It is easy to conjure up images of sunny herb gardens, spilling over with blooms, a riot of color dancing under the adoring sun. Spikes of lavender, sprays of yarrow, wands of mullein – all stretching and reaching for the warm and tender tickle from a golden ray. It isn’t hard to fill a sunny garden bed with dozens of sun-loving medicinal plants. If you are like me, it is a balancing (and budgeting) act to constrain myself to a few choice botanicals.
Because my husband says that I don’t have to grow all the herbs. What is he thinking? Of course, I do.
Our new property is nestled along the banks of a major creek – cottonwood, alders, and big leaf maples cover roughly half the property, appearing like a dense mat from an ariel view. This is to say it is a shady place. Not shady in the pejorative sense, rather, it’s shady in the woodland sense. As such, I have been giving much thought to woodland medicinals for the shade garden.
It is no secret that I encourage my readers to grow their own medicinal herbs (like in this post and this post). After all, it is the best way to ensure that you have the freshest herbs possible. This becomes even a bit more important where woodland medicinals are concerned. Not only does growing these shade-loving botanicals mean that you have an ample supply of the goods, but it also preserves a number of at-risk and watch list herbs. Of the ten herbs mentioned below, eight have been designated as “at risk” or “watch” by the United Plant Savers.
Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius): This energizing adaptogen with a host of medicinal benefits is an honored shade loving herb. It is also the victim of rampant over-foraging and habitat devastation. If I can impress the importance of growing just one of these woodland medicinals (or at least purchasing from ethical, organic companies cultivating it commercially), American ginseng is it.
Native to the Appalachian area of North American, wild ginseng prefers relatively moist soils and hardwood forest in temperate regions. At least 20-40 inches of annual rainfall is ideal, and a soil pH of 5.0-6.0 is appropriate. Although ginseng does require ample moisture, good circulation around the stand and approximately 75%-80% shade is needed for vigor and growth. Wait at least five years before harvesting your first ginseng, leaving enough established plantings to reseed yearly.
Goldenseal (Hydratis canadensis): Yet another forest dwelling medicinal, goldenseal is an excellent herb for the immune system, possessing the bright yellow constituent berberine. And, here again, it is another herb in serious danger for many of the same reasons ginseng is. If the plight and medicinal value of goldenseal weren’t reason enough to grow your own, can I had that it is a striking and beautiful plant with is tiny white flowers and small red berry clusters?
Goldenseal, like its friendly forest neighbor ginseng, prefers the temperate hardwood forests with well-drained, rich soils. This is an herb that does not tolerate “wet feet”. When wild-simulating goldenseal in your home shade garden, you will want to ensure that it receives at least 70%-75% shade. Another act in patience, goldenseal beds should be established for five to seven years before harvesting; again, leaving enough original planting to continue reseeding the area.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria): Frothy, fragrant meadowsweet carries the moniker “Queen of the Meadow” aptly. Her tall limbs topped with foamy white to pink blossoms from June through August, reach gracefully upward providing eye level interest. Meadowsweet is an excellent herb for the digestive system with a particular ability to soothe gastric heat. It was also a revered herb in the Druidic tradition.
Meadowsweet enjoys partial shade, especially in warmer climates and is somewhat tolerant of boggy, damp, even heavy clay soils. The leaves and flowers of meadowsweet can be harvested, leaving enough foliage to support photosynthesis.
Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa): As a popular herb for women’s health, wild yam has a strong commercial market, but is also in short supply in its native habitat. As a raw source of the constituent diosgenin, wild yam is often used in the pharmaceutical trade for the production of corticosteroids and contraceptives.
Wild yam is clinging vine (although it is the underground tuber that is medicinally valuable), that likes the dappled shade of forested areas. It prefers deep, moist, and heavily mulched soils. Wild yam can be harvested after about three years, taking care to leave some roots for future production.
Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium): This west coast special and ubiquitous municipal planting, is an excellent herb for the home landscape. Four seasons of interest can be attributed to its bright yellow flowers, dark blue berries, and green, shiny holly-like foliages that blushes a lively shade of bronze/purple. You might not think it would find itself on a UpS’s watch list, but it shares the same desired constituent as goldenseal (berberine) and should be protected now to ensure successive generation of Oregon Grape vitality in its native areas.
Oregon Grape is a relatively easy going shrub, that does best in partial sun to shade. It likes slightly acidic and well-drained soils. Plants can be dug and the roots harvested, or larger plant root systems can be trimmed. It is also believed that there is some medicinal value in the above ground parts, although not quite as abundant in the desired constituents as the roots. As an added bonus, the tart and somewhat bitter berries are edible – try this delicious Oregon Grape curd.
Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa): If height and drama are what you are after, the revered women’s health herb black cohosh is just the ticket. Towering wands crowned with tiny white flowers resemble mini firework sprays, stand above deeply serrated green foliage which emits a pest deterring odor.
Black cohosh likes deep, rich, moist and slightly acidic soils, preferably in dappled sun or partial shade. Keep in mind that the flowering wands might reach 6-8 feet and require staking. Let this herbaceous perennial grow for at least three years before digging up the roots to harvest and divide.
Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum): Sometimes it isn’t about the soaring plumes of white flowers or spectacular foliage. Sometimes there is something to be said for the mystery of ground-hugging botanicals. Wild ginger’s soft, heart-shaped leaves hide the most curious mahogany flowers under their dense foliage. The fleshy and fragrant roots of this woodland medicinal are best brewed into a tea for boggy respiratory complaints.
Wild ginger forms dense mats of low growing foliage in rich moist soil. It needs partial to full shade, as the tender leaves burn easily in the sun. The rhizomes grow near the soil surface and can be harvest or divided after a couple years.
Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum): The ever lovely trillium was a venerated remedy in many Native American healing traditions. Another common name “birthroot” speaks to its use for childbirth and labor and women’s health, but also possesses great antiseptic properties and is edible to boot. It is also, sadly, yet another one of these woodland medicinals considered at-risk by UpS, and T. persistens is even now considered endangered by the federal government.
A study in threes (three leaves, three sepals, three petals), trilliums are easy to identify in the landscape even with is various flower colors across species. Trilliums prefer moist, but well-drained soils in partial to full shade. Roots can be harvested in three to five years.
False Soloman’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum): My first experience with False Soloman’s Seal occurred while hiking in the forest of Mt. Hood one late spring. The seas of long, ovate leaves and white flower plumes where absolutely majestic beneath the open canopy of a mixed forest. Young spring shoots of False Soloman’s Seal are edible, tasting similar to asparagus, and the fall-harvested root is has a strong Native American tradition for uses such as rheumatism, headache, and cough.
False Soloman’s Seal is true mountain medicine, preferring sub-alpine regions between 5000-10,000 feet. Although it prefers moist soils, this shade dweller isn’t terribly fussy about soil conditions. Harvest roots from well-established stands; note that disturbance of the roots will result in a disruption of the flowering cycle until the clump recovers.
False Unicorn (Chamaelirium luteum): The common names (including fairy’s wand) for this woodland medicinal hint at its magic. A renowned tonic for the female reproductive system, false unicorn root has a strong medicinal tradition. It is also tragically at-risk, and, as such, is now rarely used in the trade by ethical herbalists. Its charming flower spikes and medicinal value make false unicorn a prime candidate for cultivation in the shade garden.
False unicorn likes open hardwood forests and moist acidic soils with good drainage. Provide this plant with plenty of loamy mulch for good growth. Harvest only from well establish older clumps, leaving at least half the established rhizome to perpetuate the plant.
Perhaps you too noticed the underlying theme in the botanicals I have mention. Many of these woodland medicinals are harvested for their roots. Unlike harvesting the ariel parts, when harvesting the roots, one is likely to be killing the whole plant. Over-zealous harvesting practices, development, and habitat destruction are all responsible for the depletion of these precious woodland resources. With that thought in mind, the only responsible thing to do if wanting to utilize these valuable herbs is to purchase from reputable cultivators or grow these woodland medicinals in your own shade garden!
A Note on Conservation of Woodland Medicinals:
I have mentioned the United Plant Savers several times during this post. This non-profit supports a cause near and dear to my herbalist’s heart. I just pledged my support by way of membership. Won’t you too consider doing the same? Individual memberships start at $35 and those contributions support the conservation of these amazing woodland medicinals and many, many more!
PLEASE PLEDGE YOUR SUPPRT FOR WOODLAND MEDICINALS AND THE MISSION OF THE UNITED PLANT SAVERS HERE!