No longer cursing the darkness


Although a meadow of drought-resistant wildflowers would be great, living under the shade of four big maple trees may be the next best thing. At least this year.  This is the first time Garden Walk visitors have complimented me on my shade instead of commiserating. People were talking about hosta and colocasia—two shade-lovers I use extensively—with more interest than I’ve ever noticed before.

Of course, there are plenty of interesting woodland natives. I am slightly hampered by the root systems that accompany the shade, but continual mulching and other top-down amending seem to alleviate the situation. And it’s fun to try the lesser-known shade natives.  Thanks to an April visit to Plantsmen Nursery in Ithaca, my latest shade discovery is Collinsonia canadensis (stone root, horsebalm, other names). It was purchased on absolute trust—not one shoot of it was showing above the dirt of its pot. It took off quickly however, and now we have this lovely wildflower. The blooms are tiny and yellow—you can just about see them here, but a close-up would reveal a rather exotic little flower. I wish I’d bought ten of these, but maybe it will spread.

Collinsonia has a number of medicinal uses; it apparently helps clear various congestions, though it’s unlikely I’ll put it to the test. It is one of a number of new shade natives I’ve added. Others include carex grayi (morningstar sedge), carex plantaginea (seersucker sedge), and many of the eupatoriums (which at least tolerate shade).  We’ve also had our oldest maple properly trimmed to prevent further storm losses. This is not the year to ignore tree health—if there’s ever a year when that would be a good idea. This is a year for shade.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Our huge sugar maple and a very large burr oak both generate a very xeric area under their crowns. Light rains never get through, and they both are strong competitors for soil moisture. So while in the shade, most of our perennials are pretty well scroached by the drought.

  2. In our backyard we garden in the shade of large Siberian elms, silver maples, and cottonwoods. Some on my property, some on the neighbors’. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the variety of understory plants I can grow. Of course, these trees have high canopies and smaller leaves so the shade is more dappled.

  3. This year I found a new plant for my shade Garden, it’s called peacock Moss. It looks like the prettiest fern, wish I would have bought more than one. The heatwave we had knocked it back a little but I am already seeing new growth. I am lucky enough to have a little bit of every kind of Garden: sunny and dry in the side yard, northern exposure in the other sideyard. Front of the house is perfect for the Hydrangea collection. But I love the shade Garden best!

  4. What a coincidence! Your talk about tree care landed on the exact evening when I walked our Ontario farm with the tree person. We made two lists, the urgent safety list, then the wish list which will move to next year. So satisfying to have a knowledgeable tree expert who climbs like a monkey… LOL! Over the last 15 years the same man has helped us care for the trees here. Our very own Lorax!

    I grew up in Buffalo and we lost our street elms to Dutch Elm disease. I remember the plumbers dealing with tree roots annually. There were no tree experts that I recall. I wonder if those trees were ever replaced. I haven’t driven down Winspear Avenue near PS #80 in many decades….

  5. Shade plants are my favorite. I would have always been oohing and ahing over your garden if I ever went on the garden walk. Which I will probably never do because it is always when it is too dang hot! (and I can hear the spouse now – you want to go where this weekend?)

  6. I’ve got some horsebalm! Mine does spread, but it always seems to dry out just about the point where it would flower, so I’ve never actually seen them bloom.

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