Shade, moisture are suitable for a goodly number of plants
Posted: Tuesday, February 2, 2010 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
With relatively few trees and shrubs amenable to thriving in wet soils, particularly in shade, there are, on the other hand, a seeming plethora of understory perennials that dote on those conditions.
Just visit one of the creek bottoms across the Tennessee River into Middle Tennessee on an April morning and take in the often solid sheets of Virginia bluebells, woodland phloxes and trilliums that grace those areas. Even here in our own diggings, there is some of that, but not on the scale one meets further east.
There is no reason, however, not to domesticate many of those natives for your garden and likewise include such exotics as will take those same growing conditions. There are more than you would imagine.
Taking the latter category first, Japanese painted fern has become a mainstay in our garden during the past 15 years or so. It has thrived in damp shade in heavy soil, in the sun in drier conditions, and just about everywhere in between. One of the easiest of all perennials, and one of the most versatile.
There are other ferns aplenty, of course, suited to shade and wet, many of them natives to our own woodlands. Christmas fern is undoubtedly the most common, seen on both north hillsides and in wetter, lower elevations all over the east, including here. It transplants easily, and you don’t have to worry about exploiting it as long as your collecting is modest. Christmas fern is evergreen and was once used in Christmas decorating. It will be the better, in the ground, if the old fronds are removed before new ones emerge in spring.
Other native ferns range from six inches or less to five feet tall. Wild ones should be replanted in conditions that match their home grounds. For most of them that is a location with plenty of moisture, but there are some exceptions. A few won’t thrive in dampness and actually prefer dry sites.
Spring phlox (Phlox divaricata) is one of the most recognized native plants all across the eastern U.S. It is easily cultivated under domestication provided its few requirements are met. They include soil that never dries out and a good bit of organic matter. Once established, spring phlox will seed around and increase at the root.
Ditto Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginiana), though even more moisture is preferred. Most of the vast plantations of them in the wild are in wet bottoms. Virginia bluebells are of easy culture and also self-seed, though they are thoroughly perennial. They go totally dormant in summer, so it is well to grow them among something like hostas which will fill the voids. Virginia bluebells are one of very few true blue flowers. Hold a blossom up to a clear sky and you will notice no difference in color.
Ah, hostas. All are exotic, none are from the New World. They do, however, settle themselves into a wooded landscape as if they had been here for centuries. What would we do without them? The variegated ones, with white or yellow in the leaves, show especially favorably in shade, and of course they thrive on moisture. They are valuable for covering early ephemeral things, such as those bluebells, and for similar duty in hiding the decaying foliage of early bulbs, of which more anon.
Tradescantias (spiderworts) are sold in several forms and varieties by nurseries, ranging in color from purple to pink and white. The original native from which these have been developed is Tradescantia virginiana, commonly called “snakeweed” around here. It is in most respects a better garden plant than the named varieties and available for the effort of digging from the wild.
The native’s flowers are smaller, about an inch across, but more prolific, and on taller stems, to four feet. The commercial ones usually reach about a foot. Snakeweed will flower from May until frost, and seed modestly, while the varieties sometimes seed incontinently to the point of nuisance. All will build into sizable clumps over time.
A jewel among native plants is Indian pink, Spigelia marilandica, indeed a native of Maryland and here too, though rarely seen. I have several clumps of it, all divided over many years from a single plant from a Stewart County roadside. I yearn for more.
It is a relative rarity among wildflowers in being red (not pink) with funnel flowers an inch across lined at their throats with chartreuse. Indian pink blooms in late spring for about a month, on stems a foot tall, and performs in sun or shade, preferably with plenty of moisture, though not swampy conditions. Over the years we have found a few seedlings away from our established clumps.
Next week we will stay in the shade and look at bulbs that will stand wet feet.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 2.2.10
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path