Native Plants

Native Plants of the Deep Woods

My winter work this year centers around woodland management. Specifically, I’m clearing out invasive honeysuckle bushes to make room for a massive replanting of native woodland plants. Last week we looked at native plants for the woodland edge. Today we venture deeper into the woods to consider native plants that thrive under the shade of the canopy. These plants are just as important to the forest ecosystem as the large trees that so often receive all the glory. Yet most of the time, when land that was previously cleared is reforested, little to no attention is paid to the understory. The native plants that once carpeted the forest floor do not return once the new trees have grown tall enough to shade them unless someone comes back to replant them.

The trees I have planted on this farm as part of the wetland restoration project are still too young to provide the kind of shade needed to shelter native woodland plants, but we also have about three acres of existing mature woods on this farm. That existing woodland is where I am focusing my efforts right now. As you peruse the (limited, non-comprehensive, preliminary) list I have compiled, you may notice a theme. Many of these woodland plants are slow-growing, delicate plants that require very specific habitats, protection, and patience. These plants require and deserve our respect, and in return, they offer potent and valuable gifts. I wish them luck, and I wish you luck with all your forest gardening projects!

Indiana Native Shade Plants

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  • Ramps (Allium tricoccum). Also called Wild Leek, this gourmet native woodland vegetable has been dangerously overharvested in the wild. I look forward to establishing a large population of this plant over the next 7-10 years, which is how long they take to grow from seed to maturity. Although this is a popular herb that people love to forage, I do not recommend foraging this plant from the wild. Since it takes so long to mature, if you are removing as much as one tenth of the ramps you find in a given area, you are overharvesting it. Since the plant is already threatened, I suggest planting your own shady ramp garden so that you can be sure you are increasing the bounty of this precious native herb rather than decreasing it.
  • Ostrich Fern / Fiddleheads (Matteuccia struthiopteris). In early spring, the tightly-curled fronds of this plant can be harvested and eaten cooked. It is said to resemble the flavor and texture of asparagus, though I haven’t had an opportunity to try it myself yet. It is important to prepare and cook fiddleheads correctly, but I’ve seen many inspiring recipes for them in lots of different cookbooks and blogs, and they even appear on the menus of fancy restaurants sometimes! I look forward to getting to know this plant better through this project. As far as I know, Ostrich Fern is the only fern species that is edible.
  • Wood Nettles (Laportea canadensis). Wood Nettle is in the Stinging Nettle family, but it’s in a different genus from the Slender Nettles that grow along the woodland edge. Wood nettle is extremely prickly, with even more stinging hairs than stinging nettles! I haven’t personally tasted wood nettle yet, but like stinging nettle and slender nettle, wood nettle is said to be edible as a cooked green, and produces a strong fiber. However, wood nettle does not have the same medicinal uses as slender nettle and stinging nettle.
  • American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). American Ginseng has been dangerously overharvested in the wild. Its roots are valuable for their medicinal properties. It is a delicate plant that requires just the right conditions to thrive, and takes several years to grow from seed to maturity. I have observed some indicators that it might grow well here, but I’ll have to try it to know for sure.
  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba). The pawpaw tree produces more fruit in full sun, but it has the ability to grow in shade as well. I may try planting some in my woods to see what happens.
  • Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). The bulb, leaves, and flowers of the trout lily are said to be edible and medicinal in small quantities, though I haven’t eaten this myself. It is considered by some sources to be a threatened plant, and it’s another slow-grower, taking about eight years to blossom into maturity. This is a species that I have identified as already present in my woods, and one that I am trying to protect. I have chosen not to harvest any of it, at least for now.
  • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense). Host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, this native herb grows in shade and part shade. Its name comes from the gingery flavor of its roots, and it does have a history of edible and medicinal uses by indigenous peoples. I don’t think I’ll eat this plant myself any time soon, because modern research has revealed toxic compounds present in this plant. However, I still want to re-establish it into my woods for its many ecological benefits.
  • American Hazelnut (Corylus americana): The American Hazelnut is one of the most useful and most adaptable plants I have encountered. From full sun to full shade, average soil to moist soil, this plant can flourish almost everywhere. The nuts it produces are, by all accounts, very similar to commercially available hazelnuts. In addition to the edible nut, this plant also permits heavy pruning, and the cut wood is useful in many applications such as basketry, garden trellises, and other structures.
  • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis): Bloodroot can grow in shade or part shade. It grows in abundance on my land already, and so far I have observed it exclusively along the woodland edge, so I’m placing it in this category. It may be that once I open up more light in the woods by removing the honeysuckle bushes, bloodroot will spread into the deeper woodland spaces. Bloodroot is a medicinal herb, but it’s a serious medicine and not for lighthearted use. I don’t feel comfortable working with this plant at this stage in my herbalist training, but I love this plant and I hope it continues to thrive here for years to come.
  • Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum): Like Bloodroot, Mayapple can grow in shade or part shade, but on my land I have only observed it growing with Bloodroot along the woodland edge. I have never used this plant for food or medicine myself, but some do. It’s another serious plant with deadly poisonous parts, but the ripe fruit is said to be edible and choice. It’s a beautiful plant, often cultivated as an ornamental.
  • Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides): A native medicinal herb of the deep shade, this plant is on the United Plant Savers “At Risk” list.
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis): Many states consider this plant threatened or endangered. It is a beautiful plant from the buttercup family, at home in the deep shade and highly valued for its medicinal uses. This is another slow growing, native woodland plant that asks for our patience and consideration.
  • Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). Unlike most of the plants that I’m interested in, this plant is poisonous, so don’t eat it! However, it’s a beautiful native wildflower that I have identified in my woods. I’m glad it’s there, and I am working to protect it.
  • Mushrooms. Mushrooms aren’t plants, but they are an integral part of the woodland lifecycle. Many mushrooms are edible and/or medicinal, and could make a valuable crop under the canopy. If you’re interested in growing a specific kind of mushroom, you can inoculate logs in your woods by drilling holes in them and filling the holes with wooden pegs or sawdust that have been previously inoculated with that type of mushroom. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are commonly grown this way.

For Further Reading

Native Plants For The Woodland Edge
The Food In The Forest
The Woodland Understory
Native Plant Resources

Book Recommendations

“1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”, by Charles C. Mann
“Braiding Sweetgrass”, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science“, by Enrique Salmón
“Wild Food Plants of Indiana”, by Alan McPherson
“Nature’s Garden”, by Samuel Thayer

Other Sources and Resources

United Plant Savers
Plants For A Future
Minnesota Wildflowers
Mountain Gardens
Native American Ethnobotany Database