Sunday, August 4, 2013

Plants That Sing In The Shade







            I worked on improving our shade garden this spring. I bought Pulmonaria Lungwort and a list of other shade happy campers whose names I have since loosed to the cosmos (assuming both the plants and I would get along well enough without them). Two of these plants, I now recall, were a variety of Japanese primrose, for which I have great hopes because I like they way they look in flower and if they bloom in our shade border I will do a little vernal dance.        
            The shade border was looking promising -- before two things happened. The first is we had the house re-shingled. The border is close to one of the sides of the house where men in boots spent a great deal of time moving heavy ladders latterly along the ground and at times erecting scaffolding. The job went on twice as long as expected -- rain happened; capacitors faltered; temperatures rose -- and the border looked like a battleground when they were at last done. Pachysandra, the hardiest of warriors, suffered gaps in its ranks.
            It was then, in recovery mode -- pachysandra replanted; old nails and little slices of shingle sieved out of the dirt -- that I decided to plant the new acquisitions mentioned above, happy in their anonymity since their pedigree derived from the wonderfully prosperous garden where I acquired them.
            But I had forgotten about the tree guys. I've been trying to have some trees trimmed since last November in order to let in some more sun in certain areas in the garden, the in raised vegetable garden where my annual food-givers starve for lack of sufficient light.
            The tree trimmers eventually arrived on a date made so long ago I had half forgotten about it until they showed up: July 15. A worse date to climb trees, drop heavy branches onto the ground and drag them through the shade-tolerant groundcovers and perennials could not have been imagined. The temperature soared into the mid-nineties.
            The guys with the chainsaw and the long-handled clippers did a bang-up job trimming the lower branches out of three trees I wanted thinned to keep them off the house and let in the sun I wanted. But the guys removing the fallen branches dragged them away through the shade border, the row of hostas, the vine roses and stands of berry bushes, leaving a battleground behind. The casualties included flowering shade tolerant plants I'd introduced into the border with high hopes two years before. The native plant nicknamed "fairy candles" had its lights put out for this year. I'm hoping it survives to try again next year.
            To make matters worse, the damaged shade area was suddenly exposed to a lot more sun at the hottest time of the year, the beginning of eight straight days of ninety-plus and high humidity. Hot, dry weather is the worst part of the growing season for damaged plants to try to recover in. They're still trying. Some never will.
            So, since it's time to go back to the drawing board, let's take a look at the Kennedy Gardens list of shade plants for summer: "We have Actea, Arisaema, Aruncus, and Astilbes, Hellebores, Hostas and Heucheras, Polemonium and Polygonatum, not to mention Gallium, Gaultheria, Euonymus, and Oxalis."
            Let's meet a few of these candidates and find out who they are.
            Actaea racemosa (see top photo to left) is a species of flowering plant of the family Ranunculaceae, known by the common names of black cohosh, black bugbane, black snakeroot, and -- the one I like so much -- fairy candle. (See the sad lament above.) It is native to eastern North America, one of my goals is to acquire more native plants, and it had flowered nicely with light, bushy, woodsy-looking flowers last year. This year after the attack one branch with a few sun-burned leaves remained. Condition: life support. Just yesterday I noticed signs of resurrection; a new branch, a few new leaves. I do like this plant.
            Arisaema triphyllum (second photo left) is a highly variable species as you can tell by its great variety of common names: jack-in-the-pulpit, bog onion, brown dragon, Indian turnip, American wake robin, or wild turnip. The "triple" part of its name derives from its groupings of three leaves growing together at the top of one long stem produced from the plant's corm. Recently I was treated to the show of an exorbitant jack-in-the-pulpit (the one name out of this evocative set of folkish appellations I recognize) growing in the "woodland glen" (my description) of the same garden from which I acquired the primroses and other shade-tolerant plants mentioned above. The plant was as tall as I was. The flower depicting "jack," whoever he was, surrounded by his three-leaved pulpit, appeared surreally rendered with a dash of Salvador Dali.... At present, I don't have any of these, but I am feeling a need.
            Investigating the plant Aruncus (third photo) online, a genus of "clump-forming herbaceous perennial plants," I discover that one of its species, Aruncus diocius, is also called Goatsbeard -- and bingo! We've got it. I planted this shrub some years ago in a "woodsy" spot by the back fence under a tall shade tree where the ground is covered by English ivy, vinca, lamium and a helping of pachysandra (around the roots naturally) because this plant was advertised as shade-tolerant and so far it has lived up to its reputation. Remind me to fertilize it and give it a good watering out of gratitude.
            With Astilbes (fourth photo), we are also on familiar ground. These are more popular and more widely grown by backyard gardeners than any of the others mentioned so far. Researching, I learn that 18 species in this genus are grown "for their large, handsome, often fern-like foliage, and dense, feathery plumes of flowers" (Wikipedia). We grow them in part-shade areas where they blossom with the bright red and yellow flowers gardeners like, so I can't vouch for their degree of full-shade tolerant. However in the Berkshire woods my in-laws have a handful of these that flower brightly under the trees, if only for a couple of weeks.
            Alas, we are only through the "A" plants, alphabetically speaking, of shade-flowering plants and I already have my work cut out for me. We'll come back to this topic when the need to know more overcomes my itch to get my hands dirty once more.