Wild fruits


Look closely under the leaves: those aren’t strawberries. They’re fruits of trillium, probably nodding trillium, T. cernuum.

We hike a short stretch of the Appalachian Trail at exactly the same time each year as part of a citizen-science project. It’s a shady upland (in other words, relatively dry) section with great variety of habitats: some areas are primarily sugar maple, some are mostly ash; there are areas where less common trees, such as hackberry and hophornbeam, predominate. The understory is extremely varied and primarily native. In the past few years it’s been quite sparse because of drought. This year, with normal rainfall, it  was lush and incredibly varied. I saw fruits I’ve never or only very rarely seen before, such as this trillium. Here’s a detail of that fascinating looking fruit.


Notice that the fruits of many native shade plants hang down beneath the plant. Why do you suppose this is? What creatures will eat these fruits?

And here are a few more unusual fruits from the same area. For an interesting exercise, look these plants up online and see how lovely their flowers are in spring. And think how great they would look in your garden if you have an area with deep shade where “nothing will grow.”


Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum. The fruit is ripe; the leaves have just about gone dormant. This is a great garden plant for deep shade, and it’s commercially available. It gradually forms a large colony.


Doll’s eyes, or white baneberry, Actea pachypoda. Also easily available commercially.


Blue cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides. Notice the Christmas fern ((Polystichum acrostichoides) on the right.

Take a look at this post for more native plants that grow well in deep shade.


Earth Day: In the garden this week


Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is unfurling its fronds right now. This native fern grows in deep shade and poor, dry soil and remains green all winter.

Happy Earth Day! Instead of the usual Friday list of garden chores, here are some photos of the garden taken yesterday.


Native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is stalking out and will begin to bloom very soon.


Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) will bloom very soon. This plant does great in sun or shade.


About a dozen species of violets are native to New Jersey, and all are hosts to fritillaries.

Enjoy Earth Day in the garden (and don’t forget to water newly installed plants–we’re having another dry spring.)

How about growing this: Northern bush honeysuckle


Northern bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) is a handsome small shrub that thrives in poor, sandy soil.

Last spring I planted one bush honeysuckle in a shady spot where I’ve never been able to grow anything except Christmas fern. It did great, and I’ve ordered 6 more.

This is a plant for shady spots with poor, dry soil–need I say more? And it’s very attractive: the new growth throughout the season is lovely shades of red and gold, as you see in the photo above. This spring’s new growth is primarily burgundy. It produces many clusters of small yellow flowers in summer. It’s a member of the honeysuckle family, so the flowers are very pretty. And did I say it prefers shade and poor, dry soil?

Diervilla lonicera (Northern bush honeysuckle)

Flowers of Diervilla lonicera (northern bush honeysuckle).

True and false

Two similar and frequently confused plants are gracing my shade gardens right now: Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and false Solomon’s seal, sometimes called Solomon’s plume (Smilacina racemosa). You can see right away why Latin plant names really are less confusing than common names, right?


Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum)


Solomon’s plume (Smilacina racemosa). Notice the flower bud peeking out at the tip of the plant.

Notice how similar the form of the two plants is. The flowers and fruit are totally different, but the size and shape, bloom time, and preferred site are all the same. Both are about 18″ to 2′ tall, bloom in May, and fruit in late summer. They belong to the same plant family, the Asperagaceae (asparagus family). You’ll frequently see the two together in natural areas, and when they first emerge they can be hard to tell apart. Both spread by rhizomes. Both are shade plants that do best in damp, rich soil; although both do well in my dry, sandy soil, I suspect they would spread more quickly in richer soil.

The dangling white flowers of Solomon’s seal will turn into blue berries in late summer. The white plumy flowers of false Solomon’s seal will turn into clusters of bright red berries that the birds will eat the second they ripen. Here’s a closeup of the Solomon’s seal flowers and a not-very-good picture of false Solomon seal fruit.


Solomon’s seal: flowers


False Solomon’s seal–almost-ripe fruit in mid-September when the shade asters bloom.

Both of these plants are relatively easy to find, as native plants go, meaning they are not that easy to find. Avoid the commonly available Polygonatum odoratum, Japanese Solomon’s seal. Many garden centers and plant catalogs sell that, calling it simply variegated or fragrant Solomon’s seal. It is not a native plant. It’s worth seeking out the real thing! Remember to always check the name of the species.

These two species are excellent choices for almost any shady spot. If your soil is moist, combine them with appropriate ferns, Virginia bluebells,  jack-on-the-pulpit, golden alexanders, mistflower, even trilliums. If the soil is dry, try different ferns, mayapple, native geraniums, meadowrue, shade-loving asters. But do try them!