Halloween marks the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. It is a time of transition between fall and winter. Here on the farm, I feel this transition every day. I watch the colorful orange leaves drop from the trees to reveal bare tree skeletons and I listen to the cold winds as they rip through the now-bare hills and howl at my windows. This is not a scary time for me, but rather a time of clarity. I no longer spend my days frantically directing the immense energy of summer growth. I can take the time for contemplation and careful strategy. As the bones of the forest come into focus, I can see paths into places that were closed to me during summer. I can begin to see my winter work with the clarity of an x-ray. It is time to begin cleaning up The Woodland Understory.
This project, in short, involves removing the invasive honeysuckle bushes from the woodland understory, and then reintroducing native plants in their place. I am buzzing with excitement for this new project. Although I don’t believe any plant is a “bad plant”, the honeysuckle has greatly overstepped its boundaries in this part of the world. It has filled in spaces that were meant for other plants, native plants, plants that offer much-needed gifts to the insects, wildlife, and human beings of this place. Many of these native woodland plants offer extremely valuable food and medicines for people, and all contribute to the wider web of the ecosystem.
Into The Woods
The more I learn about the history of this land and its people, the deeper my appreciation grows for this problem. It’s not just that honeysuckle bushes were introduced from Asia, it’s that the native plants of this place lost most of their caregivers, and with that their fighting chance against invasive species. It has been eye-opening to learn of the deep reciprocal relationship that once existed throughout this land between the native people and the wild spaces. The wild spaces were once tended with care, so the wild plants became dependent on their people. The honeysuckle problem is not just about honeysuckle, it’s also about missing plants and missing relationships. The native plants need people to tend them and protect them. I can’t solve this problem alone, but I’ll keep learning about it and I’ll keep working towards that goal. For now, this project is my next step.
There are two major categories of woodland plants: woodland edge plants, and woodland understory plants. Woodland edge plants grow on the edge between the dark of the forest and the light of the clearing. Plants from both niches are abundant, diverse, and extremely valuable, and I’ll talk about plants for the deep woods in a future article. Some plants can grow in both niches (like the honeysuckle bush), but may offer different kinds of harvest depending on their placement. Here’s a list of the native plants I am considering for the woodland edge, so you can get an idea of the diverse blend of amazing native plants available for woodland gardeners. We’ll look at these plants individually in more detail as the project progresses!
Native Plants of the Woodland Edge
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- Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum): Although this is one of the plants explicitly named as plentiful from, “A Historical Sketch of Johnson County”, I have spent most of my life in this county never having seen a single prickly ash. I have been trying for years to source seeds or plants to re-establish this on my land to no avail. Finally this year I ordered a seed packet and a single potted sapling from two separate Etsy shops. We shall see what comes of them. I have great hopes, as do the Giant Swallowtail Butterflies who need this as a host plant. This plant has documented uses for food and medicine, though I haven’t had the opportunity to try it myself (never having seen the mature plant).
- Slender Nettle (Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis): Near and dear to my own heart, stinging nettle might be my very favorite plant. The stinging hairs guard great treasures, as this plant has valuable uses in food, in medicine, in dyes, and in fibers. I have been re-establishing our native subspecies (Slender Nettle) over the past few years, and it is thriving along my woodland edge. Slender nettle supports the caterpillars of several native butterfly species.
- Elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis): A native plant in the honeysuckle family, Elderberry flourishes along the woodland edge. It’s especially well suited for damp locations, and provides both food and medicine for people. I’ve successfully established some elderberry plants in my floodplain already, as well as in my garden. I look forward to bringing it closer to the woods as well.
- Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): A fragrant relative of the beloved Sassafras tree, spicebush is a shrub that grows along the woodland edge. Like Elderberry, it is especially well suited to damp locations, and I have those aplenty. Spicebush has established uses for both food and medicine, and it’s also a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.
- Pawpaw (Asimina triloba): The pawpaw tree can grow in full sun to full shade, though it produces the most fruit in full sun. I think I’ll add some along the woodland edge as well, because in my opinion, one can never have enough pawpaws.
- 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.
- Wild Grapes (Vitis spp.): Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia) already flourishes on this land. There are other native grape species that I’d like to try to introduce as well. The grape vines thrive on the woodland edge, vining up to the tops of trees and knitting the forest together. The fruit occurs where the sun shines, and that can often mean a difficult harvest at the tippy top of the canopy. However, grape leaves have many uses as well, and those occur everywhere.
- Raspberry, blackberry, and dewberry (Rubus spp.): These delicious cousins thrive and fruit along the woodland edge. Black raspberry and blackberry already thrive here. I’m working to reintroduce the dewberry on the recommendation of a neighbor, who has fond memories of dewberry pie from childhood. These plants can also be grown in the deep woods, but they may not fruit in full shade.
- 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.
- Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa): A beautiful and medicinal herb, Black Cohosh can grow in part shade to shade and is well suited to moist soil.
“Tall trees covered the whole county with their wide-spreading branches, depending to the ground, and the shrubbery below arose and united with the branches of the trees…In the open space, in the valleys, grew either prickly ash or nettles, both equally armed with sharp, fiery prickles…Where spice-wood did not grow to thickly, male fern formed a solid mass three feet in depth, covering logs and pit falls so completely”-Judge Franklin Harden, “A Historical Sketch of Johnson County” (1881)
For Further Reading
“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
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