Native Ground Cover for East Coast Shade: Barren Strawberry

An alternative for dry or moist shade where grass won't grow.

Barren strawberry (Geum fragarioides) thriving along a driveway at Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, DE.
Barren strawberry (a.k.a. waldsteinia) is a shade-tolerant ground cover for the U.S. east cost. Here, it is thriving along a driveway at Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, DE. Kathleen Groll Connolly

A good ground cover is worth its weight in weed suppression, so I always pay attention when I encounter a low-growing carpet of green. During an August visit to the Mt. Cuba Center, a botanical garden in Hockessin, DE, I saw a little plant with the common name of “barren strawberry” (Geum fragarioides) hugging a hot, dry slope along a busy driveway. Its dark green leaves were vigorous and healthy in a location of mixed sun and shade.

Because I’ve grown barren strawberry (also called waldsteinia), I knew that the bright yellow May blossoms had long gone by. The foliage alone is handsome enough to warrant attention. At the Mt. Cuba Center, the plant was thriving in a place where grass would be very unlikely to grow. (For more about ground covers and other plant research for the mid-Atlantic region at the Mt. Cuba Center, see Note 1 below.)

I have found barren strawberry growing wild in moist, deeply shaded woods of western Massachusetts, but rarely found it in nurseries until recently. With growing interest in native plants and grass replacements, however, it's more common in garden centers and catalogs. It's an adaptable native plant that, like others of its kind, is finding a place in horticultural trade.

This plant stays green for nine months of the year in my southern New England garden. Author William Cullina writes in his book, “Growing and Propagating Wildflowers,” that the plant is evergreen in areas where temperatures stay above 15 degrees Fahrenheit. In terms of USDA weather zones, that means Zone 8, which is nearly the southern end of the plant's range. 

Barren strawberry has a few common names, such as Appalachian barren strawberry and waldsteinia—and even two or three botanical names. In the botanical world, it was called Waldsteinia fragarioides until reclassified a few years ago to Geum fragarioides. I also find references to another botanical name, Dalibarda fragarioides.

The species name, fragarioides, is a Latin reference to its strawberry-like appearance. This plant is indeed a strawberry relative. Both strawberries and barren strawberries are members of the rose family. Barren strawberry is distinguished by deeply lobed leaves and pure yellow flowers, unlike the smooth leaves of true strawberries and their white flowers.

Barren strawberry is native to the eastern U.S. from Maine to northern Florida but is most commonly found in the mid-Atlantic seaboard states and the higher elevations of North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In some states of New England and the upper Midwest, the plant is listed as a species of special concern or even endangered.

Barren strawberry is an attractive, ground-hugging plant that offers May flowers and nearly year-round ground cover for dry or moist shade. It forms a dense, weed-choking mat of roots and rhizomes. It is well worth consideration for spaces where grass won't grow. 

Note 1:  To see more ground covers and perennials for the mid-Atlantic region, see the Mt. Cuba Center research page. The Mt. Cuba Center also conducts garden trials of phlox, heuchera, coreopsis and other native plants that form dense ground covers.