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.
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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