By Sarah Wilson published
The best woodland plants often come into their own in spring. Light falls through branches that haven’t yet come into leaf, bathing the plants below in a golden glow. The show begins with snowdrops and aconites and transforms week by week, with primroses, forget-me-nots and wood anemones blooming in a non-stop carpet of colour.
A woodland-style border is simply a flowerbed beneath deciduous trees or shrubs. Spring is the highlight, but you can plant a range of bulbs and perennials to give a show throughout the year. Choose white, yellow and pale-blue flowers that will light up the gloom once leaves are on the trees.
If you have an area under and around deciduous shrubs and trees, this is the place to plant your woodland shade loving plants. Most appreciate humus-rich soil, so digging in leaf mould or compost before planting them and topping up annually is well worth the effort too.
Add color and interest to a shady spot with woodland plants
If you're looking for inspiration for a mini-woodland garden in your own plot, you'll find plenty to choose from in our edit of the best woodland plants.
1. Hellebore 'Walberton’s Rosemary'
It's worth learning how to grow hellebores if you want to add interest to your plot in the winter months.
This lovely hellebore produces masses of stunning dusky pink outward facing flowers from January right through until spring. It prefers a sheltered spot in partial shade with rich soil. A good choice for woodland gardens, under-planting of trees and shrubs, and for flowerbeds and borders. Height 14in/35cm.
2. Erythronium ‘Pagoda’
In bloom from March to April, this dog’s tooth violet, as it's also known, isn't purple as you might expect from the name but instead produces elegant lily-shaped yellow flowers. It likes to be planted in soil enriched with leaf mould and its preferred position is under deciduous trees. Height 12in/30cm.
3. Bowles' Golden Grass
Bowles’ golden grass (Milium effusum ‘Aureum’ ) is a delightful semi-evergreen grass that has golden-yellow leaves in early spring, which mature to lime green.
This lovely grass is one of the best woodland plants for gardens when it comes to filling out gaps in garden borders. It likes moist, well-drained, humus-rich soil in a semi-shaded spot. Height 15in/40cm.
4. Pulmonaria Opal 'Ocupol'
A wonderful, low-growing plant that can be used to add color to a shady border. The long-lasting opalescent flowers open from pink buds in March and April, and are shown off beautifully against silver-spotted foliage. Plant with spring flowering bulbs, and shade-loving ferns and hostas, in rich well-drained soil. Height 12in/30cm.
5. Narcissus ‘Jenny’
This lovely elegant daffodil has dainty flowers with lemon-coloured trumpets that fade to ivory during March and April. It's small but sturdy and will stand up well to wind and rain. It's an excellent all rounder for borders in sun or shade, containers or to create spectacular drifts in grassy areas. Height 12in/30cm.
Theres plenty of useful tips on how to plant daffodils in our guide.
6. Anemone x lipsiensis
Soft creamy-yellow single flowers adorn this beautiful wood anemone from April to May, above attractive divided leaves. Plant a few of these in your garden in the semi-shade under deciduous trees and shrubs, or at the front of the border in full sun. They'll grow happily anywhere, increasing gradually from year to year, and like humus-rich well-drained soil types. Height 6in/15cm.
7. Bleeding heart 'Alba'
This white bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis ‘Alba’ syn. Dicentra spectabilis Alba) is found in moist soils in the cool margins of woodlands. It is one of the earliest perennials to flower, lighting up shady corners in April and May, when it produces arching sprays of pure white heart-shaped flowers and fern-like leaves.
Easy to grow, this is one of the most elegant woodland plants for gardens around and is ideal for adding a luminous touch to a woodland-style plot. Height 23in/60cm.
8. Brunnera macrophylla ‘Hadspen Cream’
Also known as Siberian bugloss, the combination of sky-blue flowers in April and May and heart-shaped, variegated foliage make this a great choice for partially shaded borders. Use it for underplanting deciduous trees and shrubs, where it will like moist, well-drained soil in semi-shade or shade. Height 18in/45cm.
9. Corydalis flexuosa ‘China Blue’
The tubular blue flowers on maroon stems bloom from April to July, above bronze, grey and green fern-like foliage. The intense blue of the flowers will light up a gloomy garden like no other, which means it's good for filling gaps in a partially shaded border or for landscaping around trees and shrubs. Height 23in/30cm.
10. Martagon lily Turk’s Cap
One of the best woodland plants for gardens, this early summer perennial lily forms tall slender stems carrying several pink-purple, yellow, light orange, dark red or white flowers.
It's a great border plant and does best in light soil with added compost in partial shade or sun. It's quick to get established and will come back year after year, and it's also a good choice for container garden ideas. Height 59in/150cm.
Creamy yellow primroses are a familiar sight in woodlands in early spring and they're good for brightening shady gardens as well as being ideal container plants. They bloom for weeks and if you plant a clump in your garden they will soon spread to give you a carpet of creamy yellow flowers that comes back every year. Height 4in/10cm.
12. Winter aconites
The buttery yellow flowers of winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are one of the first woodland plants to bloom at the beginning of the year.
A woodland native, it hangs around for a couple of months and likes to be planted in moisture retentive soil in a shady spot. It will do well planted under shrubs or around the base of deciduous trees and requires very little attention to thrive, making it a great low maintenance plant option. Height 6in/15cm.
What are the best woodland plants?
Wood anemones and primroses are the stars of the show but there are so many other woodland plants to choose from.
In March, blue lungworts mingle with yellow flashes of early daffodils beneath the leafless trees. The pale-lemon flowers of Corylopsis shrubs bloom on bare stems, allowing light to fall onto hellebores below.
During April, brunnera and ajuga form blue pools, ferns unfurl like yo-yos and lime wood spurge, white epimediums and ivory Narcissus ‘Thalia’ catch the light.
Then later, in May, the canopy closes in, containing the scent of lily of the valley, while bellwort, honesty and perfoliate alexanders create a tapestry of pink and gold.
A woodland-style border doesn’t have to dwindle at the end of spring either. There are lots of plants that flower in dappled shade, including aquilegia, foxglove, cranesbill, hosta and honeysuckle to mix in with ferns and shade-loving grasses.
What plants live in the woodland?
Woodland encompasses a whole range of plant types including trees and shrubs, climbing plants, perennial herbs, bulbs, grasses, sedges, mosses and lichens.
In its natural state woodland is very varied. Trees are the most important plants as they support a wealth of wildlife and improve air quality. But woodland plants growing under the tree canopy are key to biodiversity too.
You can recreate your own mini-woodland garden at home with the right mix of the best woodland plants for gardens.
What flowers grow in the woods?
In spring you will find anemones, hellebores, primroses and daffodils. If you're lucky you may see patches of deep purple-blue wild violets too.
Later in April and May you will find heavenly-scented lily of the valley, bellwort and carpets of bluebells, while in summer foxgloves, red campion and wild honeysuckle are added to the mix.
All these woodland plants will thrive in a shady spot of the garden too, so it's worth including them in your flowerbed ideas if you want to recreate the look.
Sarah Wilson has been a lifestyle journalist for many years, writing about gardens since 2015. She's written for Gardeningetc.com, Livingetc, Homes & Gardens, as well as Country Homes & Interiors and Modern Gardens magazines.
Her own (small urban) garden is a work in progress - so many ideas, not enough space to cram them in. Hero plants include her ever growing collection of ornamental grasses, black bamboo and ferns, and the perennials like salvias and penstemons that come back reliably year after year. All very restrained though when in fact she'd love to pack her garden with gaudy dahlias and giant cannas, so these are top of her wish list for what to grow next.
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