Medicinal Woodland Shade Plants
Occupy the shadowy patches of your garden with medicinals, and prepare to receive a bounty of unique, natural remedies.
Shade-loving medicinal natives are popular plants in the herbal community. We continuously learn about the health benefits of using different foraged forest herbs, but their products are often expensive, and some people question the source of the plants and how they were processed. So why not make our own herbal remedies with woodland medicinal herbs plucked straight from our gardens?
While most gardeners don’t have experience growing forest plants, many wish they knew what to grow in the areas of their yards that receive little to no sun. You could opt to grow moss or mushrooms, but shade-loving botanicals, such as ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh, boneset, or Solomon’s seal, will pack a lush array of flowers and foliage in your herb garden, and gift you with a pharmacopeia of soothing remedies for the body and soul. Here’s how to propagate them.
Plotting a Shady Site
An ideal site will have areas of different levels of shade, ranging from the forest edge — where the plants will receive direct sunlight for a few hours — to moderate shade. Most forest herbs won’t grow in dense shade. If you don’t have natural shade on your property, create some with arbors, pergolas, lattice fencing, shade cloth, or shade sails.
Image Paul Schlemmer
The plants I recommend require well-drained soil, preferably with a good amount of organic matter. Because most of these plants prefer moist soil reminiscent of the woods, try to select a north-facing slope that will stay cool and damp in the middle of summer. Soil pH should range from 5.0 to 6.8. Depending on your specific region, you might want to install an irrigation system, but most of these plants have good survival strategies; if it gets too dry, they’ll often die back early and hunker down for the rest of the season. They won’t look particularly healthy when this happens, but unless there’s an extended drought, they’ll survive.
Prepping and Planting
Seeds for shade-loving woodland plants can be sown in very early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked, or in fall right up until the ground freezes. Seeds planted in fall should emerge the following spring. Starting these seeds indoors is more difficult than growing a vegetable or flower transplant, but if you have a small greenhouse, give it a try. Cover the planted area with a layer of mulch made up of fallen leaves, composted leaves, or hardwood bark chips. Monitor the plants for any signs of disease, insect feeding, rodents, or deer grazing, and keep the area weeded.
Many of these herbs can also be propagated by dividing the rootstock (roots and rhizomes), so one plant can create many. With the exception of ginseng, this is often the best way to start these plants. Ginseng is best grown from seeds or 1-or-2-year-old transplants.
Some gardeners like to build raised beds and amend the soil with compost and lime, but if the site is well-drained, this isn’t necessary. Remove any competing plants and invasive species, rake aside the leaf litter, and rake up a good seedbed, or dig holes for planting root cuttings. I don’t recommend adding fertilizer, unless a soil test reveals a serious deficiency for any one specific nutrient.
Healing Woodland Herbs
1. Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) grows in many areas of the country, and I think it belongs in all shade gardens. It’s currently on the United Plant Savers’ “at risk” list because of overharvesting, so it does deserve attention in your garden. This herbaceous perennial with big, feathery leaves and tall spikes of white flowers puts up a new top every spring, which dies back again in fall. It grows in light to moderate shade, loves the forest edge, and will even grow in full sun. The medicinal part of black cohosh is the root, which, among a wide range of other traditional medicinal qualities, has been proven to treat undesirable menopausal symptoms, especially hot flashes (see “Herbal Medicine to Treat Menopause“). The fresh or dried roots are often made into a tincture or extract. Dried roots can also be ground and put into capsules. Black cohosh interacts with complex hormonal activity and is contraindicated for men, children, and pregnant or nursing women.
Image Getty Images/emer1940
2. Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), a common forest plant that few associate with herbal remedies, commands a growing reputation as a natural reliever of neck and back pain. Solomon’s seal is a low-growing plant with long fronds and white, bell-shaped flowers that hang underneath the foliage. This herbaceous perennial prefers moderate shade. The roots are used to make ointments, oils, and lotions. I make a simple, pain-relieving oil — for external use — by chopping up fresh roots and soaking them in a good-quality olive oil for several weeks.
3. Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is a tall, willowy, herbaceous perennial with clusters of white flowers on top, which grows throughout most of the Eastern and Midwestern United States under a wide range of soil and shade conditions. The flowers and leaves of the boneset plant are traditionally mixed with other herbs to treat viruses, fevers, and pain. In fact, boneset derives its name from its use in treating an 18th-century outbreak of dengue fever, then called “breakbone” fever. Dried boneset leaves can make a rather bitter tea, so you’ll probably want to sweeten it, or make a syrup instead.
Image Getty Images/emkaplin
4. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and 5. ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) — two herbs that we should all try to grow — pack a therapeutic punch against some of the most common maladies. As a result, these precious, American native plants are often overharvested in the wild. Both herbs display inconspicuous, white flowers, bright-red fruits, and have medicinal roots.
Image J. Davis Program
Antimicrobial goldenseal has been used to treat infections of the mucous membranes throughout the body, and is sometimes used in weight loss formulas. Ginseng root has been shown to treat and prevent the cold and flu by relieving symptoms of the upper respiratory tract. It can also control blood sugar in patients with Type 2 diabetes. Many make tinctures from the goldenseal root, or a very bitter tea, to help boost the immune system. I take about twenty drops of ginseng root tincture when I’m feeling run-down, and I find tea made from ginseng leaves to be mildly stimulating.
Image J. Davis Program
It’s important to take extra care in growing fastidious goldenseal and ginseng, as they require moderate shade and particularly rich soil conditions. Ginseng can be susceptible to disease, deer grazing, and human theft. Still, I challenge you to be the gardener who successfully cultivates these herbs into flourishing restoratives.
Scouting for Herbs
Obtaining quality woodland herb plants is not as easy as finding vegetable and flower seeds. If you can find a local nursery that propagates these plants, they’re likely adapted to your area. Or you can check farmers markets and ask about other local sources. Do your homework to find reputable companies that propagate their own plants. Make sure the company can produce proper identification of the plant, and/or provide you with healthy seeds.
If you do buy seeds, be sure to get thorough instructions on how to handle them. Keep in mind that these are wild forest plants that have evolved to reproduce under fairly specific conditions. The seeds of many of these species must be exposed to various treatments, such as stratification or scarification. Some seeds can never be allowed to dry out, and others may take a year or more to germinate.
If seeds or cuttings of the plants previously mentioned are difficult to come by, or won’t do well in your area, consider other woodland herbs for your medicinal collection: bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), red trillium (Trillium erectum), fairy wand (Chamaelirium luteum), horse balm (Collinsonia canadensis), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), woodland pinkroot (Aristolochia serpentaria), and wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria).
Enjoying Your Herbs
The woodland plants from which you harvest the roots must often grow for three or more years before their roots are ready for harvest. However, the foliage of many of these herbs can be gathered within the first year.
While you wait, I encourage you to turn your woodland herb garden into a peaceful place to relax, read, and meditate when it’s too hot to work in your sunny gardens. As we create sanctuaries for these plants, we can do the same for ourselves.
Dr. Jeanine Davis is an associate professor of Horticultural Science at NC State University. Jeanine and her family operate Our Tiny Farm, where they raise popcorn, honey, and herbs and board donkeys and horses.
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