Gardening with natives has a great many rewards, mostly of the buzzing, humming, occasionally waddling varieties. However, it also presents quite a few challenges, and one of the more persistent in my garden is the issue of ground covers.
Generally speaking, I can find a native plant to most purposes, and in the rare event that I want a non-native somewhere, I can locate a well-behaved immigrant. But ground covers are tricky. The traits that make a good ground cover—low, fast spreading, durable, forming a thick enough canopy to shade out a substantial number of unwanted weed seeds—are also traits that make one heck of an invasive. How many of us have had to take out an unwanted patch of ajuga or vinca, or god forbid, English ivy, that went rogue and invaded the lawn, the roof, the bathroom, the surface of Mars…?
So native was clearly the only way to go for my ground cover needs—it might not be any easier to remove, but at least I wouldn’t leave something nasty behind me.
I have a pretty big garden with everything from full dry shade to blazing sun and soggy soil. Full sun’s not really an issue—I can always find a perennial to stick there. But the ground covers were sorely needed for areas of shade and part shade, where I had better things to do with my life than spend an eternity yanking out maple seedlings.
Meehan’s Mint — (Meehania cordata) This obscure native looks like mint and spreads similarly via runners, but produces spectacular blue flowers in late spring. Native to a chunk of the Northeast and south to North Carolina (where it’s only found in a few populations, and considered vulnerable) it’s highly lauded by the half-dozen people who have actually heard of it. You can see photos here, but having only just added it to the garden, I can’t vouch for it one way or the other. It likes shade and part shade and moist to average soil, but will apparently grow in a dark closet if nothing else is available.
Green-and-Gold — (Chrysogonum virginianum) If there’s a better ground cover out there, I haven’t found it. Green-and-Gold is an uncomplaining workhorse of a plant, takes sun or shade, wet or dry, and does it with style and lots of little yellow flowers. It’s even evergreen in mild winters. The only thing that could improve this plant is if it called compliments to you as you walked by, or sent runners inside the house to do the dishes.
I prefer the straight species or the cultivar “Pierre,” but there’s also a cultivar called “Eco-Lacquered Spider” that has practically exploded in a shady bed in my yard. It throws out a massive array of runners and resembles a small vegetable kraken. As a spreader it’s unbelievable—I went and got a couple more, in hopes of finally chasing some of the chickweed out—but I’d be leery of introducing it anywhere but its native range along the East Coast. Plants that spread THAT well tend to have “potential scourge” written all over them.
Foamflower – (Tiarella sp.) I admit, I bought it for the white spike of flowers. However, foamflower is gaining popularity as a shade ground cover, spreading by rhizomes in shady areas…or possibly semi-shaded areas, or possibly only wet areas, or possibly it’s great in dry shade, and possibly it spreads moderately fast and possibly it’s very slow, depending on who you ask or where you look on the internet, by which we can probably assume that it is a highly variable plant. In my yard, it likes moist, well-mulched shade with occasional dappled sunlight, but while it flowers for a very long time, it has not yet displayed any dramatic colonial tendencies.Foamflower has recently attracted the interest of the nursery trade, who are no doubt going to try to turn it into the next Heuchera,which it rather resembles. Undoubtedly we will soon have five thousand variations on leaf color and the growers will charge exorbitant amounts largely unrelated to the attractiveness of said colors, but hey, at least that means that another nifty native will be widely available to anybody who wants to give it a try. Speaking of…
Coral bells — (Heuchera americana) They tell me this is a groundcover. I don’t see it. It’s a clump. Maybe theirs is not a clump. Mine is a clump.
Canada Wild Ginger — (Asarum canadense) One of the better plants for keeping down the weeds, Canada wild ginger forms a dense mat in full to semi-shade. In my experience, if you live anywhere near the South, it’s better to err on the shady side—an hour of North Carolina sun a day caused my first attempt to grow wild ginger to choke, die, fall over, catch fire and sink into the dark tarn. I have seen vampires with better sun-tolerance, and that’s not even getting into Twilight.
My second attempt fared a great deal better, placed in an area at the base of a bigleaf magnolia that gets at most fifteen minutes of filtered sunlight at morning and evening. Even in dry shade, this plant will keep on going, but it is particularly vigorous if given suitable moisture. Fabulous woodland garden plant all around.
Crinkleroot — (Cardamine diphylla) Also known as “toothwort,” this is a peculiar little plant that emerges in fall, persists through the winter, and goes dormant in summer. This is not ideal behavior in a groundcover, and makes it almost more of a really odd spring ephemeral, but it does form a mat and spreads via above-ground rhizomes in wet, shady areas. It’s worth planting in a shady corner, however, as it’s a host of the West Virginia White butterfly, and a nice splash of green during winter to boot.
© 2011 – 2013, Ursula Vernon. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.