In my suburban neighborhood, the tree ringed by a bed of hostas is ubiquitous. There’s at least one, and probably more, on every block. There’s a good reason for that. Hostas are easy to grow, readily available at most garden centers, and have attractive foliage. The only trouble with them is that they are a bit boring. If you’re feeling adventurous, there are plenty of alternatives. Many of them, especially wildflowers native to Illinois, are as easy to grow as the old-reliable hosta, if somewhat harder to find.
One of my favorite native shade plants is the nodding onion (Allium cernuum), a member of the lily family. It has long narrow leaves, which look somewhat like chives. In July, white or pale pastel clusters of blooms form on 18- to 24- inch stalks. The flower clusters dangle from the top of the stalk. The plant, which is native to northeastern Illinois, likes most soil and full sun to part shade.
Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense) grows well in most woodlands and light to dense shade. It is very commonly found under the trees at the Morton Arboretum. Plants grow to be only 4 to 6 inches tall, but do spread to cover a large area. Blooms in the spring are small, brown, and nearly invisible. The University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service recommends spacing the plants about 8 inches apart.
Heucheras, also called coral bells, are cultivars or relatives of the prairie alumroot. They bloom throughout the summer starting in June, but the foliage, not the flowers, is the main attraction. Leaf colors range from gold-green to purplish red. The plants form rosettes of leaves that are about the same size and shape as hostas. Popular and interesting varieties include “Amber Waves,” “Crème Brule,” and “Black Beauty.” These plants thrive in full sun to part shade, and prefer well-drained soil. Their ability to thrive in drier soils makes them good candidates for planting under tees.
Heucherellas are a cross between heucheras (coral bells) and tiarellas (foamflower). The example growing in my front yard, shown here, was purchased at the Morton Arboretum’s member’s only plant sale last spring. Others are available on the Internet from growers such as White Flower Farm. Many have variegated, and strikingly colored foliage.
Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), another Illinois native, grows 1 ½ to 2 feet tall, forming a small bushy clump. In May, plants are covered with small blue bell-shaped flowers. Plants grow best in light shade and rich, well-drained soil. The nectar of these plants appeals to bees. It is found in woodlands in many Illinois counties.
Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is an attractive shade-tolerant grass. Like many grasses, it is particularly interested to look at in the fall and winter, when covered with large, flat seed heads. Plants grow to be about 2 to 3 feet tall, and look particularly attractive when moving in a breeze. It prefers moist soils but will tolerate some dryness. In full sun, the leaves will be a lighter color.
Bottlebrush grass (Hystrix patula or Elymus hystrix) is a woodland grass with seed heads that look like the brushes used to clean a bottle. This grass is a bit larger than Northern Sea Oats, about 2 to 5 feet tall. Bottlebrush grass occurs in every county in Illinois and does well in light shade. The plant is in active growth during cool weather in the spring and fall.
Arisaema triphyllu, or jack-in-the-pulpit, is a woodland flower that grows from corms, which resemble small bulbs. Plants remain fairly small, usually not much more than 18 inches tall. They produce a green flower, and red berries as seeds in the fall.