Flowers might not be the first thing you think about when considering a forest garden. But shade flowers are an important part of an edible forest garden. Some may be edible themselves, and add to the bounty of the low maintenance ecosystem. But others may benefit the system in other ways.
Flowering plants that thrive in the shade can help the edible crops of the forest garden by, for example, fixing nitrogen or dynamically gathering nutrients from beneath the soil. They may attract and aid bees and other pollinators. They may also attract beneficial wildlife, or repel or distract pest species. Finally, they may aid the ecosystem by providing good ground cover, protecting the soil and reducing soil water and nutrient loss.
Where Shade Flowers are Found in a Forest Garden
Honeysuckle climbs up through the layers of a forest garden.
In a forest garden, shade flowers are found in several different layers of the ecosystem. Of course, fruit trees and other trees may flower themselves. But beneath the trees you will also find a range of shade tolerant flowers including:
- Climbing shade tolerant flowers, ascending through the various layers of planting. (These might include, for example, Lonicera periclumenum (common honeysuckle), Hydrangea anomala, and a number of shade-tolerant types of clematis.)
- In the herbaceous layer – a wide range of different perennial shade flowers, as well as, perhaps, some biennial or annual shade flowers (especially those that self-seed readily).
- In the ground-cover layer – a number of useful, spreading perennials.
- Below ground – a range of shade tolerant flowering bulbs.
Edible Shade Flowers
Hostas are not only beautiful but also edible.
You may be surprised by the fact that many shade flowers usually grown as ornamental plants are also valuable as an additional edible yield in a forest garden. One of the best and most useful examples of this is the hosta.
All hostas [insert link to hostas article] are edible. You can eat the flowers themselves, and the flower buds, as well as the leaves. But the ‘hostons’ – the leaves that emerge from the ground, still rolled up, in the spring – are said to be the best edible part of the plants.
Hostas, however, are not the only edible flower for shade. Other edible flowers can be found in this sort of environment. Day lilies are one other common example. They have edible flowers that can be stuffed or used to thicken soup. You can also eat the cucumber-like buds, the spring-onion like shoots, and the tubers of these useful flowering plants.
It is also worth bearing in mind that, while not grown for their flowers, a range of forest garden herbs and vegetables also produce edible flowers at certain times of the year. These can also provide an additional edible yield from a forest garden.
Edible flowers can be fun additions to a home-grown diet. But it is important to remember that not all of the plants in a forest garden are included for their edible yield.
Nitrogen Fixing Shade Flowers
Vicia Sylvatica (Wood Vetch) – Fornax CC BY-SA 3.0
Some of the shade tolerant flowers that are found in a forest garden grow there because they have a relationship with bacteria on their root nodules, and so play a role in fixing nitrogen from the air and making it available in the soil for the up-take of other plants nearby. The degree to which nitrogen fixation occurs can depend, in part, on the levels of sunlight. However, there are still a range of shade flowers that do fix nitrogen to varying degrees.
Red clover (and certain other clovers) can be useful for nitrogen fixation in the shade, and around the sunnier edges of a forest garden. Fava beans (which are a flowering plant, of course, though they are not known primarily for their flowers) can also do well in partial shade and around the edges of a forest garden. Wood vetch is another shade flower that can work well in the dappled shade of many forest gardens.
Flowering Plants With Deep Roots For Nutrient Recovery
Comfrey is an excellent forest garden plant.
Certain shade flowers benefit the forest garden since they have deep roots which can draw nutrients from deep below the soil. One of the most important forest garden plants in this regard is comfrey. Comfrey has particularly deep roots and can cope well in the partial, dappled shade beneath your fruit trees. It is an almost ubiquitous feature in fruit tree guilds in many temperate climate zones. The roots draw up the nutrients into the plants, which can then be chopped and dropped to return those nutrients to the soil surface.
Shade Flowers for Pollinators
The key to attracting pollinators is making sure you maximise the number of flowers in bloom throughout the year. Try to make sure, in particular, that you have flowers available during the late winter/ early spring and late fall, when there are fewer options available for the pollinators that are out and about.
Finding flowers, even for ‘problem’ spots, can help to make sure bees and other pollinators are catered for.
For areas of deep shade within a forest garden, your choice of flowers will of course be much more limited than on its sunnier fringes or dappled clearings. Some perennial shade flowers that can handle deep shade, however, are:
- Acanthus mollis
- Astrantia maxima
- Beesia calthifolia
- Campanula persicifolia
- Convallaria majalis
- Geranium nodosum/ geranium phaeum
- Rodgersia pinnata
- Tradescantia ‘Osprey’
- Tricyrtis formosana
Acanthus mollis in the shade.
For lighter or dappled shade, other shade flowers to consider are:
- Anemone x hybrida
- Astilbe ‘Fanal’
- Astrantia major
- Geum rivale
- Iris ‘Flight of Butterflies’
- Meconopsis baileyi (Himalayan Blue Poppy)
- Primula beesiana
- Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii
- saxifraga fortunei
- Trillium grandiflorum
Himalayan Blue poppy.
Though of course, the options that will work well for you will depend on where you live, the soil, climate conditions and whether the shade is damp or dry. A good place to start when looking for shade flowers for your area are native woodland plants for your region.
Shade tolerant bulbs can also be useful for pollinators in a forest garden. Snowdrops and narcissus, for example, bloom early in the year when there are few other flowers around, and both work well in a forest/ woodland setting. Other bulbs that produce shade flowers include lily of the valley, anemone blanda and Erythronium dens-canis (dog’s tooth violet).
Snowdrops – one example of a shade plant that grows from bulbs.
Shade Flowers for Pest Control
Some shade flowers in a forest garden work to control pests by attracting predatory insects that help to keep pest numbers down. Yarrow is one excellent example. It’s white umbels of flowers attract a range of beneficial insects – not only pollinators but also hoverflies, ladybugs and parasitic wasps to help keep the numbers of aphids and other insect pests down. Yarrow prefers full sun, but can also do fine in the partial shade of the fringes of a forest garden.
Other shade flowers serve as a sacrificial trap crop. Hostas, for example, are seemingly irresistible to slugs, and may help to keep these away from other important crops in your forest garden. Other shade flowers may also help by being irresistible to aphids, or other insect pests.
Some other shade flowers for your forest garden will work to repel pest species that you want to keep away. For example, flowering chives and other members of the allium family can do fine on the edges of a forest garden and can repel, distract or confuse a range of insect pests.
Flowering Ground Cover Plants For a Forest Garden
Finally, there are flowering plants for shade that are included in a forest garden because they are particularly good at spreading and creating ground cover. In a forest garden, bare soil should be avoided as much as possible. Mulching and ground cover plants will help to protect the soil, conserve soil moisture, and retain nutrients in the topsoil for the benefit of other plants.
A few good options when it comes to shade flowers for ground cover in a forest garden include:
- Bergenia ‘Overture’
- Corydalis lutea
- Euphorbia amygdaloides (wood spurge)
- Lamium maculatum
- Viola odorata
Viola odorata smells great as well as providing ground cover.
Other plants not predominantly grown for their flowers that work well for ground cover in a forest garden include the incredibly useful (and shade tolerant) wild strawberry, or the alpine strawberry.
Of course, the above mentioned shade flowers are just some of the many different shade tolerant flowering plants that can find a place in your forest garden.
If you have a forest garden, or are in the process of establishing one, you will understand that it is an ever-evolving environment. It is important to bear in mind that the species that thrive there will change as the trees grow, shade levels increase or decrease, the soil improves and the environment changes. Be flexible when it comes to which plants stay and which ones go.
Continue to observe and interact as time goes by so you can continue to choose the right flowers and plants to add as the system evolves. Do this and you will soon begin to understand the beautiful complexity of the natural world. The more you learn from nature, the better able you will be to choose the right plants for the right places in your garden – shade flowers included.