More Flowering Wintergreen Ground Covers for Shade
‘Album’ fall blooming hardy cyclamen, C. hederifolium ‘Album’, has white flowers, shown here blooming before the leaves on September 28, 2011, and spreads to form a ground cover that stays green through the winter.
In my article Flowering Wintergreen Ground Covers for Shade, I explained that I treasure evergreen ground covers that are presentable through winter because, 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 when any patch of green is prized. Ground covers, especially those that maintain a presence through winter, make a garden look mature and cut down on the labor of weeding and the expense of mulch. Yes, you can plant the evergreen triumvirate of vinca, ivy, and pachysandra. But I want more: beautiful flowers and foliage too. Just like the four in my original article, all four of the shady ground covers described below have prominent places at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens.
Lamium ‘Shell Pink’ is a versatile wintergreen ground cover with gorgeous flowers from April to November. It is the only lamium cultivar that blooms this long–all the others have a season of bloom in the spring. I grow mine under the shade of a white pine (photo above and below) and also in a sunny area in front of my peonies. ‘Shell Pink’s’ leaves stay neat and tidy all winter.
Lamium maculatum is native to Europe and temperate Asia. It quickly creeps to form 4 to 8″ tall patches of wintergreen leaves even in open full shade in zones 3 to 8. It doesn’t seem to care if the soil is moist or dry but likes to be well-drained. On ‘Shell Pink’, the first flush of flower buds emerges in early April to be followed by successive waves of blooms into November. It fills in around surrounding plants without overwhelming them. My deer have never touched it. Lamium also makes a great container plant and overwinters outside in pots. The only other cultivar I recommend is ‘Purple Dragon’ with bright purple flowers and solid silver leaves (photo below).
In anticipation of comments telling me that lamium is “invasive”, let me say three things. First, it is a ground cover so it is supposed to spread and cover large areas. A plant isn’t invasive because it spreads too much—the gardener has just planted it in the wrong place. To me, it’s invasive if you can’t remove it when you want to either because you can never get it all (goutweed, lesser celandine) or it seeds so prolifically that you can’t remove all the seedlings (garlic mustard). Second, the straight species, Lamium maculatum, may be invasive so don’t plant it. Third, many times when gardeners say this they are talking about yellow archangel, Lamiastrum galeobdolon, a plant with yellow flowers and silver leaves that is invasive. Lamiums don’t have yellow flowers. Thanks for listening!
Although spring-blooming hardy cyclamen, C. coum, is finicky and hard to grow, fall-blooming hardy cyclamen will thrive in most shady locations as long as it is well-drained. The flowers start to bloom in September and October before the leaves break dormancy. Then its gorgeous, intricately patterned wintergreen leaves emerge and remain pristine all winter until they go dormant in early summer. Mine happily naturalize in east-facing shady locations.
Hardy cyclamen is native to wooded areas and rocky hillsides of southern Europe and Turkey. It forms 4 to 6″ tall mats of leaves, which remain highly ornamental through winter in zones 5 to 9. It is very tolerant of soil conditions as long as it is well-drained and, once established, grows well in full dry shade. My deer leave it alone.
This is what happens to Italian arum during really cold weather. No matter how many times I have witnessed it, I am always amazed when it stands back up and looks as if nothing has happened. Photo December 2010.
I have featured Italian arum photos on my blog many times but that’s because I think it is such a great plant. The leaves emerge in September and remain immaculate through the winter. If the weather is really cold, it wilts to the ground (see photo above), only to perk up again as soon as temperatures recover. I have it planted by my front walk so I can enjoy its spotless, highly ornamental leaves all winter. I also use it to cover areas where I cut back ratty hostas in the fall (see my article Hostas for Fall). In May and June, it blooms with a pale green hood-like spathe covering a yellow spadix like our native jack-in-the-pulpit. Bright orange berries appear in summer. Several wonderful cultivars are available, including ‘Gold Rush’, which emerges in the spring with golden venation, and ‘Tiny Tot’, a miniature.
Italian arum is native to Europe. It grows 12 to 18″ tall in zones 6 to 9. It thrives in any soil in almost full sun to full shade and is tolerant of drought. Deer do not bother it. In the 20 years that I have been growing it, it has spread politely to other areas of my garden, but occasionally I have heard that it can become an aggressive spreader. Lyn from The Amateur Weeder reports that it is invasive in Australia. Please consult local experts to see if there is a problem where you garden.
I love epimediums. In fact, I love them so much that they are one of the few plants I allow myself to collect with 30 varieties in my garden. Their small but copious spring flowers are beautiful and unusual coming in white, pink, yellow, orange, red, purple, and bicolors. I also prize their leaves which are often shiny and wing-shaped, sporting spiky edges or colored splotches or lovely venation. Many epimediums are deciduous and clump-forming. In this article, I want to profile a few that have wintergreen leaves and spread to make a ground cover.
E. x rubrum is the second fastest spreader. It’s leaves are similar to ‘Sulphureum’. If you can find the cultivar ‘Sweetheart’, pictured above, it has gorgeous flowers. I sell a good selection of epimediums at my nursery, but I get my unusual epimediums from the Massachusetts nursery, Garden Vision Epimediums (email email@example.com). They have hundreds of varieties.
‘Frohnleiten’ epimedium, E. x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’, is also a fairly quick spreader . It has gorgeous shiny leaves with an intricate vein pattern and produces bright, sulfur yellow flowers in the spring.
Epimediums are native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. They reach 6 to 12″ tall, depending on the cultivar, and flower in April. They grow in part to full shade and can take dry soil once established. Their creeping roots are impenetrable to weeds. I cut back all the remaining old foliage in March once I see the new flowers and leaves starting to emerge. When choosing an epimedium for ground cover, select spreading varieties that have evergreen or semi-evergreen leaves.
Next spring when you are looking for ground covers, I hope you will consider one of the four described above. In the meantime, leave a comment with the name of your favorite wintergreen ground cover for shade. In my first article, I profiled golden groundsel, creeping phlox, dwarf sweetbox, and hybrid hellebores as ground covers. If you want to read about them, click here.
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Nursery Happenings: The nursery is closed for the year. Look for the snowdrop catalogue (snowdrops are available mail order) in January 2012 and an exciting new hellebore offering in February 2012. If you are within visiting distance and would like to receive catalogues and information about customer events, please send your full name and phone number to firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribing to my blog does not sign you up to receive this information.