Flowering Wintergreen Ground Covers for Shade

golden groundsel as groundcover in my woodland in spring

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.

fragrant flowers of native golden groundsel

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.

winter foliage of golden groundsel

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.

creeping phlox ‘Bruce’s White’ in my woodland in spring

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 with foamflower (Longwood Gardens)

winter foliage of creeping phlox

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.

beautiful colors of creeping phlox

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 in winter as ground cover under a dogwood

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.

dwarf sweetbox flowers getting ready to bloom

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 in winter as ground cover under Kousa dogwood

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.

some of the flowers on my ground cover hybrid hellebores

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.

Carolyn

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45 Responses to “Flowering Wintergreen Ground Covers for Shade”

  1. Didn’t realise that ground cover could have pretty flowers. Thanks for the good ideas.

  2. Loving your blog..
    Do you have the botanical name for the groundsel?

  3. Heidi Hayes Says:

    Carolyn – Thanks for some great ideas. Do you sell the groundsel and/or creeping phlox? I have a spot next to the house where either would be perfect.

  4. Very pretty groundcovers and photos Carolyn. I turned of the snow to show spring flowers. I will turn it back on for next post. BTW. It is a recipe for a good winter meal (since you were wondering) and goes with an architectural project, kitchen design on GreenApples. I swear you are a mind reader.

  5. Terri Higgins Says:

    I would like to use grouncovers ibstead of grass on my front lawn It is full of surface roots and dry shade from township mple trees. Should I grow patches of each or try to create a flowing mix of all three? Which approach would work best when they are not flowering?

  6. Hi Carolyn!

    You are definitely correct on the golden groundsel. I think mine is starting to become more invasive than desired.  Do you have any tips for controlling it, or will I need to “edit” it to the strip of ground near the train tracks?  I generally try to “compost” cuttings on a slope above the tracks hoping they will take root and provide a pretty view for passengers as the trains pass by! Thanks. Betsy

    • Hi Betsy, Your garden is really too small for golden groundsel. I don’t like to use the word invasive when the problem is really that the plant is in the wrong place (sorry if I contributed to that). I have planted it in some places it shouldn’t be in my garden and what I do is rip out the outer edge of the patch each year. You could do that or you could move it all to the RR slope to keep down weeds that would otherwise end up in your garden. Happy New Year, Carolyn

  7. Your little green patches look great! so many beautiful flowers

  8. Very nice recommendations for shade groundcovers. Evergreen with ornamental flowers – they have a lot to offer. Happy New Year!

  9. I have some golden groundsel in a pot in my garden right now that is waiting to be planted. It was given to me from the garden of a friend of mine. I can’t decide whether I am excited about it or not. I’m usually scared of the “I” word. But I do have a spot over at the church grounds that I maintain that is dry shade and it seems nothing will grow there. I might give it a shot over there because there is no competition. I would like to try it in my garden, but I’m afraid of it taking over. But you speak so highly of it, I’d like to try it.

    • Hi Toni, As I said, I would only plant it in your garden if you want it to be a ground cover like ivy, vinca, or pachysandra. Maybe the church grounds would be a more suitable location. You are right to consider the proper location, but the word “invasive” should not be applied to a plant just because the gardener planted it in the wrong place. I consider a plant invasive not because it spreads rapidly but only if when you want to remove it you can’t. Good examples around here are goutweed, lesser celandine, or Japanese knotweed—you can dig them to your heart’s content, but it’s very hard if not impossible to totally eliminate them once they are established. Golden groundsel is easy to remove, it just spreads rapidly. Thanks for giving me this chance to elaborate. Carolyn

  10. Your phlox are beautiful…I’m hoping to add some this spring! Your woodland gardens are so peaceful!

  11. Dear Carolyn, some lovely ideas for groundcover here beyond the old Vinca. Am very taken with creeping phlox which is a new one on me. My few hellebores just seem to peter out after a year or two so must be doing something wrong – ? too dry during the summer

    Happy New Year and look forward to more great posts

    Laura

    • Thanks Laura. I am assuming you are talking about hybrid hellebores. You may have heard that we had the worst summer on record here in the mid-Atlantic with no rain for months and 100 degrees (38 C) almost every day. We did water all our new plantings, which were extensive, but the hellebores in my production beds (where I grow plants in the ground to sell) received no supplemental water. They were so untouched by the heat and drought that I was able to dig and sell them in the fall. It can’t possibly be too dry in London for them. They will grow in a crack in the pavement. I would bet they are not well drained enough. I would start over with really bushy healthy plants and put them in a new partially sunny location with excellent drainage adding plenty of organic matter when you plant them. They are so beautiful, you have to try them again. Carolyn

  12. Those are all great suggestions, now if you can tell us how to get rid of the English ivy and vinca you mentioned.

    • Hi Les, You are right vinca and ivy are very hard to get rid of. I do it the old-fashioned way with a shovel and trowel. Before we moved in in 1983, vinca had “naturalized” (don’t you love that word) through our woods. We took it out where we wanted beds and ripped it back where we don’t. We keep it under control but have not gone to the trouble to get rid of it although I would prefer a native ground cover. We eliminated all ivy upon arrival, but have a terrible problem with euonymous. Carolyn

  13. Joanne Hanna Says:

    I need to plant some of these to cover up some bare spots – your article is very helpful Carolyn. What about wintergreen? I bought a plant late this fall just to try it…very colorful , berries and varigated leaves and so far the deer are stating away. Do the deer eat the phlox?

    Thanks, Joanne

  14. Oh, how I wish I had more shade. In the little shade that I do get I try to fit my favorites. I love silver ponyfoot groundcover. It likes sun/part shade. No blooms, but a silver carpet of cover. By the way, wonderful post! Golden Groundsel is very pretty and I like all the ones that you have shown.

  15. It seems we have a lot in common in the garden as mine is also quite shady. I know senecio but don’t grow it. In fact I don’t believe I have ever seen it for sale. I adore the creeping phlox, but again stolonifera is extremely hard to come by. While it does spread slowly I do help it along by snipping and replanting the cuttings. Your garden looks lovely. I look forward to the spring photos.

    • Hi Patty, I have never seen Senecio aureus for sale other than at my own nursery. You can buy it in cell flats (wholesale only) at North Creek Nurseries–that’s where I got it. Creeping phlox is available around here but not very often–I also sell that locally. Good idea about snipping and replanting. Carolyn

  16. I’m so glad you included creeping phlox with your groundcovers… I hadn’t paid attention to its evergreen nature before and I’m so excited about filling in around my shed with it! I’m hoping it will crowd out the weeds that come up between the shed and the low stone wall next to it.

    • Hi Eliza, Creeping phlox is a moderate grower and likes a good woodland site (or the equivalent soil). Once it has filled in, it will keep out all but the most aggressive weeds, but before that you have to weed it. It cannot out compete golden groundsel, although the purple phlox and yellow grounsel look stunning together. Carolyn

  17. I am really loving the sweetbox. I am going to look for it this spring (any variety) I do have shady areas on the wood line.

    • Hi Cheri, If you want the short ground cover type, then you need to get the sweetbox with the Latin name that includes var. humilis. There is no cultivar name, and the other sweetboxes are generally more like shrubs. It is very pricey though! Carolyn

  18. Such beautiful ground cover plants. I’ve always been a little envious of how well phlox does on the east coast. I tried growing some here after I visited a friend in Massachusetts one year, it seemed bomb-proof, but mine fizzled. I was successful with Sarcococca though, and tolerated some rather heavy shade in that garden. I agree, it’s a little slow for impatient gardeners, but forms a beautiful evergreen base in the garden, as is well worth it.

  19. Great post…thanks for the reminder about how important those evergreen plants are…we certainly appreciate them now!

  20. Other than the hellebores not much will thrive here in the wilds of Texas. I do enjoy the beautiful photos, though.

    BTW, thanks for the golden manatee vote! Your check is in the mail.

  21. Cassandra Says:

    I have LOTS of senecio, which i first obtained from YOU when I began gardening 13 years ago. It is a workhorse and just about indestructible.
    I am working on adding more hellebores too
    Another shade “ground cover” can also be Christmas fern,Polystichum acrostichoides . I see these in profusion when I am out hiking in the winter I have
    a few in my shade fern garden but want to propagate more

    • Hi Cassandra, I was thinking of including evergreen ferns but I decided I wanted to limit the first installment of evergreen ground covers to four so I could give more information about each. You are right, Christmas ferns make a great cover—I have seen them in the wild too. Carolyn

  22. Just bought some golden ragwort and was checking it out and came upon this post. Most helpful. Hope you are doing well!

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