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15 Favorites: Native White Flowers for a Garden that Glows

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15 Favorites: Native White Flowers for a Garden that Glows

One of the realities of enjoying a garden is that there’s not always a lot of time to do so. We work, we commute, we parent, we scroll. By the time we step outside it might be late, so it is with twilight in mind that we bring you the brightness of our 15 favorite white flowers. They are all perennials, and they are all North American. Many of these blooms are pollinator-friendly, and each is easy to care for, if it’s in the right spot. From petite ephemerals that will appeal to your inner wood sprite, to big-statement drama plants, our list will set you on the path to a soothing evening escape. You might even sneak out to enjoy them in daylight.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

1. Foam flower, Tiarella cordifolia

Above: Foam flower

The frothy exuberance of aptly named foam flower begins early in spring, the flowers floating above maple-shaped leaves. The blooms last for about two pleasing weeks. This woodland native grows well in full spring sun if it receives some summer shade (under deciduous trees, for example). It naturalizes easily, by sending out questing runners in late spring and summer. Foam flower makes a very low maintenance ground cover and is an effective green mulch, protecting the soil beneath. It is hardy from USDA growing zones 3-9.

2. Canada mayflower, Maianthemum canadense

Above: Tiny Canada mayflower

In shady gardens, diminutive Canada mayflower (or false lily of the valley) will naturalize to form a lush, low green carpet that produces a shower of snowy blossoms in mid-spring. It needs consistent moisture to become established, but will then spread and naturalize via rhizomes. By fall the flowers will have formed red fruits that are attractive to birds. Canada mayflower is hardy from zones 3-6.

3. Starflower, Lysimachia borealis

Above: Starflower growing among Canada mayflower.

Another small jewel for light shade and woodland-friendly gardens is starflower, whose identifying whorl of leaves frames the exquisite bloom, or blooms. This is a good companion plant for Canada mayflower, as it is summer-dormant, and fades from view as nights begin to grow longer after the summer solstice. Starflower is hardy from zones 3-7.

4. False Solomon’s seal, Maianthemum racemosum

Above: False Solomons seal

Unlike its tiny Canada mayflower cousin, false Solomon’s seal grows to about three feet tall, and its plumes of fluffy white flowers can be elegantly dramatic if planted in swathes in dappled shade. It has a very wide native range in North America, and blooms in mid-spring. It, too, will produce attractive, non-toxic red berries in fall that are appealing to migratory and resident birds. False solomon’s seal is hardy from zones 3-8.

5. Doll’s eyes, Actaea pachypoda

Above: The perfumed flowers of doll’s eyes.

Close your eyes and breathe. The sweet, citrus-blossom scent of doll’s eyes is reason enough to plant this shade-loving perennial. Its tall slender stems are topped with perfumed puffs of flowers in mid-spring. By fall, they have morphed into ghoulish white berries that resemble a horror-flick’s idea of a botanical Halloween. They are eye-catching and as toxic as they look. Doll’s eyes are hardy from zones 3-8.

6. Bunchberry, Chamaepericlymenum canadense (formerly Cornus canadensis)

Above: The bright white bracts of bunchberries resemble broad petals.

Like the faux petals of dogwoods (with which they used to be classified), carpet-forming bunchberries draw attention, and pollinators, with their wide white bracts (they surround the true flower). Unhappy in warmer climates, this is a showy, cold-loving perennial that thrives in slightly acidic, humus-rich soil in high shade. From summer, its red fruit persists for some months and in fall, bunchberry’s foliage is scarlet and striking.  Bunchberry is hardy from zones 2-6.

7. Viola canadensis

Above: Canada violet can bloom for months.

A tall violet? Not an oxymoron. Canada violet is surprisingly leggy, growing up to 16 inches tall. Its white flowers begin to bloom in late spring, and repeat, persisting through midsummer; they are profuse. The plants naturalize by self-seeding. The heart-shaped leaves form a soft, quilted ground cover even in deep shade. Canada violet is hardy from zones 3-8.

8. May apple, Podophyllum peltatum

Above: The hidden flowers of May apple.

Admittedly, you need to be on your knees to appreciate the waxy perfection of May apple’s white flowers. Or two years old. But their mysterious appeal in the undersea green of their parasoled leaves is worth it. By late summer those parasols have yellowed and collapsed, and the flowers will have formed a small, egg-shaped, edible fruit that ripens in late summer. Mayapples taste and smell like tropical fruit salad. Grow this edible woodland plant in high or deciduous shade, or in morning sun, in leaf litter-rich soil. They are hardy from zones 4-8.

9. Thimbleweed, Anemone virginiana

Above: Thimbleweed’s long stems raise their white flowers high above their foliage.

Planted in full sun or in semi-shade, the anemone-true flowers of thimbleweed appear in late spring to early summer on tall, thread-slender stems. They last well as cut flowers, but remain ornamental after their petals have dropped, with the seed head forming that namesake thimble. Thimbleweed (sometimes called tall thimbleweed) is hardy from zones 2-8.

10. Goatsbeard, Aruncus dioicus

Above: The feathery white flowers of goatsbeard.

Tall to the point of impersonating a shrub, the prolific plumes of goatsbeard are like white fireworks in early summer. Grown in full sun, semi-shade, or high, dappled shade, its white flowers last for about three weeks. Goatsbeard is hardy from zones 3-8.

11. Beardtongue, foxglove beardtongue, Penstemon digitalis

Above: White foxglove beardtongue.

On tall stems, the tubular flowers of sun-loving foxglove beardtongue are nectaries that invite visits from many pollinators as well as hummingbirds. Blooming from late spring into summer, this penstemon self-seeds and germinates easily from seed, making it an excellent meadow or wild garden addition. It will tolerate dappled shade, drought, and temporary inundation, as well as heavy soil (as long as it is not waterlogged). Beardtongue is hardy from zones 3-8.

12. Coneflower, Echinacea

Above: A white form of Echinacea.

While the white forms of the prairie-dwelling coneflower have been created for the nursery trade, the tough perennial is native enough for our purposes. Planted in full sun, coneflowers begin to bloom as summer peaks, and will keep flowering for months. Towards fall, stop deadheading spent flowers to leave their central seed heads to feed seed eating birds. And if their cones are true, pollinators will flock to the flowers (ruffled forms of coneflower have often been bred to lose their pollinator-friendly parts). Coneflowers are hardy from zones 3-8.

13. Gaura, Oenothera lindheimeri

Above: Gaura’s airy appearance belies its tough character.

A Texan native, low-maintenance Gaura blooms from midsummer through frost, soldiering on through both humidity and dry spells. Graceful white flowers are suspended on tall, supple stems that move in the slightest breeze. Gaura needs full sun and good drainage. It is hard from zones 5-9.

14. Swamp hibiscus, Hibiscus moscheutus

Above: Luminous, and large—swamp rose mallow flowers.

A sign of the dog days of summer, each swamp rose mallow flower lasts for a spectacular day, with fresh buds opening rapidly and consecutively. A perennial that behaves like a shrub, these plants can reach six feet in regions with freezing winters, but are even taller in milder areas. Swamp rose mallow needs plenty of moisture, and occurs naturally in wetlands and tidal reaches (it tolerates brackish water and salt). A good layer of mulch will keep its roots happy if you can’t give it a swampy home. Swamp rose mallow is hardy from zones 5-9.

14. White snakeroot, Ageratina altissima

Above: White snakeroot at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

We see you, with the raised eyebrows: “Snakeroot? It grows like a weed!” That can be a good thing. Snakeroot is a boisterous native wildflower that frequents woodlands and forest edges. In late summer through early fall and right up to frost, its shade-defying white flowers offer serious pollinator appeal. Plant it in semi-shade or a half day of sun. (Esoterica: Colonists who drank milk from cows that had grazed on white snakeroot became ill with milk sickness, an often fatal disease, which killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother.) White snakeroot is hardy from zones 3-8.

15. American asters, Symphyotrichum and Eurybia species

Above: A flock of white asters will see you through fall.
Above: Heath aster cascades and spills in full sun.
Above: White wood aster.

From shade-garden-friendly white wood asters, to the miniature flowers of heath asters (which require full sun), there is a white aster to suit your garden. Asters’ tangles of sparkling flowers are a breath of optimism as the days grow darker. (Also, side-note: edible.) Try Symphyotrichum ericoides (heath), S. racemosum (smooth white), and Eurybia divaricata (white wood aster). Asters are hardy from zones 3-8.

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