Finding Native Groundcovers

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.

Green and Gold Chrysogonum virginianum Flower 3008

Photo by Derek Ramsey, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Tiarella 'Sea Foam' a1

Photo by Jerzy Opiola, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Toothwort (Dentaria diphylla)

Photo by Atrian, Wikimedia Commons


© 2011, Ursula Vernon. 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 Ursula Vernon

    Ursula Vernon lives in North Carolina  where she gardens for wildlife with her cats, her boyfriend, and a beagle, and is still astonished when anything comes back at all in the spring. She is also part of the team at Beautiful Wildlife Garden.

    Ursula is a freelance writer, artist and illustrator. She is best known for the webcomic Digger and the children's books Dragonbreath and Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew, and a fantasy novel entitled Black Dogs. Ursula is also the creator of the Biting Pear of Salamanca, a work which became an internet meme in the form of the "LOL WUT" pear. Ursula's cover for Best in Show won the 2003 Ursa Major Award for Best Anthropomorphic Published Illustration. She was nominated for the 2006 Eisner Awards in the category Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition for her work on Digger.


    1. Sue Reed says:

      Hi Ursula. Great helpful post, thanks! I might also recommend using the native Allegheny pachysandra. It’s much less aggressive than the alien pachysandra beast, but a good spreader nonetheless.

      • Ursula Vernon says:

        Ooh, haven’t even heard of that one—I’ll have to check it out!

        • Ellen Sousa says:

          I second Sue’s suggestion of the Allegheny Pachysandra! In rich, moist woodland soil, it forms a really lush and inviting mat. It’s not native to New England but then again, the Japanese Pachysandra (which currently covers 1/2 of home gardens and has begun spreading into nearby woods) is most definitely not, either! But don’t get me started on that :)
          Ellen Sousa recently posted..When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

    2. Nif says:

      Ooh, thanks for the recommendations! I can think of some spots in our yard where it would be nice to try Meehania cordata and Cardamine diphylla.

      Love your description of invasive foreigners colonizing the bathroom and the surface of Mars. I have literally seen English ivy invade the second floor of a building. *Shudder.*

      I adore green-and-gold. I banged it down into unamended clay soil that was once covered by lawn, and now have the most cheerful spot ever. It blooms for such a nice, long stretch and it is spreading very nicely. I’m trying to divide it into new spots: we’ll see how that goes.

      I’m also quite pleased with our Asarum canadense. It’s great for places where people never, ever, step, and is spreading wonderfully in the shade of a deciduous tree. O

      Our tiarella is surprising me with how persistently it is spreading, given that it is competing with tall, aggressive things. I think I want more of it. Wonder how it will do in that area with all the pesky vines?

      Heuchera is a clump, I agree, and spreads rather slowly. But such a nice clump! I admit to being a sucker for the pretty leaf colors of the cultivars, though I have a couple of basic natives too.

      • Valerie says:

        Love it. What is the native range of Heuchera and Tiarella?

        I adore wild ginger – and yes it will scorch in not much sun.

        In Midwest 5b I am trying out some Gaultheria procumbens, which is evergreen with berries for birds, plus aromatic foliage.

    3. Earth Girl says:

      I love wild ginger but had trouble starting it at home. Just last week I found several patches under my redbud trees that somehow spread from a neighboring woods. I was so excited and dragged my husband out to see it several times. I envisioned a carpet of ginger under those trees, which are between our lane and woods.

      Then my teenage son mowed the lawn. His father told him that we now longer mowed under those trees (bloodroot, bluebells, jacks, bleeding heart, native sunflowers, asters, monarda and now ginger just showed up!) and even walked the new edge with him. You know what happened next. My son felt so bad because my first response was tears. My second response was hope that the ginger responds to this pruning.

      • Ellen Sousa says:

        Earth Girl, I think I would have succumbed to tears too!! I’m willing to bet the ginger will pop back up, those rhizomous (is that a word? LOL) root stalks are very tough and will usually resprout…
        Ellen Sousa recently posted..When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

    4. Risa Edelstein says:

      Here are a few more groundcovers I have to recommend:
      1) Waldsteinia fragaroides or Barren Strawberry – interesting foliage, a small yellow flower blooming early spring
      2) Viola labradorica or Labrador Violets – great heart shaped leaf that is purple/green and a lovely small purple flower – mixes in well with other plants
      3) Phlox stolinifera or Creeping Phlox – available in great colors including white, purple and pink.

      All of these are terrific part shade ground covers and I have had a lot of success with all of them. I had to laugh about your Coral Bells comment since all of the ones I have ever used are clumps!

      My biggest issue for groundcovers is trying to find something evergreen to compete with English Ivy, Pachasandra and Vinca – all of which are so overused here in New England. Ideas are welcome!

    5. Carol Duke says:

      Oh, I did so love my foamflower but the horrid bishop’s weed did it in. I wish I could find a native ground cover that would do in bishops weed! What a curse and with all the rain it is as a raging ocean in my gardens. Lovely selections!
      Carol Duke recently posted..The Crabapple Orchard

      • UrsulaV says:

        Oh man, bishop’s weed is just…I have no words.
        UrsulaV recently posted..Pollinator woes…

    6. Debbie says:

      Ursula, I must try some green & gold after that wonderful description. I planted some Tiarella ‘Running Tapestry’ last year in a semi-shady spot that gets a few hours of afternoon sun (with fairly dry soil) and it seems to be spreading already. So I just bought a flat of plugs to try in other places throughout the garden to see if it responds as well in different light conditions.
      Debbie recently posted..Garden Designers Roundtable- Stone

    7. Ellen Sousa says:

      Some super suggestions here…and the cardamine is now on my list of plants to look out for in our moist woodlands…I’ve a feeling I’ve seen it but never IDed it. I can’t imagine it would be easy to find seeds or plants available for sale, I don’t think I’ve seen it available anywhere…

      The foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) is my all-time number 1 favorite native ground cover. As long as it’s grown in rich, moist soil it has spread beautifully everywhere I’ve planted it, and those swaths of foamy white flowers are SO welcome in the gloomy days of spring…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

    8. Natalie Brewer says:

      HI. Enjoyed the article and have had others ask me about ground covers. In addition to the ones you mentioned, I recommend golden ragwort, Senecio aurea, and hay scented fern, Dennstaedtia punctilobula. I have very dry shade, so the Allegheny pachysandra, the ginger and the foamflowers have not spread for me, although they are still beautiful, but are more like clumps. The golden ragword spreads by runners and by seed and is slolwy making a carpet in my shady garden. It has bright yellow composite flowers in early spring, one of the earliest to bloom. And it has stayed evergreen for me for the past three years. I haven’t personally grown any hay-scented fern, but I know that it is a very tough fern that can withstand many different soil and light conditions. It would make for a much taller groundcover, but should cover the ground none-the-less. Both of these choices are also inpalatable to deer and the ragwort is a nectar source for small pollinators and a host to the northern metalmark butterfly.



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