When it comes to well-behaved, sturdy plants that offer great charm, bishop’s cap (Mitella diphylla) is a trusty standby in my woodland garden. It’s native to nearly all the eastern United States (except for Maine, Florida and Louisiana), and it’s among the most perfect groundcovers for densely shaded places.

Bishop's Cap

Bishop’s cap is a well-behaved groundcover for moist to dry shade.

Photo Credit: ©2007 Pennystone Gardens

Bishop's Cap flowers

Spikes of delicate, tiny flowers give bishop’s cap springtime charm.

Photo Credit: ©2007 Pennystone Gardens

Bishop's Cap seeds

Small cups of tiny black seeds remain after the flowers fade.

Photo Credit: ©2007 Pennystone Gardens

This beauty is commonly known as bishop’s cap for its tiny, delicate, white flowers that punctuate 8- to 10-inch racemes each spring. But its leaves are special, too, closely resembling the maple-shape foliage of foamflower. But while foamflower steadily oozes out to fill a space with its many runners, bishop’s cap remains in a neat, gently expanding clump, making it the better choice for tight spaces and small corners.

After bishop’s cap blooms in May to early June, the flowers drop off, and the plant produces three to four small, shiny, black seeds in each of the remaining open cups. You can harvest the seeds and sow them immediately in a damp (but not wet) potting soil amended with a bit of peat moss. Keep the pot in a well-lit window, and in just a few weeks you’ll find many sprouted seedlings. Once they develop true leaves, divide and transplant them into individual pots. (I usually keep my young bishop’s cap indoors the first winter in a bright window where they’ll continue to grow and sometimes treat me to flowers in January or February. By spring, they’re strong enough to be on their own.)

You can plant Mitella diphylla in a variety of ways, perhaps 6 inches or so apart. I like them as an edge plant along a shady path, or as a grouping in a dense shade patch that’s otherwise a challenge for most other species. You can also intersperse your bishop’s cap with other small natives like foamflower, hepatica, Trillium grandiflorum and bloodroot for a charming little garden.

One of my favorite settings for this pretty groundcover is a rocky glen. Try planting bishop’s cap randomly in a little hillside of small rocks (I prefer rounded river stone about the size of a fist). Make a bit of a slope and perhaps tuck in some gentle ferns. Create pockets for the plants, and then carefully place a variety of round and flat stones on the hillside. You’ll want to give it the look of loose rock around an old seep or spring. Then just stand back and admire your miniature woodland glen that’ll only improve with age!

The plant’s soil requirements are simple. In the wild, the species thrives in a moist, rich woodland setting where humus is plentiful, so it’s likely to be found in spots where leaves have composted into pockets of good soil. You can easily replicate this by working in a little humus and leaf mold to your garden, then lightly mulching the area with shredded leaves.

While leaf compost helps keep the twisted, pinkish, scaly rhizome feet of bishop’s cap cool and damp, this delicate-looking plant is really quite sturdy. In fact, the groundcover shrugs off the periodic dry spells that test most woodland natives. It’s nearly evergreen, but in colder climates it may join foamflower in giving the impression that it died over winter and has no chance of recovery. But don’t worry – once the soil warms up in spring, it’ll leap back into action.

Although spring or fall is usually the best time to relocate plants, I’ve found that bishop’s cap doesn’t get nervous about a new spot any time of year. Just lift the rhizome, roots and surrounding soil when it’s damp, and drop the plant into its new shady home. It’ll live there happily for years to come.

If your garden features a patch of shade, consider beautiful bishop’s cap. Whether on its own or in a grouping with other woodland natives, this wonderfully well-behaved groundcover adds a delicate touch of loveliness that lights up your garden each spring!