Contact Us Host an Event Volunteer Join

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?

Share

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions

Please forgive us, but Mr. Smarty Plants has been overwhelmed by a flood of mail and must take a break for awhile to catch up. We hope to be accepting new questions again soon. Thank you!

Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.

 
rate this answer
1 rating

Sunday - March 20, 2016

From: Cary, NC
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Propagation, Shade Tolerant, Herbs/Forbs
Title: Ground cover plants for a shady North Carolina yard
Answered by: Guy Thompson

QUESTION:

Ground cover erosion control for heavily shaded area in Cary, North Carolina. Current landscapers use strong blowers for leaf control. This blows away any seeds, loose soil and mulch. Tree roots are becoming exposed. Broad based weed killer is also used. All this detritus is washed into the lake in front of our home. We are currently looking for a more eco-friendly landscaper. Can you recommend questions we need to ask them before we select a new landscaper?

ANSWER:

You should definitely change your landscaper.  Use only weak blowers or, preferably, leaf rakes and rake up hill away from the lake.  If much of your topsoil has been washed away and roots exposed, bring in new topsoil.  And because turf grass will not grow well in deep shade, you will need to plant broad leaf plants.  That means stop using the broad leaf type weed killer.

There are lots of shady native plants that would make great groundcovers. To find these plants start first with a creating a list of native plants for your area. Take a look at the Native Plant Database on the www.wildflower.org website and put in the following search criteria: State = North Carolina, habit = herb (for herbaceous), duration = perennial, light requirement = shade, soil moisture = moist.  Then select the height you desire. Most groundcovers are in the 0-1 foot category but there are some nice taller plants that will work too. This will generate a list of herbaceous plants.

Some herbaceous perennial native plants that perhaps would work as groundcovers are:

Galium triflorum (Fragrant bedstraw)  

Fragrant bedstraw is a trailling perennial that crawls along the ground or over other plants, sometimes reaching 4 ft. in length. Its leaves are broader that most Galiums and arranged in whorls of six. The tiny, star-like flowers are greenish-white and in groups of three at the ends of the stems. Sweet scented.

Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny spurge)

Mountain spurge or Allegheny spurge is a low perennial, spreading with long rhizomes. Toothed leaves crowd near the top of somewhat fleshy, 6 in., erect stems. Fragrant, white flowers cluster in a spike, the many staminate flowers above, the few pistillate flowers below. Leaves and stems are evergreen. Once the new shoots mature, the previous season’s growth disappears. Leaves have scalloped margins and are marbled with silver and purple.

Mountain Spurge is an excellent ground cover for shady areas. It is considered more attractive than the over-used, Asiatic Pachysandra terminalis. The native species grows slowly and will not take over like P. terminalis.

Phlox stolonifera (Creeping phlox)

Creeping phlox is a mat-forming perennial with loose mats of semi-evergreen foliage and erect clusters of large flowers. The showy blossoms are lavender, blue or white with an eye of purple-red tinged in white. The leaves of this 6-10 in. plant are round or spoon-shaped.

Phylla nodiflora (Texas frogfruit) (for part shade)

Texas Frogfruit can be used as an excellent ground cover and is evergreen in warm years. It is also evergreen in areas protected from frost. It spreads vigorously. Frogfruit generally is a good nectar plant for butterflies. It is an attractive plant rambling over boulders or the edges of hanging baskets. It also can tolerate drought and flooding. Tolerates drought and flooding. Will go dormant during hard winters.

Chrysogonum virginianum (Green and gold) (for part shade)

A showy plant with yellow, daisy-like flower heads on very hairy stems. Green-and-Gold is a perennial herb with opposite, oval, hairy leaves and clusters of star-shaped yellow flowers blooming for long periods atop the tight clump of foliage. It is a highly variable species: the northern variety is taller and more upright; the southern one prostrate and creeping.

Each flower head resembles a yellow or golden star, and the stems have distinctive spreading, glandular hairs. It is the only species in this genus.

Can be used as a groundcover if thickly planted. Some varieties will spread very rapidly from seeds, stolons, runners and expansion of the clumps. Blooms sporadically over a long period; peak bloom period is in May. Plants seems to grow better if neglected than if pampered. Seems to benefit from being divided or transplanted at least every other year. Very adaptable (though will not stand full shade), tolerating both flood and drought.

And also you might consider … Viola walteri (Walter’s violet), Tiarella cordifolia var. collina (Heartleaf foamflower), Sanguinaria canadenesis (Bloodroot), Phlox divaricata (Wild blue phlox), Mitchella repens (partridgeberry), Hexastylis shuttleworthii var. shuttleworthii (Largeflower heartleaf), Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa (Roundlobe hepatica), Hexastylis arifolia (Little brown jug), Clintonia borealis (Bluebeard), Asarum canadense (Canadian wild ginger).

You can also use the North Carolina Native Plant Society website. They have a pull down menu that will let you select a list of perennial shrubby groundcovers.

Neither the www.wildflower.org or the www.ncwildflower.org websites have information that rates the “foot traffic tolerance” of groundcovers. For this you will have to look online. The ability to tolerate foot traffic severely limits that number of native groundcover plants that are available and perhaps to avoid limiting the list of plants to be used, stepping stones can be used instead.

The NC State University suggests that Chrysogonum virginianum tolerates limited foot traffic. Needs well-drained soil; native; tolerates limited foot traffic; a North Carolina native which looks equally at home in the flower garden and the deciduous woods.

By conducting a Google search for plant nurseries in the Raleigh area you should be able to find a source of these recommended plant species.  Look for a nursery that specializes in native plants.

 

 

From the Image Gallery

Fragrant bedstraw
Galium triflorum

Fragrant bedstraw
Galium triflorum

Allegheny spurge
Pachysandra procumbens

Creeping phlox
Phlox stolonifera

Creeping phlox
Phlox stolonifera

Texas frogfruit
Phyla nodiflora

Texas frogfruit
Phyla nodiflora

 

 

More Shade Tolerant Questions

Native ornamental grass for part shade in Austin
December 22, 2010 - Hi. I am looking for a fast-growing hardy ornamental grass that will grow in partial shade in south Austin that is not considered invasive. Unfortunately I purchased a few of the Pennisetum setaceum r...
view the full question and answer

Erosion Control with perennials for a shady Dallas bank
July 25, 2013 - Thank you for your help with turf or perennials on a shaded bank, 4000 sq ft, for the Dallas area that has good roots, grows in semi shade to shade, is on a steep bank so cannot mow, and flowers the l...
view the full question and answer

Shrubs for shade in Peoria, Arizona
February 25, 2009 - My six-foot block wall is on the west side of my yard. There are two large shade trees in front of the wall. What kind of shrubs can I plant near this wall that only gets sun for about 2 hours in th...
view the full question and answer

Plants under Oak Trees in Austin TX
December 10, 2012 - Half of my small yard is in the shade of one big live oak and one kumquat. Nothing I plant grows in this shade. The other half of my yard gets sunlight. It is planted with Jasmine grass which grows w...
view the full question and answer

Disagreement with HOA on raised beds placed beneath mature oak from Tequesta FL
April 05, 2014 - I have mature 30 year old oak trees on my property and I put a raised bed under each with very good soil and I used pavers for retaining the soil about about 1.5 ft high. I planted a perennial begonia...
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.