, the corn cob disintegrated in my hand.   One of the animal stall doors had hinges that were quite ornate and made of brass, on closer inspection, I could see that they had come off of an old ice box – awesome!   The only remaining indication that this was once the home of farm animals is the old water trough in the pasture – a repurposed mid-century cast iron bathtub.   Farmers knew a thing or two about sustainability – but they just considered it common sense, I’m sure.  It was a great barn at one time, but neglected long before the county bought the property – a shame.


Spring bath anyone?

The concrete cover over the old brick-lined cistern was scraped away, by the contractors that cleared the site, and the hole partly filled in.  When the cistern was still intact, it would take about three seconds for a pebble dropped through a hole in the concrete cover to hit water – it always hit water, it was deep.


The old cistern exposed

I would love to know where the bricks were made that line the cistern.  There were brick foundries in the area at one time.  Were they made locally?  I imagine that they were.


Even when I was a kid, the old farmhouse was long gone, and in its place was a mobile home.  Apparently, the mobile home used the same well that the farmhouse did, as evidenced by the photo below, showing the inside corner of the farmhouse’s limestone foundation and the water holding tank from the well – at one time, this area was protected by a sheet of plywood.


All in all, a rather interesting spring walk to be sure.  In nature, as in life, things come, things go, spring has come and the old Bur Oak still stands.

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