Flowering Wintergreen Ground Covers for Shade
Here in the mid-Atlantic (US), we go through long periods of winter weather that are just plain cold without the compensation or covering of snow. Any patches of exposed ground look barren and downright ugly. That is why, during this time of year, I treasure any little patch of green, any ground cover that is presentable through the winter. Yes, I have the usual evergreen triumvirate of vinca, ivy, and pachysandra. I can even find good things to say about each of them. But I want more: native plants, deer resistance, tolerance of dry shade, fragrance, abundant flowers, drought tolerance, and beautiful foliage. All four of the shady ground covers described below have a majority of these desirable characteristics.
Our native golden groundsel, Senecio aureus, has to be my favorite all time ground cover. It spreads as fast and aggressively as any of the reigning three. It is not a plant to be mingled into your perennial beds: it is a plant for the bare patch—wet, dry, sunny, shady, infertile, clay—where nothing else grows. Put it behind the garage, around the base of a tree with surface roots, along the bottom of a fence, or in your “hell strip” by the road. You will be rewarded with evergreen leaves through winter and an abundance of fragrant flowers suitable for arrangements.
Golden groundsel is native to meadows and woods of the eastern half of the US. It quickly creeps to form large, 6″ tall patches of wintergreen leaves even in full dry shade. In spring, buds emerge bright maroon-purple opening to cheery yellow, 2′ tall fragrant flowers in May. The new leaves, which appear after the flowers, are large and round, providing a bold texture (see photo at top). My deer have never touched it.
The other native I highly recommend for wintergreen shady ground cover is creeping phlox, Phlox stolonifera. Not as aggressive as golden groundsel, creeping phlox can be mingled in your perennial beds or used alone under shrubs and trees. It moves at a medium rate to fill in around surrounding plants without overwhelming them. Then, from March into May, it is covered with blue, pink, white, or purple flowers.
Creeping phlox is native to wooded areas of the eastern US. The 2 to 3″ tall mat-forming leaves are completely covered by 8″ tall flowers in spring. It is very tolerant of soil conditions and, once established, grows well in full dry shade. My deer leave it alone. As an added benefit, it comes in white, ‘Bruce’s White’ (photo above), pink, ‘Home Fires’ or ‘Pink Ridge’, pale lavender-blue, ‘Blue Ridge’, or purple, ‘Sherwood Purple’ or ‘Fran’s Purple’. The purple cultivars are the most vigorous, and I think the most beautiful.
For a refined and elegant, truly evergreen ground cover, I recommend dwarf sweetbox, Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis. Technically a small shrub, dwarf sweetbox slowly creeps by means of underground stolons to form a 4′ patch over 10 years. But it is well worth the wait—or if you are impatient, planting it close together—because in February its tiny white flowers produce the most heavenly fragrance for your winter enjoyment. My patch perfumes my whole garden.
Dwarf sweetbox is native to the western Himalayas in China. Its stems grow to 18″ with narrow, glossy evergreen leaves and creamy white, extremely fragrant flowers in February in the mid-Atlantic. It thrives in average soil and part to full shade and, once established, is tolerant of drought. Deer do not bother it. It tends to be pricey so I planted very small plants which periodically needed to be poked back into the ground as it roots right below the soil surface.
The final plant that has the characteristics I want in shady wintergreen ground covers is hybrid hellebore, Helleborus x hybridus. My customers are always asking me what to do with the multitude of seedlings produced by their hybrid hellebores, and here is the answer: move them to a place where you need ground cover. In three years, you will have 2′ wide plants covered with huge, beautiful flowers from February to May and pristine foliage that remains green all winter—for free! I have done this under my Kousa dogwood and throughout my woodland, and the result is spectacular.
Hybrid hellebores have many different parents mainly native to eastern Europe. Their wintergreen leaves are 2′ tall and remain ornamental until new leaves appear in spring. Each plant produces a multitude of large, cup-shaped nodding flowers in many colors ranging from dark purple to pink to white to green with doubles, spots, and picotee edges quite common. They grow anywhere in any soil and light conditions as long as they are well-drained. If you want to spoil them, give them organic matter, but no supplemental water is required after they are established even in the worst drought. They are slightly poisonous so deer do not eat them.
Next spring when you are looking for ground covers, I hope you will consider one of the fantastic four described above. In the meantime, leave a comment with the name of your favorite wintergreen ground cover for shade.
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