How to Build a Woodland Wildflower Garden

great white trilliumgreat white trillium

When Chy and Ray Allen, the original founders of American Meadows, first moved to Vermont, they were delighted to find botanical treasures in their woods. Trilliums, violets, cardinal flowers, and many more lit up the woodland, so they built gravel paths and placed benches to make the woodland more inviting, and added even more plants to the wooded gardens. 

Anyone who has seen America's native woodland wildflowers in bloom in spring knows how magnificent a woodland garden can be. You can create a simliar natural showcase in most shaded gardens!

Before you begin, look around or do some research to find which are native to your area.

  • Stars of the Woodland Garden. Species like the Trilliums and wild Violets are just some of the scores of species that bloom in spring. In early summer, you can enjoy Columbines and our native Irises and even in late summer, the spectacular red Cardinal Flower can bring wonderful color to shaded areas. Hepatica, Bloodroot, and many others are available from American Meadows.
  • Native Woodland Ferns: These are the natural companions for all our woodland wildflowers, adding elegance and beauty to any good woodland garden.
Stars of the Woodland Garden. Lobelia (Cardinal Flower), Trillium Violets, Columbine, and Iris shown here.Stars of the Woodland Garden. Lobelia (Cardinal Flower), Trillium Violets, Columbine, and Iris shown here.
Stars of the Woodland Garden. Lobelia (Cardinal Flower), Trillium Violets, Columbine, and Iris shown here.

 

 

Choosing A Site & Plants For Your Woodland Wildflower Garden

Woodland gardening is like no other kind of gardening. With these more traditional gardens, you can pretty much dictate the location, make a few adjustments, and begin. In the case of woodland gardening, it's all important to work with nature, not against it. Start with a plan to enhance an area that's already attractive, an area that nature has chosen for rich growth and good conditions. In extreme cases, you may have to create such an area, but it's usually best to start with a naturally shady location. Bonus features are existing woodland wildflowers, ease of access,  attractive rocks, and maybe a water feature.

  1. Light Requirement: The first requirement is shade, as you'd normally find in a wooded area.
  2. Moisture: Most of these plants enjoy moist conditions year round, in what is usually called "wet woodland", but there are some exceptions.
  3. Soil Type: For a woodland garden, your soil type is critical. A little work at the beginning to find out if you soil is acid or alkaline will pay big dividends for years once your garden is planted. For example, a White Trillium cannot survive in very acid soil under some pine trees. Conversely, Mayflower (Trailing Arbutus) cannot survive without heavily acidic soil. Testing your soil for acidity/alkalinity before you begin is absolutely necessary. You can buy a soil test kit at any garden center, and if you need help, your local Extension Service always has an expert ready to help you, free of charge. 

    There are large groups of these plants that enjoy various soil types. For example, the Red Trillium doesn't care if it's in neutral/alkaline woods or a pine thicket that has heavily acid soil. Test your soil type, and then proceed with plants that thrive in your soil.
  4. Organic Matter: Woodland wildflowers need soil that's rich in organic matter. They naturally grow in areas with decades of leaf mold, and usually plenty of decomposed branches, etc. If your area does not have this sort of soil, you can help it by preparing soil with compoased leaves (it's best to prepare soil a season in advance, if possible), or adding peat moss, but it may be well worth your while to import some woods soil. 
trillium grandiflorumtrillium grandiflorum
Trillium Grandiflorum, is commonly called White Trillium, Snow Trillium, and Great White Trillium.
 
 
What does "Acid" or "Alkaline" soil mean?

You've probably heard that all soil has a "pH." That's a measure of the amount of lime (or calcium) you have in your soil. Generally, moist climates have soils that tend toward acid, and dry climates tend toward are alkaline. On the pH scale, soils with a pH higher than 7.0 are considered alkaline, and below that number are considered acid. Soil with a rating of 7.0 is considered "neutral."

The way these various soil types affect the natural occurrence of Vermont's three common trilliums is a classic illustration. In fact, many trillium species, like lady slippers, are markers for various soils.

Red Trillium, T. erectum Occurs all over the state since it is adaptable as to soil type.
White Trillium, T. grandiflorum Prefers neutral to alkaline soil, so occurs in huge drifts along the Lake Champlain shore, but is rare throughout the rest of the state.
Painted Trillium, T. undulatum Absolutely demands acidic habitat, so is absent along the lakeshore, but is found throughout the rest of the state, and is quite common in high-elevation evergreen forests.

 

bloodrootbloodroot
Bloodroot, (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a beautiful member of the poppy family, and native to woodland from Canada to north Florida. Grown-ups love the flowers, but kids love the story: The common name comes from the bright red juice that oozes from the th

Choosing Flowering Plants & Bloom Times

The plants you're working with fall into several categories, based on their bloom times. Woodland is famous for spring bloom, but if you plan correctly, you can have good color at other times, too. The groups in the box below show just a sampling of the plants you might consider.

Group 1: Early Spring Bloom

These are the first flowers. The bloom is always before leaf-out, and well before the big bloom of most spring flowers. Here are a few examples to represent this group:

  • Wildflowers: Hepatica, Marsh Marigold, Bloodroot

Group 2: Mid-Spring Bloom

This will be the glorious climax of bloom for any woodland garden. When tulips and daffodils are bloom in your yard, these flowers will be in bloom in your woodland. Here are a few examples to represent this group:

  • Wildflowers: Trilliums, Violets, Solomon Seals, Bellwort, Virginia Bluebells, Wild Anemones, Mayflower, Trout Lilies, Foam Flower, Bishop's Cap, Dutchman's Breeches, Wild Ginger, Spring Beauty

Group 3: Late Spring/Early Summer

This group carries your garden into summer, as your woodland leafs out and becomes shady. Here are a few plants to represent this group:

  • Wildflowers: Wild Lilies, Wild Iris (Blue Flag, Crested Iris, etc), Wild Columbine, Meadow Rue

Group 4: Summer/Fall

After your woodland canopy is fully leafed-out, there will be fewer wildflowers to add color to your garden. But plan for the few that do make a big difference. They are taller, larger plants, and all-important for summer/fall highlights.

  • Wildflowers: Wild Blue Phlox, Cardinal Flower, Foxglove, Woodland Goldenrods, Tiger Lilies*
  • * Naturalized wildflowers common in the US.

Native Ferns: Instant Elegance For Your Garden

There is no group that can add more interest in less time than North America's famous native ferns. Species such as Christmas Fern will add a texture and grace to your garden. Larger ferns such as the Ostrich Ferns make stunning natural focal points wherever they grow. The ferns are the natural companions for your woodland wildflowers, and they can be used to fill spaces, define areas, and provide magnificent background for your flowering favorites. Shop Ferns

Shop Woodland Wildflowers

  1. Blue Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica

    Virginia Bluebell’s gorgeous flowers start out as lovely, pastel pink buds and open up into vivid, true blue blooms. A perfect addition to part and full-shade woodland gardens, pla...

    Learn More
    Virginia Bluebells Virginia Bluebells Mertensia virginica
    As low as $18.98 Sale $9.49
    Per Bag of 3
    Virginia Bluebell’s gorgeous flowers start out as lovely, pastel pink buds and open up into vivid, true blue blooms. A perfect addition to part and full-shade woodland gardens, plant Virginia Bluebells to see early spring blooms and frequent visits from pollinators. This native plant increases in size each year and will form a beautiful colony over time with almost no care from the gardener. (Mertensia virginica)
    Learn More
  2. Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, Ostrich Fern

    The Ostrich Fern is a grand, native plant from the Eastern American woodlands. Unfurling in a fiddlehead shape, it gets its name from the open plumes that resemble ostrich feathers. ...

    Learn More
    Ostrich Fern Ostrich Fern Matteuccia struthiopteris
    As low as $17.98 Sale $8.99
    Per Plant - 3" Pot
    The Ostrich Fern is a grand, native plant from the Eastern American woodlands. Unfurling in a fiddlehead shape, it gets its name from the open plumes that resemble ostrich feathers. Like most ferns, this one prefers a cool, moist spot and will spread and thrive in any wet, shady area of the garden. A notably graceful plant. (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
    Learn More
  3. Woodland Wildflower Collection

    The Woodland Wildflower Collection includes 6 varieties of beloved plants found in the woods of North America. Blooming in the spring as the sun peeks through the tree canopy, each v...

    Learn More
    Woodland Wildflower Collection Woodland Wildflower Collection
    $113.98 Sale $56.99
    Per Collection of 18
    The Woodland Wildflower Collection includes 6 varieties of beloved plants found in the woods of North America. Blooming in the spring as the sun peeks through the tree canopy, each variety will provide rich foliage in summer and autumn as they spread and naturalize. Includes Virginia Bluebells, Snowy White Trillium, Dwarf Crested Iris, Jack in the Pulpit, Bloodroot, and Dutchman's Breeches.
    Learn More
  4. Pink Bleeding Heart, Dicentra

    Old Fashioned Pink Bleeding Heart is a popular shade perennial with arching stems of lovely, heart-shaped flowers that bloom each spring. Deeply-cut, blue green foliage remains fresh...

    Learn More
    Pink Bleeding Heart Pink Common Bleeding Heart Dicentra spectabilis Pink
    As low as $11.98 Sale $5.99
    Per Bag of 1
    Old Fashioned Pink Bleeding Heart is a popular shade perennial with arching stems of lovely, heart-shaped flowers that bloom each spring. Deeply-cut, blue green foliage remains fresh and healthy throughout the summer, helping to fill out the garden bed and provide a graceful backdrop for summer blooms. A timeless classic, this plant inspires nostalgia whenever it's noticed! Deer resistant. (Dicentra spectabilis)
    Learn More
  5. White Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, Wake-Robin

    White Trillium opens exquisite white blooms up to 4 inches across in mid-spring. Flowers fade to a pretty pale pink. This woodland wildflower requires patience but is well worth th...

    Learn More
    White Trillium White Wake Robin, Wood Lily Trillium grandiflorum
    As low as $18.98 Sale $9.49
    Per Bag of 3
    White Trillium opens exquisite white blooms up to 4 inches across in mid-spring. Flowers fade to a pretty pale pink. This woodland wildflower requires patience but is well worth the wait. Seeds produced by the plants and underground roots and will spread slowly into drifts of trillium that look like a white blanket covering the ground. (Trillium grandiflorum)
    Learn More
  6. White Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, Bloodroot

    Bloodroot’s unique, cigar-shaped leaves slowly unfurl and open into large, water lily-like foliage. Bearing pristine white flowers with golden-yellow centers, Bloodroot illuminates...

    Learn More
    Bloodroot Bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis
    As low as $18.98 Sale $9.49
    Per Bag of 3
    Bloodroot’s unique, cigar-shaped leaves slowly unfurl and open into large, water lily-like foliage. Bearing pristine white flowers with golden-yellow centers, Bloodroot illuminates the garden floor with breathtaking springtime beauty. Happiest with partial shade and moist soils, Bloodroot gets its name from the crimson sap that flows through its roots and stems. (Sanguinaria canadensis)
    Learn More
  7. Iris cristata, Dwarf Crested Iris

    A native star of the spring season, Dwarf Crested Iris delights gardeners with vigorous lilac blooms on low growing, deer-resistant foliage. It’s perfect for both rock or woodland ...

    Learn More
    Dwarf Crested Iris Dwarf Crested Iris Iris cristata
    $18.98 Sale $9.49
    Per Bag of 3
    A native star of the spring season, Dwarf Crested Iris delights gardeners with vigorous lilac blooms on low growing, deer-resistant foliage. It’s perfect for both rock or woodland gardens, as it can be grown in sun or shade and spreads over time. In classic beds or borders, this sweet little iris should be placed front and center for prime viewing. (Iris cristata)
    Learn More
  8. Helleborus Wedding Party True Love, Blooming Purple Lenten Rose, Photo Courtesy Of Walters Gardens

    Wedding Party™ ‘True Love’ Hellebore, or Lenten Rose, has irresistible mauve petals with an extended bloom time from late winter through spring. Nodding atop upright stems,...

    Learn More
    Wedding Party™ True Love Helleborus Wedding Party™ True Love Lenten Rose Helleborus Wedding Party™ True Love
    $44.98 Sale $22.49
    Per Plant - 3" Pot
    Wedding Party™ ‘True Love’ Hellebore, or Lenten Rose, has irresistible mauve petals with an extended bloom time from late winter through spring. Nodding atop upright stems, dozens of large flowers boast a showy yellow eye, and a fine dark outline accentuates gently ruffled double petals. Thick evergreen foliage is deeply lobed for beauty throughout the seasons. ‘True Love’ is deer and rabbit resistant, and will be at home in almost any shade or woodland garden. Plants are extremely adaptable, tolerating a variety of soil types, and will naturalize and multiply. (Helleborus)
    Learn More

Patience: An Important Ingredient In Any Woodland Garden

Unless you already have a big bloom of woodland wildflowers, shrubs or native flowering trees, your woodland garden is going to take time.

Everyone knows raising flowering shrubs or trees will take several seasons, and the same is true of many of the wildflowers. Some are simpler. Species like marsh marigoldcardinal flowerviolets, and many others will reward you with bloom quickly—often the next spring after you plant them. But others are going to take time.

For example, everyone wants to grow trilliums in their woodland, and why not? They are probably the most spectacular of all the spring wildflowers. But knowing the facts is important. From seed, a white trillium plant takes between six and 10 years to bloom. So the age of the plants you install will determine the time you'll have to wait for your first flowers. The waiting time will vary species to species; simply keep the plants healthy and be patient.

The important thing is to carefully watch all the plants, and if they are unhappy where you put them, try to change the conditions, or dig them up with plenty of soil, and move them to a better spot. You'll know when they're established, and then nature will pretty much take its course as your garden matures.

Recommended Resources

For identification on hikes and visits to preserves, you'll want at least one of these. Almost every bookstore or website has them. Be sure the one you buy covers your area.

Audubon Field Guide

The official title is The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers. This famous book has an Eastern and Western edition for the US. Both are famous for their great photos, which some think make identification easier than the use of drawings that are found in the other guides.

The Peterson Guide

Official name is A Field Guide to Wildflowers by Roger Tory Peterson and McKenny. This classic guide covers most of the US, and lists thousands of species. Like the Audubons, it is arranged by color, and easy to use. However, the flowers are shown in Peterson's famous drawings, not photos. Some people think this makes identification easier.

Armitage's Native Plants for American Gardens

by Allen M. Armitage. This is the newest of the group, published by Timber Press in 2006. Allen Armitage is a great garden writer and a true expert. His information is clear and useful.

Growing and Propagating Wildflowers on the US and Canada

by Wm. Cullina of the New England Wildflower Society. This is a large book published by Houghton Mifflin in 2000, and is often considered the definitive volume on the subject. Great photography and clear, concise information.

Wildflowers in Your Garden

by Viki Ferreniea, published by Regina Ryan of Random House in 1993. A great book that is unfortunately out of print. Ms. Ferreniea is one of America's leading plant experts, and her book remains one of the best. Excellent writing, and clear how-to for gardeners.

Growing and Propagating Wildflowers

by Harry R. Phillips. This book, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 1985, is often available in paperback and very useful for wild gardeners. It is a result of the great work done with wild flora in North Carolina. Edited by well-known experts there, C. Ritchie Bell and Ken Moore. Highly recommended.

Wildflower Associations and Native Plant Societies

As soon as someone gets interested in woodland plants, the interest almost always leads to a native plant society or other wildflower conservation organization. These groups often include local experts, have plant and seed sales, and introduce you to other wildflower gardeners. Nearly every state and Canadian province has an active Native Plant Society, and your nearby group or groups would be more than happy to welcome you into membership. Two of the most famous are The New England Wildflower Society, in Massachusetts, and the groups in North Carolina. The California Native Plant Society is very large and has chapters all over the state.

 

Learn More 

 

Choosing the site: water, old roots, pathways, and more

Let nature be your guide. Don't try to create a whole new environment; again, go with what you have. Maybe there is a shaded spot at the back of your lawn. Maybe you have a rich woodland spot where there are already some wildflowers. All wooded areas have their prime spots, often a low spot, or beside a brook, or a slight hillside.

Choose a spot where your wildflowers will show off well, and you and your friends and family can enjoy them. And most important, if you don't have water in the woods (a pond or brook), be sure you can get your garden hose or sprinklers to the area for watering.

 

Sources of Native Plants:

Today, we're fortunate to have many very dedicated nurseries that are propagating our native woodland wildflowers It's well-known that over the years, many unscrupulous people have gathered many of these precious plants from the wild, sometimes devastating their habitats. So as you go about creating your woodland garden, be sure you acquire the plants you need from reputable nurseries.

The question to ask is whether the plants are "nursery propagated". You'll find several well-known, fine native plant nurseries on the internet. And if you have any questions, just ask your state's Native Plant Society. The societies in North Carolina and Massachusetts (The New England Wildflower Society) list "certified" nurseries and will be happy to help you.

You'll want to create or improve pathways through the garden, and maybe install a bench in a favorite spot. Maybe your project includes putting a pathway from the lawn into the trees to your garden spot. In any case, when you create pathways, top them with clean gravel, and if the soil is muddy, build it up so the path stays dry. If possible, make all pathways wide enough for two people to walk side by side.

If you have water, or at least a spot that is always very moist in spring, you're in luck. This wet area can be a centerpiece spot for your woodland garden. Of course, if you have a brook or pond, that suggests certain flowers you'll really enjoy. And you may want to create a pond in a low spot.

Most all woods have places that are wet or even flood in spring. If the water drains away by June or so, this may be a prime spot for many of your wildflower plants. Trillium, for example, love to grow on hillocks in very wet spaces. Water may be all around during spring, but the raised spots there, out of the actual water, make great sites for trilliums.Cardinal flower and Irises like Blue Flag, conversely, will be very happy right in the wet spots. They'll grow right in shallow brooks, and love other spots that stay muddy all summer.

Once you've chosen the site, there will probably be some plants there you'll want to remove—unimportant young tree saplings, for example. This brings us to the usually solid mat of old roots that are present in most woodland. When you begin your garden, get out your pick and shovel, and be sure to remove enough unwanted root mass to give your incoming plants plenty of good free soil in which to grow. This can be a lot of work, but it's all important…young, new plants cannot compete with a mass of old roots that have been there for years.

© 2020 AmericanMeadows.com All rights reserved