Shade Tolerant Wildflowers in Wisconsin

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Wisconsin gardeners are a persistent group. Finding shade-tolerant perennials that survive in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 5 requires patience indeed. The answer is natural -- hundreds of shade-tolerant native plants, known as wildflowers, grow from the cool north woods “up nort’” in USDA zone 3 to the sandy Lake Michigan shores in USDA zone 5.

Wisconsin's Environment

  • Wisconsin’s cold winters and cool summers demand hardy perennials. Numerous lakes left by the last glaciers, joined by a network of rivers, create an extensive riparian habitat. Freshwater marshes provide habitats for migrating birds -- and miles of wetlands. Although little of the state’s old-growth oak forests remain, Wisconsinites have reforested, restored and re-established, led by the likes of Aldo Leopold and the Wisconsin natives who formed an early division of the Izaak Walton League. Wisconsin’s climate can be harsh; winter temperatures can fall to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and July’s heat might sit in the 90s for days before a cold front rushes through with wind, lightning, hail and torrential rain to cool things off again.

Woodlands

  • Wildflowers from the woodlands require moist, well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), hardy from USDA zone 3 through zone 8, thrives in rocky woods. Its red and pale yellow blooms appear in early spring through midsummer,and the plant prefers partial shade. Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), hardy from USDA zone 4 through zone 9, sports an exotic white and green spadix. It tolerates dense shade and wet soil -- as does Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), with its stalk of fragrant white “breeches,” hardy from USDA zone 3 through 7. Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), hardy from USDA zone 3 through zone 8, features bell-shaped blue flowers that attract native bees. Multiple flowers rise on stalks, and plants grow in moist woods or along stream banks in shade.

Riparian and Wetland

  • Wisconsin’s lakes, rivers and marshes provide water and shelter for a variety of wildlife. Jacob’s ladder, along with bright yellow cowslips (Caltha palustris), hardy from USDA zone 3 through zone 7, and scarlet cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), hardy from USDA zone 3 through 9, thrive on shady riverbanks. Jack in the pulpit and Jacob’s ladder both grow in wet soil. Closed bottle gentian, (Gentiana andrewsii), hardy from USDA zone 3 to zone 7, bears dramatic blue flowers and naturalizes along shaded shores.

Open Woodland

  • Not all soil is wet in Wisconsin -- except during the rainy season that submerges fields in spring at just about the time to start planting. Use Wisconsin’s native lilies -- Turk’s cap (Lilium michiganese) and wood lily (Lilium philadelphium), both hardy from USDA zones 3 to 8 in open woodlands -- to bunch Turk’s cap lilies that grow to 6 feet tall. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), hardy from USDA zones 3 to 7, tolerates dry part shade and blooms from June through frost.

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