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Cornucopia - Five for Shade

Five for Shade
Joe Sime

I am glad to say that most gardeners are beginning to realise that areas of shade in their garden are not a problem, but rather an enormous opportunity. However most of the garden centres have not caught up with this, and are yet to offer the range of shade plants that they should. If you want to try the more unusual woodlanders then you must use specialist nurseries or try growing them from seed. Here are five to tempt you that are still relatively uncommon. I have selected them for their foliage and/or fruit as well as flower. I’ll discuss them in order of increasing size.

Romanzoffias are a genus of plants native to moist areas in western North American from California up to Alaska. All are nice, but the one I want to recommend is R. californica, also known as the Californian Mist Maiden, which we have found vigorous and easy to grow. It is a relatively small plant, seldom taller than 6 ins. A carpet of rounded, scalloped, shiny green leaves emerge in autumn from short fat tubers that grow close to the surface. It continues to grow over the winter and then, in late spring this mat is covered by upward pointing white, bell-shaped flowers with flared petals. These have set seed by late June and then the plant dries up and becomes dormant until the autumn. In effect they have evolved to grow and flower when the cliffs and woods of the west coast of North America are wet in the winter and spring, and then shut down during the drier summers. This fits the wet winters and drier summers of the English shade garden. R. californica is not available in the Plant Finder, but grows easily from seed, which can usually be sourced from seed distribution schemes.

My second choice, Speirantha convallarioides, is also known as ‘False Lily of the Valley’, but don’t let this put you off. It is not at all invasive. It is an evergreen perennial with cones of upward-pointing mid-green, ovate, pointed leaves about 8 ins long rising from a stout rhizome. In spring these are joined by stems, about 6 ins long from which starry, scented white flowers stick out sideways on longish stalks. As the season goes on the new leaves from the centre of the cone seem to get longer and thinner, becoming lance shaped and about 12 ins long. Over all it is a bit like Lily of the Valley, but much more refined. It comes from China in the area around Shanghai. It is hardy and will slowly clump up. I have not seen seed on mine, but it is available from several specialist nurseries.

Triosteum is the only genus of herbaceous plants in the otherwise woody honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae). There are several species in North America and Asia, but only three of the Asian ones are in cultivation. All are grown for their bold foliage and their big (1 cm), bright berries. The berries are born in terminal clusters at the ends of the vegetative stems. In T. erythrocarpum and T. himalayanum the berries start pink and age through purple to red. In the other species T. pinnatifidum they are a bright, glossy white. In cultivation T. pinnatifidum is probably the best of the three. The stems are not so long (usually about 2 ft) and do not flop as much as the other two. The foliage is more deeply cut, and four leaves spring directly from the stem just below the bunch of berries, giving it the appearance of a green ruff. It is hardy and easy to satisfy as long as the soil does not get dry in summer. Six nurseries are listed as having it, however it is easy from seed and quick to grow and fruit.

I really like aralias. The combination of bold, pinnate foliage, white umbels of flowers, black berries, and often good autumn colour makes them worth their place in the woodland garden. Unfortunately many are too big unless you have a lot of space. One exception is A. kansuensis. It seldom gets taller than 2 -3 ft. It has good bi-pinnate foliage with many pointed, obovate leaflets, toothed and prominently veined. The central stem of the compound leaf is narrow, so that the whole leaf looks quite delicate. It grows well in part shade in any soil that does not dry out in summer and is well drained in winter. The problem is that there are only two suppliers, Crûg Farm Plants and Julian Sutton’s Desirable Plants nursery. It does grow easily from seed, if you can get it.

My final choice is Ligularia japonica 'Rising Sun' - BSWJ6293. I bought mine originally from Crûg, but it is now available from a few other nurseries as well. It also grows easily from seed (more on this later). It is a large perennial. The deeply cut, dark green leaves are about 2 ft across and held up on stout petioles directly from the base of the plant to a height of about 3 ft. The clump will take up about 5 ft of ground. The flowering stems rise to a height of 6 ft. and are topped by bright, orange/yellow daisies about 3 ins across. It is a very impressive plant, and easy provided that it never suffers from lack of moisture. It can be grown in soggy soil in the sun, but will flop on hot days. It is much better in the shade. The flowers are followed by the fluffy seed heads typical of ligularia, and as with the rest of the genus, most of this material is sterile. To find the fertile ones put the whole lot into a large paper bag so that there is plenty of space for the stuff to move around. Close it and shake it up and down. Then remove all the rubbish from the top, and at the bottom, if you are lucky, you will find a few big, firm seeds. Once seen they are unmistakable. If you do grow from seed, remember that all young ligularias are caviar to slugs, and small plants will need protection until they get big enough to look after themselves.

I hope you find and enjoy some of these plants. And even if you do not find them, the search will probably cause you to find others, perhaps even better.

First published in the Shropshire Group Newsletter January 2014
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 35.
© Copyright for this article: Joe Sime

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2015. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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