Into the Woods …

To celebrate the launch of the fantastic new Disney film, I thought I would celebrate the wood and with it my favourite woodland planting.

I think we all have a landscape where we feel most at home and most comfortable.  For me it is always woodland.  I grew up with a garden that backed onto a vast wood and I spent years building camps, riding imaginary horses across logs and ditches and collecting leaves, acorns and beech nuts for various uses!  I even imagined myself living in a log cabin in a forest when I grew up!  This hasn’t happened and we’ve ended up living in a Victorian cottage on top of  a hill but we are just a few hundred metres away from Selborne Common – an area of open common land and glorious woodland managed by the National Trust.





I love the feeling of enclosure and scale when you walk in amongst ancient trees; the innate sense of history and nature’s energy is all-consuming.  The distinct smells of wood and leaf mould is evocative and no-where are seasons more apparent than when walking in amongst the trees.

I also love the plants that grow in these spaces and frequently use them when putting plans together for shady spaces in gardens.  They are often plants that are subtle and shy in nature – sometimes hiding flowers and scent – but worth discovering.  They habitually lack the bold, brassy ‘look at me’ attitudes of some sun-lovers but I feel that they are more special sometimes because of their hidden magic.  Shady spaces can still be beautiful spaces and there are many plants that simply love these conditions.

Woodland or shady planting schemes are – by their very nature – layered in effect.  You have the height, structure and canopy of the trees; the middle layer of shrubs and the ground cover of perennials and bulbs.  This layering effect provides a sense of space – despite the fact that the planting might be dense with few gaps between the trees – the height of the trees allows a vertical plane that increases scale and the sense of volume.  There are also plants that naturally grow on the edges of woodland spaces that appreciate at least some sunshine and these are often very suitable for garden schemes – bridging areas between dense tree cover and open space.

Below, I’ve collated a short list of some of my favourite woodland and shade loving (or tolerant) plants that form the staple ingredients in my planting plans.  I’ve also added notes about how I use these shrubs and perennials in my flower arrangements and included photographs that I will add to over time.

The shrubs in a woodland form the middle storey between the sky, the tree tops and the ground.  My favourite choices include:

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

There are many Witch-Hazels that are gorgeous but one of my favourites is ‘Jelena’.  It is a fairly large deciduous shrub of spreading habit that acts as a foil to other shrubs in the summer months with its broad leaves and open habit.  However, it comes into its own during autumn and winter when the leaves turn a glorious red and yellow.  In winter, after leaf fall, the curious but beautiful coppery-orange flowers appear and produce an amazing display well into early spring.

The flowers do last in water inside but because of their delicate nature, I tend to use them as single specimen arrangements in glass jars, bottles or vases so that their splendour is seen at its best.

Corylus maxima ‘Purpurea’ or Purple Hazel

The purple leaved Hazel is a relative of the coppiced shrubs we frequently see in British woodlands.  Its habit is similar and it has the typical broad, deep leaves but purple rather than green. Pendulous pale yellow catkins on leafless twigs in late winter are followed by edible nuts.  The leaves of the shrub do tend to get battered by the wind in my garden, but undamaged, they make great additions to bouquets and bring some depth and scale to arrangements.


In the garden, the shrub can be treated like the woodland type and selectively cut down to ground level every few years to keep the stems young and the size in check.

Sarcococca confusa or Sweet Box

This bushy evergreen shrub is fairly slow growing with deep green, glossy leaves and tolerates full or partial shade.  It is useful as loose structure in the garden and acts as a foil to some of the more structural winter staples such as Yew or Box.

Its most lovely characteristic is its hidden scent!  In winter it has inconspicuous, creamy-white flowers that are fairly invisible unless you know to look for them.  You’ll smell them before you see them and is a total treat to come across on a bleak, winter’s day.  These flowers are followed by dark blue/black berries that add another dimension to this lovely shrub.

The stems can act in a similar way to Ruscus in flower arrangements but they are slightly stiffer in character.  The flowers last really well inside and bring their own, distinctive and gorgeous smell into the house.

Physocarpus (Diabolo – with dark purple leaves and ‘Dart’s Gold’ with bright, lime green foliage)

Physocarpus are the flower arranger’s friend!  Their foliage and stems are light and pliable and they act as a fantastic companion to summer flowers.  The leaves are lightly toothed and fairly delicate so bring textural lightness to an arrangement and they last brilliantly well in water.

In the garden, the light creamy/pink flowers provide a beautiful airy delicacy that contrasts well with blues and purples.  I used the purple leaved Physocarpus en-masse in the Chelsea Exhibit last year as a companion to Geranium ‘Brookside’, various grasses and small flowered Viola and the effect was lovely.

Viburnum opulus or Guelder Rose

We have a hedge of this shrub in our garden and it provides so many benefits!  Lovely, palmate lobed green leaves are vibrant when they first appear and provide great autumn colour later in the year.  The flat clusters of small white flowers are a joy in the summer.  We have a couple of different of varieties so get a mix of yellow and red berries after the flowers have gone.  The birds tend to leave these pendulous bunches of jewel-like fruit and so the effect is long lasting.



It is pruned very easily and it therefore means that I can use the berries in autumn arrangements to bring texture and zing!

Although related, this is a different variety to the Guelder Rose often seen at Market and loved by floral arrangers.  However, treated in the same manner,  it looks great massed as an arrangement in the home.

Hydrangea quercifolia

The Oak-leaved Hydrangea is one of my favourite shrubs.  Not only does its unusual leaf shape bring welcome textural shape to the summer garden but the conical panicles of creamy flowers last for weeks and provide a contrast in shape to the beds during the summer months.  Great autumn colour and the architectural shape of the branches mean that its interest remains throughout the year.

Once again, I frequently use the flowers – fresh or even slightly over – in arrangements to bring weeping shape and texture.


In terms of Perennials and plants that will offer seasonal differentiation and interest in a shaded space, I love using the following species:

Helleborus orientalis and other related varieties

We all love these winter gems that show their faces when others fear to come out to play.  Whether used inside as floating flowers or as part of winter bouquets and arrangements, they never cease to please.

In the garden, they look best planted in fairly large groups.  I’ve learned this over time.  As lovely as one flower is, the effect is in the grouping.  Taking off last year’s leaves at the beginning of the year helps them to look cleaner and makes the flowers that much more visible.

Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ or Japanese Anemones

This is a fantastic plant for brightening up the garden in late summer, this anemone grows in sun or shade and has masses of elegant, cup-shaped, white flowers on tall, wiry stems from August to October. The leaves are vine-like, dark green, and semi-evergreen. These single flowered Japanese anemones look fantastic beneath trees and lighten up darker corners of the garden.


Polygonatum x hybridum or Solomon’s Seal

The slender, arching stems of this shade loving woodland staple bring a lightness and delicacy to early summer floral arrangements.  In the garden, slugs and snails are the greatest enemy but – keep these blighters at bay and – this perennial brings light and movement to the darkest places.

Heuchera sp. for both for foliage and flowers

Their upright, light and delicate flower spikes look fantastic in garden beds as they contrast with almost everything around and they last for ages.  The leaves bring welcome ground cover and last throughout the winter.  The leaves also make great foliage for arranging and last for an age.  The many different varieties mean that there is a Heuchera or Heucherella leaf that fits (from a colour perspective) with almost every combination of flowers.

Geranium phaeum album and Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ or Dusky Cranesbill

I love this light, dainty Geranium and it loves shady conditions.  The deep purple variety (Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’) has particularly good leaf colour in shade as the sun tends to bleach out the leaf markings.  It does not work particularly well as a cut flower but brings joy to the garden in the early summer!

Astrantia sp. or Masterwort

What is there not to like about Astrantia!?  I had them in my wedding bouquet and used them prolifically in weddings just before Christmas last year.  The dainty mix of colours contained within the small pin-cushion heads are beautiful.  The deep red varieties combine fantastically well with late Clematis flowers in bouquets and bring both texture and depth to an arrangement.






In the garden, they bloom for ages – often coming back for a second flush if cut back after their first flowering.   Cut down to the ground in spring, they’re ready for action again in – what seems like – a matter of weeks.

The best book I would recommend for advice on woodland planting is Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden: Shade-loving plants for year-round interest published by The Octopus Publishing Group.  It is beautifully illustrated with photographs from Beth’s famous garden in East Anglia and full of so much advice and experience that it’s well worth a read.

The suggestions above are obviously a very limited selection but include plants that I feel are worth including in a shady scheme wherever possible.