In order to maximize our harvests, we have to plan our garden to maximize our growing space. One way we can do this is by matching the right plants to the right environment. The areas of garden that are shaded by things like buildings, fencing or other plants are often overlooked as a growing space. While most plants will do okay with a little shade, there are some that flourish in shady environments. Read on to learn a little more about my 5 favourite medicinal plants for shady gardens…
Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) is a beautiful and striking woodland medicinal whose showy racemes of creamy-white flowers shoot up to 8 feet tall. Due to overharvesting, black cohosh is unfortunately on the United Plant Savers at risk list and therefore cultivating this plant for use medicinally is essential.
Considering its towering height and its odour (which attracts flies and gnats), it’s worth planting at the back of a garden bed. It grows well in zones 3-8 and can be propagated easily through division and the rhizome can be harvested after 3 to 5 years. The seeds are multicycle germinators, which means they can take 1 to 2 years to germinate. However, once germinated black cohosh will accept a variety of soils and is surprisingly easy to look after.
The root is probably most famous for its use a ‘women’s herb’ for relieving menstrual cramps and symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and irritability by balancing hormones. However it is also excellent at relieving dull, achy muscle pain. Black cohosh should not use in pregnancy (unless under the supervision of a midwife) or while breastfeeding and large doses of this plant may cause nausea or gastric upset.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a perennial herb that is easy to grow from seed or division and reliably self-sows every year. Although in cooler climates lemon balm thrives in full sun; during the heat of the summer months I feel she grows better in part shade. An uplifting nervine, this aromatic plant relieves anxiety and is especially helpful to calm hyperactive children and can help encourage a restful sleep. Lemon balm also has antiviral properties and is used topically as a remedy for the herpes simplex virus.
Lemon balm is super versatile and can be prepared in a number of ways (check out our recipe roundup for ideas!) however there is nothing better then some fresh leaves infused in ice water on a hot summers day or chopped leaves thrown in a summer salad. In the right environment, Lemon balm can spread vigorously and is easy to grow from seed or from root division.
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) is a slow growing perennial that quietly and reliably returns each year and it’s early summer blooms are both beautiful and discreet. Solomon’s seal is easy to propagate through root division and being a woodland native, loves moist shady soil with plenty of organic matter (it is especially fond of leaf mold). Once established it doesn’t need as much moisture and is pretty low maintenance.
The rhizomes can be harvested for medicine after 3 or so years. Solomon’s seal is one of my favourite anti-inflammatories and allies for connective tissue such as joints, tendons and ligaments as well as dry tissue states – it can be a fantastic ‘balancer’ in formulas that may be too drying for some folk. The seeds can be difficult and slow to germinate and need to be stratified so I would recommend propagating through division.
Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) – this particular species is native to the pacific northwest and makes a wonderful groundcover in moist shady areas. Wild ginger is not related to the ginger we buy in grocery stores (Zingiber officinale) although it does appear to have some similar uses; a traditional first nations use in the BC interior was to drink a decoction of the rhizomes to settle stomach upsets and aid digestion. It has a subtle, mild spice taste that can be used somewhat as a substitute to Zingiber officinale .
Wild ginger is fairly slow to get established and is best propagated through division in the spring or fall, as the seeds require stratification. It grows well under the cover of conifers and its distinct purpley-brown, hairy flowers bloom in the springtime. Wild ginger is a good choice as groundcover and it’s heart/kidney shaped leaves look beautiful amongst other shade lovers like hostas and ferns.
Angelica – Angelica archangelica. A biennial in the carrot family who loves the dappled shade and rich, moist soil of the forest and is hardy in zones 4-9. It flowers in it’s second year in typical carrot family style with double umbels and shoots up to 7 feet tall .
Angelica has a long history of use as a culinary and medicinal plant and was a symbol of protection against witchcraft in Europe. It’s used widely as a carminative and warming bitter to aid digestion, as well as to relieve the symptoms of coughs and colds. While the root is most commonly used for medicine; the candied stalks are delicious and the leaves can be eaten cooked or in salad. Angelica self sows readily and is a light-dependant germinator, so for effective germination the seeds need to be sown on the surface of the soil. It attracts many pollinators and is a fantastic addition to the garden. Angelica is contraindicated in pregnancy and caution should be taken if wildcrafting as it may resemble other, poisonous carrot family members.
Violets (Viola spp.) – a springtime favourite, violets are one of the first of the spring flowers to bloom and the leaves stay super lush when grown in part shade. The seeds for sweet violet (Viola ordorata) can be a little tricky to germinate and need to be stratified prior to planting so opt for root division or try Heartsease (Viola tricolor) which can be planted directly in the garden in spring and has better germination rates.
Once established, violets form a beautiful groundcover and both the leaves and the flowers are edible. Violets are both cooling and moisturizing and used to help soothe painful urinary tract infections and as a remedy for dry coughs and respiratory infections. They also have a kinship with the lymphatic system and can be used tonically to aid swollen lymph nodes. Note that there are many species of violets, and while some may be considered interchangeable with Viola ordorata, others may not be. For a whole ton of violet recipes, go check out our Violet Recipe Roundup