I love Spikenard (Aralia racemosa), a big shrub sized perennial. The flowers are not much, small and greenish white, but the bold leaves and dark purple stems are handsome enough throughout the summer. It is in the autumn that the plant shines. The little white flowers develop into red berries that turn black when fully ripe. The little fruits grow in large showy clusters.
We grow this shade-loving forest plant on the north side of our barn, where we need something large to be in scale with the wall but where any woody shrub would get crushed in the winter by snow and ice crashing off the barn roof. The herbaceous perennial Spikenard is safely underground for the winter.
Spikenard fruit is appreciated by birds. Spikenard is fast-growing for a shade plant, and it will bear fruit in its third year from seed. If you have a shady spot and want to provide for birds, a planting of Spikenard will reward you and the birds sooner than most shade-tolerant shrubs.
Very few wildflowers for shade have large showy flowers. Producing big flowers is just not in the energy budget for a plant that survives on the scraps of sunlight that the canopy trees miss. What they lack in size, forest wildflowers make up in charm. The bright pink flowers of Panicled Tick-trefoil (Desmodium paniculatum) are a fraction of the size of those of its meadow-growing relative, Showy Tick-trefoil (D. canadense). They are, however, held upright in dainty, airy sprays, which maximizes their effect. Both of these wildflowers from the Pea family are attractive to native bees. Both also have sticky seeds, the tick-trefoils, so its is wise to site the plants carefully, away from paths where the family pooch walks.
New to me this season is American Ipecac (Gillenia stipulata). This plant of oak savannahs and rocky glades does not occur in the wild in Canada; native to Michigan and New York State down to Texas, it is adapted to drier conditions than its close relative Bowman’s Root (G. trifoliata). It has more finely divided leaves and very similar starry white flowers. Not for deep shade, but it will likely prove to be a useful addition to the roster of plants for dry, dappled or part-day shade.