New for 2021: Canada Mayflower

Canada Mayflower is such a small, ubiquitous woodland plant, it is easy to take it for granted. It grows in just about every kind of forest, in every kind of soil, and is one of the few natives that manages to eke out some sort of straggly existence in spruce plantations. It is a great colonizer and, with so much of its energy going into vegetative spread, relatively few of the leaf clusters will put out a flowering stem.

Canada Mayflower grows in all the forest areas at Beaux Arbres. Although I am very conscious of the demand for adaptable, shade-tolerant plants for city gardens, Canada Mayflower seemed just too trifling to cultivate. I have overhauled my opinion. There is a spot beside the side road where I walk Kapik nearly every day, a damp depression in deep shade, which is thickly carpeted with Canada Mayflower and it slowly dawned on me that, there, Canada Mayflower made a handsome ground cover with two seasons of interest.

Canada Mayflower is closely related to False Solomon’s Seal, which has more history as a garden flower. Like False Solomon’s Seal, it has a sprig of small, sprightly white flowers in late spring. Despite the common name, Canada Mayflower is more likely to be blooming in June in our part of the world. As summer comes to a close, each flower stalk bears a small cluster of bright red berries.

Another common name for this plant is Wild Lily-of-the-Valley, from the similarity in leaf shape and colonizing habit to the European garden plant. Unfortunately, the existence of this name has misled many into thinking that the non-native, indeed invasive, Lily-of-the-Valley is a native species that can be introduced into woods. It is not. I love its fragrance, muguet, and if there were a way to safely contain the plant, I would grow it, to pick little nosegays to bring into the house. Alas, there is no safe way to grow Lily-of-the-Valley if you are near native woodlands, as it spreads both by rhizomes and by seeds contained in the poisonous red fruit. (Note: the fruits of Canada Mayflower are not toxic. Not tasty, but not poisonous. Some years they disappear quickly as they are eaten by many species of birds.)

Another consequence of my lack of serious attention to this plant is I do not have a good photo of it of my own. The feature photo above is by Blue Canoe from Wikimedia.

Great Plants for Shade

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.