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Woodland Gems

The term ‘woodland’ instantly conjures up an image of a vast acreage, complete with ancient trees. Plants labelled ideal for a woodland setting are often assumed to be unsuitable by folk with just a modest-sized plot to offer – but, think again, says Flo Whitaker

In early spring, sunlight filters through the bare branches of a deciduous wood, illuminating ground dwelling plants. They enjoy gentle sunshine, but dislike heat, so rely on emerging tree foliage to provide a shady summer canopy. Come winter, falling leaves add nutrients to the soil. Once again, sunlight penetrates the woodland floor – and the cycle continues. So, from a plant’s perspective, “woodland” can be simply defined as “light shade with humus-rich soil.” No matter how small your garden, if you have deciduous shrubs or a deciduous tree, you can utilise the ground underneath as a miniature habitat for shade-worshippers.

Here are three easy woodland characters to try – you’ll find pots of them in the garden centres about now! Wood anemone, (Anemone nemorosa) is a native ‘wild’ plant that also thrives in a border. Extremely slow growing; (taking about 100 years to cover a metre of ground!) it produces elegantly dissected leaves, (20 cms high) and flowers in early spring. If, on a countryside ramble, you chance upon a vast carpet of anemones, pause to admire their beauty – and tenacity. That colony may be thousands of years old. Attractive pinky/mauve cultivars are also available, but nemorosa, with its exquisite starry white flowers, is hard to beat.

On a warm day, the scent from the tiny purple or white blooms of common violets, (Viola odorata) carries a considerable distance. They enjoy a damp border, or the cool shade at the base of a hedge. All cultivated violas, (and their large flowered cousins, pansies) are related to the common violet. There are many viola cultivars in an array of colours that can be utilised in a woodland themed display. Species cyclamen, (10-15 cms) produce dainty, fragile-looking flowers – but are super-hardy. Their ground-hugging foliage is often attractively marked with silvery/cream highlights. Cyclamen coum has wide, rounded leaves and appears from Christmas through to late February/March, whereas Cyclamen hederifolium carries flowers in autumn, (typically September - November.) They make a useful double-act; as C. hederifolium retreats into dormancy, C. coum obligingly springs into action. Hederifolium’s leaves are more pointed and ivy-like, (‘hedera’ is the Latin name for ivy.) It is the most vigorous of the two and will colonise tough environments, such as rough-mown grass under trees.

Woodland plants aren’t bothered by sub-zero temperatures; however, waterlogged soil is their enemy. Moisture retentive, but well-drained soil is essential. Adding well-rotted compost to the planting holes is helpful, as is an annual mulch of leaf mould or chipped bark – this holds in moisture and mimics the conditions of a woodland floor. Like Goldilocks, woodland plants demand conditions that are ‘just right’, but it’s worth indulging them as they are long-lived stalwarts that bring colour at the dullest times of the gardening year.