Golden Ragwort: Groundcover Gold


Everyone is looking for groundcovers these days, and if we let go of the idea that a groundcover has to be short and have blades, a whole new world is opened up. Packera aurea is a plant with an awful name but a lot to offer to those looking for a good way to cover space with something beside grass.

Golden ragwort, (Packera aurea), a great groundcover.

Golden ragwort, (Packera aurea), a great groundcover.

Packera’s most common common name is ragwort, which makes it sound like something sneezy and tattered. However, it’s neither. It’s a robust and cheerful plant sending out a profusion of golden daisy-like flowers mid-spring, one of the earliest blooming of the aster, (Asteraceae) family. The flowers appear on top of stems that reach from one to three feet high, with two being about average. After blooming what you mainly see is the deep green leaves which form a basal rosette, a kind of circular cluster around the stem, very close to the ground. The rosette stays green all winter in more mild winters, and it keeps a presence in the garden, slightly more subdued, even in the colder climes. What’s more, it blooms in the shade.

Let’s look more closely. Crazy purple undersides. The buds and budding stems are purple too, great contrast to the signature gold. We want groundcovers that are tough, and this one is. It reproduces by self-seeding and also asexually by creeping. See those rhizomes? They creep, they hold, they push the family boundaries ever outward. The heart-shaped leaves of the rosette stay as close to each other as kissin’ cousins. These plants only need a little help to become mature enough to keep the weeds O*U*T.

PicMonkey Collage

Under the green stem on the left is the white rhizome, which extends outward just below the soil and gives rise to new stems. The indentation that gives the heart shape to the leaf is very near its base.

The upper leaf of the ragwort; called a cauline leaf attached directly to  stem, and feathery, or pinnatifid, in shape, unlike the basal leaves.

The upper leaf of the ragwort; called a cauline leaf, attached directly to stem; and feathery, or pinnatifid, in shape, unlike the basal leaves.

Just so you won’t be fooled, notice that moving up the stem, ragwort sports a leaf with a new shape. Leaves that attach directly to the stem above ground have a special name, they are called cauline. There. Word for the day. These cauline leaves are more lance-shaped and pinnatifid, or feathery looking.

Ragwort is native to every state in the entire eastern half of the U.S. which should give you a clue about its adaptability. By choice it inhabits shaded stream banks and boggy areas, but it is also found in dry places, and it will grow in sunny gardens if you want to bother providing moisture. Of course you realize what this means, right? If it is happy, it will colonize an area until stopped by natural enemies. This is great if you have a big space to cover, or a hillside to hold. Otherwise, confine it with hardscape like a pathway or edging that penetrates downward.

Ragwort with bluebells in background. Spring delight.

Ragwort with bluebells in background. Spring delight.

Ragwort also has a long blooming season, and is highly attractive to the little carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), cuckoo bees (Nomada spp.), as well as some of the Halictids. Syrphid and Tachinid flies use ragwort, as well as many butterflies. The Mt. Cuba center suggests marrying it with white wood aster, (Eurybia divaricata), christmas fern, (Polystichum acrostichoides), eastern wood fern, (Dryopteris marginalis), amsonia, (Amsonia tabernaemontana),  and phacelia, (Phacelia bipinnatifida), in the shade garden. Now that would be a Groundcover Powerhouse for wildlife!

Ragwort’s a great candidate for the rain garden, too, shown in this one with cinnamon fern, (Osmunda cinnamomea). The ragwort here is at the end of its blooming season and forming little achenes with seeds attached to a tuft of white hairs to fly away with.

Ragwort and cinnamon fern in a rain garden

Ragwort and cinnamon fern in a rain garden

It comes with many other common names: golden groundsel, heart-leafed groundsel, and butterweed. It even has another formal synonym, Senecio aurea.  But ragwort, by any of its other names, is a plant that deserves more attention, especially as a groundcover. And you know where to go for help finding native plants, right? Here:

Happy Hunting!

© 2015, Suzanne Dingwell. 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.

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  1. Janet Way says

    Good Morning,
    I was wondering about the relationship if any, of this Ragwort with the Tansy Ragwort, which is considered an invasive weed here in the Pacific northwest, and may be toxic? Thanks for any information.

    Beautiful post.


    Janet Way
    Shoreline, WA

    • suzanne dingwell says

      Janet, thank you! The tansy ragwort, (Senecio jacobaea), is a non-native brought over from Europe, and I understand it is quite a problem out your way, where it is not only lnvasive but also toxic to grazing livestock. The native ragwort featured in the blog, (Packera aurea) is also slightly toxic, but is not invasive here; however it is not native to your part of the country.

  2. Lee says

    I’ve been wanting to replace my open “bark beds” with native ground cover AND I live on the East Coast! Thank you for all the details!
    Lee recently posted..Earthing at the Hydra’s Lair on the First Morning in May

  3. Dee Maack says

    I planted 10 of these early last summer in dense shade-under the north side of a mature oak tree and board fence and west side of a shed. The only other thing we have successfully grown there was English ivy that I removed 7-8 years ago. This area is next to a ditch draining major springs from the top of a hill and subject to being very wet or very dry. This stuff is amazing. I let it go to seed last year and it has spread remarkably. Containment may be an issue, so thanks for the warning. It was such fun to see that profusion of yellow flowers so early. I was afraid they wouldn’t bloom, but it really fooled me.

    • Suzanne Dingwell says

      That’s great to hear. A wonderful improvement on english ivy for sure! Thanks for your comment.

  4. papadick58 says

    Don’t the deer love this plant????

    • Suzanne Dingwell says

      As we know, deer will eat anything if hungry enough, but this plant is actually less desirable to deer than many others.

  5. suzanne dingwell says

    Lee, you’re so welcome! Thanks for stopping by and good luck with the new bed!

  6. Pat Sutton says

    Suzanne, great post about one of my favorite native perennial ground covers! A friend shared some divisions from her woodland garden with me several years back and now I have shimmery, golden avenues of it in my reclaimed woods (where Multiflora Rose once reigned). Right now, late May, it is in seed. I’ve cut off the fluffy seed heads and scraped them into some new spots in my woods and can’t wait for new golden avenues of it. Another ground cover gem in my woods is Lyre-leaved Sage, which is now giving the woods a blue flush. Thanks again for opening people’s eyes to this lovely native perennial that is so suitable as a shade ground cover. And YES, far far better than English Ivy.
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Native Plants for Sale at 5 South Jersey Ace Hardware Stores

    • Suzanne Dingwell says

      Thank you, Pat! I loved hearing the description of your ‘shimmering avenues!’ Lyre-leafed sage is another super choice, so right, and thanks for mentioning it.


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