Down Under Flowers

Some flowers point towards the sun to beckon to high-flying bees and butterflies. Other flowers, including many of our native lilies, point their flowers towards the ground to attract pollinators that fly near ground level. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/

What are Down Under flowers? Nope, not plants from Australia, although those are worthy of an article too. Down Under flowers are those native plants with flowers that hang underneath their foliage and point towards the ground. These are the flowers that you sometimes have to get right down to ground level to actually see…

Why do native plants bloom when they do? It’s no coincidence that many of our native spring-blooming woodland plants and trees produce flowers early in the spring. They’re taking full advantage of the sunshine that hits the forest floor before trees have fully leafed out yet. After the trees develop their leaves and shade the ground for the remainder of the season, many of these plants go too seed and fade into the background for the rest of the season. Some will go dormant, disappearing entirely until the following year.

Some plants take this evolution strategy one step further – by producing foliage that shelters their own flowers from the sun of the increasingly longer days of springtime. Perhaps they also do this to provide a protective area for pollinators to safely investigate their flowers. Many short-statured native wild flowers have flowers very near to the ground to tempt some of our less gregarious pollinating insects, such as beetles, flies, or tiny ground-nesting bees.

One of my favorite eastern American Down Under plants is Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), a bold woodland plant with enormous leaves shaped like parasols when they emerge in early spring. The flowers are pure white cups that appear underneath the leaves so you’ll have to get low to enjoy them:

Several tiny pollinating insects are investigating this Mayapple flower. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/

Mayapple thrives in a moist soil and will spread to form large colonies over time. Pollinated flowers produce large fruits in the fall that are a favorite food of box turtles –  but the flowers require cross-pollination (they are self-sterile) with other Mayapples to set fruit. Because they grow in clonal colonies, you may need to search around for another Mayapple of a different genetic line to plant nearby.

Because of its spreading nature, give Mayapple a spot all its own for a thick mat of greenery through the summer:

A patch of Mayapple at Garden in the Woods, Framingham Mass.

Another pretty native American Down Under plant is Large Merrybells/Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora). Its soft yellow bell-shaped flowers have a sweet fragrance, but to enjoy the scent, you’ll probably need to lay right down on the ground to get in close enough:

I confess that to take this photo, I had to lay on my stomach of a trail at Garden in the Woods to get my camera low enough. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/

Large Merrybells is generally found in areas of soils high in limestone, so it’s not very common in New England’s acidic woodlands. More commonly found is the related Wild Oats (Uvularia sessifolia), which is smaller than Merrybells but has similarly exquisite slender Down Under flowers tinged with shades of pale peach and pink.

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) sports fascinating white/pale green spring flowers that dangle like baubles from stems below each leaf base. This plant grows generally about a foot or two in height, but a larger variant form known as Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) grows much bigger, up to 7′ in rich, moist soils. The flowers are pollinated by buzz-pollinating native bees.

Giant Solomon's Seal adds a touch of elegance and drama to shade gardens. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/

Eastern native Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), commonly planted as a ground cover in native plant shade gardens, has flowers which appear in early spring just as the leaves emerge. The flowers are not showy, but a reddish-brown color that suggests their pollinators are ground-dwelling beetles or perhaps tiny flies that inhabit areas with rotting plant matter. I can’t confirm this because, try as I might, I’ve never seen pollinators in the act of visiting these flowers. Perhaps they emerge at night, or I haven’t grown wild ginger long enough to establish populations of their associated pollinators.

Wild Ginger flowers often lay flush with the ground, probably to attract ground-dwelling pollinators. If you have this plant growing nearby, please share information about any pollinators you've seen visiting the flowers! Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/

Wild Ginger is useful as a woodland ground cover and combines nicely with ferns and other woodland native plants:

Wild Ginger used as green edging at Garden in the Woods.

Checkerberry/Teaberry/Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is a low evergreen groundcover of cool, shady woods of the north, making it an excellent choice for gardeners struggling with dry shade. The white “Down Under” flowers appear in summer, just a few inches above the ground, and if they remind you of blueberry flowers, they are indeed related, as fellow members of the Ericaceae plant family.

Checkerberry flowers are buzz-pollinated by tiny native bumble bees. Photo by Jerry Drown, University of Tennessee Herbarium.

Lucky for us, although checkerberry flowers are discreet, the berries are anything but:

Bright red checkerberries usually persist right through winter, and they're especially showy against a light blanket of snow. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/

The berries are edible, useful as a strongly-flavored fruit additive to cakes and muffins. They must not be very tasty to birds, though, because they usually linger into the following spring.

I’ll finish off by mentioning the white flowers of the south-eastern native Carolina Silverbell tree (Halesia tetraptera), which hang below the tree branches like clusters of miniature church bells. Unfortunately, I cannot include a photo of this lovely herald of spring, because my dear husband went on a pruning spree recently and cut my Carolina Silverbell sapling right down to the ground. Yes, the beautiful tree which bloomed for the first time just last year. The one I had carefully nurtured for the past 7 years after buying it as a tiny whip from Tripple Brook Farm. Not to worry, I’m not bitter, I’ve forgiven him because he has since bought me 2 Carolina Silverbells as a replacement. So, if you check back in, say, another 7 years or so, perhaps I will have some photos to offer. In the meantime, if you can’t wait that long, here’s a photo from a Fine Gardening magazine article about this very pretty American Down Under flowering tree.

Photo linked from


© 2012, Ellen Sousa. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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About Ellen Sousa

Ellen Sousa gardens, farms, writes and teaches from Turkey Hill Brook Farm, a small horse farm in the Worcester Hills of central Massachusetts. Author of The Green Garden: The New England Guide to Planning, Planting and Maintaining an Eco-Friendly Habitat Garden, published by Bunker Hill Publishing in summer 2011. She also blogs about habitat and earth-friendly gardening in New England and is on the team at Beautiful Wildlife Garden. Follow @THBfarm on twitter.


  1. Rob Sousa says:

    It was a mistake. After my pruning spree, Ellen came in the house and told me what I had done (cut down her Silverbell) and I felt very bad about it. But I didn’t realize just how bad it was until she leaned against the window, put her face in her hands and said, “I’ve been nurturing that plant for seven years. SEVENNNNN YEARRRRRS.” Oooops. Sorry, my sweet and wonderful wife. This should be a lesson to all … tag your precious trees so they’re not chopped down by an over-zealous husband who’s only trying to help. :)

    • Vincent Vizachero says:

      And a lesson to everyone who is NOT married: don’t GET married until darling spouse-to-be demonstrates their ability to do more harm than good in the garden! :-)

      Seriously, it’s a great story. Thank you, Ellen and Rob.

      Vincent Vizachero recently posted..Plant This, Not That: The Book

    • Carole Sevilla Brown says:

      Uh oh, Rob. Hope you’ve worked your way out of the dog house! LOL Or are you stuck there for the next 7 years? :)
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Why Focus on Ecosystem Gardening When There is So Much Wrong in the World?

    • UrsulaV says:

      I once asked my boyfriend why he hated my holly bushes so. He’d killed the third one in as many months. We agreed that the solution was that the whole area needed to turn into a flowerbed so that he was not tempted to try and run the lawnmower through that zone, slaying all in his path.

      I am currently killing the last of the lawn in the front yard under mulch, and the lawnmower doesn’t run anymore, so y’know, it worked out.
      UrsulaV recently posted..Stop Me Before I Plant Again

  2. Jen Rothmeyer (EmSun) says:

    I, too, have been a victim of spousal overactive pruning and mowing. ;)

    Thank you for the information on all these plants. My wheels are now spinning on what I can include in my garden. :)
    Jen Rothmeyer (EmSun) recently posted..Surprising and Sad: Review of This Life is in Your Hands by Melissa Coleman [Harper Perennial]

  3. Donna@ Gardens Eye View says:

    I think we all have had the over zealous spouse…mine kept ripping out young plants as weeds…I love that he tries to help…Ellen, I adore many of these and they grow in my garden…I think I love them especially for their down under makes them special and rare indeed.
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best-April

  4. Carole Sevilla Brown says:

    I lost a Spicebush in a similar way. Thought I’d cry all afternoon that day. But all has been forgiven now :)
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Why Focus on Ecosystem Gardening When There is So Much Wrong in the World?

    • Ellen Sousa says:

      I suppose I should have known many years ago when we got married – we were given a bunch of bare-root crabapples right before we went on honeymoon – I didn’t have time to plant them so I heeled them in underneath an old lilac tree to await planting. Rob went through and hacked them right to the ground thinking they were weeds….I’ve never let him forgot how he mowed down an entire orchard of mine in one fell swoop :)
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  5. Rambling Woods says:

    I enjoyed this..I live with a wetland woods and I have wanted to plant in a shady area and in the yard..thank you..Michelle

  6. Jo Ann Abell says:

    Wow! You guys do a really professional job. Your posts are well-written and informative – I guess I look for things like that because I’m a writer :) I, too, am motivated to add some shade-loving native plants to my fledgling rock garden.
    Jo Ann Abell recently posted..renewal

  7. Emily DeBolt says:

    I was just out today lying on my stomach to photograph my wild ginger and mayapple that was starting to bloom! they are such lovely flowers – and I think having to know to look for them makes it even more exciting when you find them! another ‘down under flower’ that is a great treat is twinflower!

    • Ellen Sousa says:

      Twinflower is pretty but don’t the blooms hang above the foliage on taller stems? They do point downwards like little bells though, so perhaps they should be known as Upper and Over Down Under flowers :)
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  8. Sue Sweeney says:

    Ellen – Rob id you a favor with the silverbell. This southeastern native has gone rogue at the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford CT.

    • Ellen Sousa says:

      Nooo…say it ain’t so Sue!!
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  9. Sue Sweeney says:

    BTW: did you know box turtle love may apple fruit?

  10. Sean Solomon says:

    Ellen, Thanks for featuring the Mayapple. I also want to include Trillium cernuum into the conversation. Rob, so kind of you to show remorse. i have been there. Now its, if i dont know i dont touch we got new and interesting native species flourishing in our yard!

    • Ellen Sousa says:

      Oooh, Nodding Trillium, that’s a good one! Wish I had that growing nearby but I’ve never seen it, in the wild or cultivated.And your policy is a good one, Sean. A lot of times, something might look like an unwanted weed until you identify it as a desirable local native…Blue Eyed Grass (Sysyrinchium) is one of those plants that looks like barnyard grass, until the day that you notice its tiny lily blooms. I have mistakenly pulled too many of those over the years…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  11. Mike B. says:

    I have Solomon’s Seal in my backyard that I didn’t plant. The strange thing is that False Solomon’s Seal is our native plant (it doesn’t flower downwards, which is how I can tell the difference). Salal flowers also open downwards.
    Mike B. recently posted..Bee Fly Won’t Bother Me

    • Ellen Sousa says:

      Mike – nice that False Solomon’s Seal has made an appearance, and you are right, they look very similar to Solomon’s Seal until you see their blooms at the end of the stem instead of underneath along the stem…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  12. Carol Duke says:

    Wonderful post Ellen! I too love Mayapples and cannot wait for mine to spread in such a thick carpet. They can out grow the horrid bishop’s weed!! Oh dear . . . I would have been so sad too about losing a friend of seven years.
    Carol Duke recently posted..Focusing on Old Apple Trees ‘Giving Sculptures’ of the Land

  13. Loret says:

    I admire your tenacity to get the down under photos. I admire your restraint in not killing your husband

    I admire my own good sense not to get remarried although barbequing was a helluva lot easier back when. ;)

    great stuff Ellen!
    Loret recently posted..2012 Bird Broods II



  1. Wild Ginger - Where Are the Flowers? | Slugyard says:

    [...] underneath!  These pale purplish bulbs are Wild Ginger flowers.  As described by Ellen Sousa in a very interesting post on Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens (where I contribute), these flowers bloom close to the [...]


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