Plant This Not That: Native Groundcover Edition

Goldent Ragwort is a native groundcover

Golden Ragwort, image © Westside Nature Preserve

After a lecture I gave a few months ago on native plants for Baltimore, one of attendees wondered on his blog about sustainable urban groundcovers. I’ve been meaning to take a stab at his question, so here goes!

Specifically, Chris asked:

“So, what are the best groundcovers for the Mid-Atlantic? Again, the idea here is to cover the ground in a way that does not require mowing or extensive weeding, but also does not hurt valuable street trees or provide havens for rats and other urban scourges.”

As he notes, I discouraged him from using English ivy or vinca minor because they are both invasive and ecologically inert. Ursula Vernon has already written on the topic of native plants as groundcovers, and I love all her choices. I’d like to add a few of my own favorites to the discussion.

One of my favorite native plants to employ as a groundcover is golden ragwort (packera aurea, formerly called senecio aureus). Golden ragwort is very well suited for either moist sunny spots or virtually any kind of shade. This species sends up wonderful yellow flowers in spring, and here in Maryland the ground-hugging base foliage is nearly evergreen. It is not a vine, like ivy and vinca, but it is an assertive self-seeder and creates a dense stand in a year or two. It will spread, but in my experience the seeds are heavy enough that it doesn’t spread very far.

Cerastium arvense is a native plant groundcover for sunny spots

Cerastrium arvense forms a dense mat

For sunny spots that are not moist I’ve become a great fan of field chickweed (cerastium arvense). Despite sharing a name with the non-native common chickweed (stellaria media), which is an agricultural pest, cerastium arvense is an attractive six inch tall mat-forming plant worthy of garden use. It spreads by rhizomes and is quite happy in unfriendly soil.

Another underused perennial groundcover is the native lyreleaf sage (salvia lyrata). Lyreleaf sage is naturally found in moist soils, but it seems to tolerate dry soils quite well. There are purple-leafed cultivars, but the straight species is rich in nectar and a real pollinator magnet.

If the site can accommodate a slightly taller groundcover, one excellent choice is fragrant sumac (rhus aromatica). The “Grow Low” cultivar of this woody shrub has a particularly prostrate habit. Fragrant sumac offers high wildlife value, attractive fall foliage, and is tough enough for almost any urban setting.

Finally, while we tend to think of our native vines as climbing plants (and they are, but then again so is English ivy) they can be effective groundcovers too. Trumpet honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens) and Virginia creeper (parthenocissus quinquefolia) are attractive and hardy spreading plants that wildlife and people can both love.

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  1. Sue Sweeney says

    Absolutely agree on Virginia creeper (woodbine) – I’ve used it a lot with good results. In shade or part shade, it has never gotten out of hand.

    Another good one for the northeast for even dry shade is the common blue violet (Viola sororia); I put it in all the garden borders in part shade as a bribe for the rabbits. They hop along, eating a leaf here and there, and leave most of the other plants alone. It covers empty ground quickly and the excess is easily pulled up.

  2. says

    Hey Vincent – good info. This gives me a lot of possibilities for replacing my existing non native groundcovers. So far, I’ve been working with Wild Ginger, and Bloodroot, both of which seem to flourish here. We’ve also got Virginia creeper gracing our backyard woodland. So far I’ve never seen it bloom, but it sure pops up in a lot of places. Your presentation helps me a lot in ridding my yard of the non natives. Thanks.
    Hal Mann recently posted..Recent Inspiration

  3. says

    Vincent there are some great choices here for those of us in the NE as well…I also like Chrysogonum virginianum or Green and Gold for dry shade. I found the honeysuckle was a great ground cover when it decided to branch out as a ground cover with no help from me…love it!!
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Spirit of the Season

  4. says

    Thanks so much for this information! I’m always on the lookout for native groundcover candidates. I have two spaces that need groundcover – one is dry and sunny, the other is dry and shady. Sounds like the golden ragwort could be the way to go. I’m in D.C., so whatever works in Baltimore should work here!

    Has anyone used Pussytoes as extensive groundcover? I’m getting ready to seed a fair amount of space in a walkway with Antennaria dioica, and hoping it will do well.
    Mary Kay Scott recently posted..Get the City to Pay for your Garden Enhancements

  5. says

    I tried wild ginger but it didn’t survive this summer here in western NY. I am looking for something to put in between raised beds in full sun. I couldn’t dig down to put in beds with all the cables underground so we put up 3 beds this season with native plants. Being a novice means I am making a lot of mistakes along the way… if you have a suggestion, I am going to look up what you have here…Michelle from
    Michelle Banks recently posted..Helping Wildlife in Early Fall


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