By: Russell Stafford
It’s time for American gardeners to move beyond Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), English ivy (Hedera helix), and periwinkle (Vinca minor). It’s true that these ubiquitous landscape plants make excellent evergreen groundcovers, rapidly forming dense swaths of handsome foliage. But, in addition to being tiresomely common in American gardens, they’re a nuisance outside of cultivation, invading natural areas and out-muscling native plants with their aggressive growth. (English ivy and periwinkle appear on invasive plant lists over much of the southeastern and far-western U.S.).
Many U.S natives possess the same virtues as the ubiquitous three, with none of the liabilities. Here are several lovely native, evergreen options to replace tiresome invasive spreaders.
Japanese spurge’s more alluring, better-behaved relative from Appalachia is Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens). Its broad, coarsely toothed leaves are similar in shape to those of its Japanese cousin, but they do much more in the way of color. Fresh grassy-green when emerging in early spring, the foliage becomes gray-suffused and darker over the growing season, developing silvery flecking as fall approaches. Low, bottlebrush spikes of white flowers put on a charming display just before the new leaves expand. This clump-former thrives in rich, well-drained soil and partial shade, gradually spreading into dense 2- to 3-foot-wide hummocks. It’s hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9, and reliably evergreen in USDA Zones 6b and warmer.
Another Southeast U.S. native that makes a handsome evergreen groundcover for partial shade, fetterbush (Leucothoe axillaris spp.) bears glossy, oval, dark green leaves on arching, 2- to 4-foot-tall stems that sucker into thickets. For a traditional ground-hugging groundcover, choose the compact Leucothoe fontanesiana Scarletta, which forms billowing 2-foot-tall mounds with bright red new leaves, clusters of ivory flowers in spring, and maroon-red winter color. Or you can go full fetterbush and use a regular-sized Leucothoe axillaris as a tall groundcover. All forms produce white, bell-shaped flowers in spring. Fetterbush does well in moist humus-rich soil in USDA Zones 5 to 9, but is prone to leaf spot in poorly aerated sites.
Canby’s Mountain Lover
No evergreen groundcover for partial shade is finer – literally and figuratively – than Canby’s mountain lover (Paxistima canbyi). In the wild, it’s a rare, often gaunt inhabitant of rocky uplands from southern Pennsylvania to North Carolina. In favorable garden sites, however, it’s anything but shy and scraggly, spreading into low, thick, 3- to 5-foot-wide thatches of narrow, petite, deep green leaves. They provide a splendid textural contrast with bold-leaved evergreens such as rhododendrons and Pieris. Well-drained, humus-rich soil and partial to full sun seem to bring out the best in this beautiful Appalachian native, which is hardy from USDA Zones 4 to 8. Bronzing sometimes occurs in harsh winters.
Quite a few native species offer eye-catching flowers in addition to ground-covering evergreen foliage. Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) earns its name via its ever-expanding carpets of spoon-shaped leaves that give rise in mid-spring to 8-inch spikes of proportionately large, showy flowers. Several cultivars are available, varying in their flower color and vigor. Perhaps the best colonizer (and the best as a groundcover) is ‘Sherwood Purple’, with violet-blue blooms. Although creeping phlox is happiest in partial shade and woodsy soil, it will also flourish in rich moist soil in full sun.
Full-on sun is the preferred habitat of moss phlox (Phlox subulata). Sometimes scorned because of its association with median strips, whiskey barrels, and other lowbrow landscape features, it’s near the top of the list of tough, attractive groundcovers for hot sandy slopes and other difficult sites. The dense, ever-spreading, needle-like foliage is handsome and weed-suppressing, and the early spring flowers come in many colors besides the bubble-gum-purple shades disdained by plant snobs. Additionally, this Midwestern to eastern U.S. native is rock-hardy and adaptable, flourishing in well-drained soil in USDA Zones 3 to 9.
Other Native Evergreen Groundcovers
Blooming at the same time as creeping phlox (and making a knockout companion for blue-flowered cultivars such as ‘Sherwood Purple’), gold-star (Chrysogonum virginianum) mats the ground with fuzzy, toothed leaves that recall those of other members of the aster family such as Rudbeckia. The fully evergreen Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is another woodland groundcover for shade. Golden-yellow, five-parted star-flowers with fringed rays open in May and repeat sporadically until fall if conditions are not too hot and dry. Gold-star shares much the same cultural preferences and hardiness range (USDA Zones 4 to 9) as creeping phlox.
Toughness and adaptability are among the virtues of another often-scorned eastern and central U.S. native, robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus). Two selections of this fuzzy-leaved meadow-dweller are excellent choices for challenging niches such as dry shade or sunny slopes. The cultivar ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ has beefy rosettes of large, flat, tongue-shaped leaves that smother everything in their vigorously expanding path. In contrast, ‘Meadow Muffin’ produces congested, relatively slowly proliferating rosettes of smaller, crinkled leaves. Both cultivars send up pale lavender daisy-flowers on 10- to 15-inch stems in mid to late spring. Plants are evergreen through much of their USDA Zone 5 to 9 hardiness range, but may go leafless in relatively harsh winters.
Hardy evergreen sedums, such as Oregon stonecrop (Sedum oreganum), create fully evergreen cover for raised sunny beds or rock gardens. This species creates a spreading 2 to 3-inch mat of bead-like foliage that turns from green to reddish bronze in winter. Small, starry, yellow flowers grace the plants in summer.
Most newly planted groundcovers appreciate the addition of soil amendment, such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend, at planting time. This organic-rich mix encourages root growth and holds needed moisture to help plants thrive. Water new plantings every few days for at least two weeks. In no time, your native groundcovers should be rambling effortlessly through your garden.
Dozens of other native species work wonderfully as evergreen groundcovers, but those offered in this article are reliable and attractive through all seasons.
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