Ground Covers for Shade

5 to Plant, 7 to Be Wary Of

Blue flower of Vinca, a ground cover

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Just because certain plants qualify as ground covers for shade, that does not necessarily mean you want to grow them. There are 12 plants that qualify, but use these choices as a springboard for further research. Many of these plants you should not grow, such as lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), a plant found growing (and still spreading) on many an abandoned homestead in eastern North America.

Shady Ground Cover Uses

Why would you seek a ground cover for shade? Well, in some cases, you might have a shady spot in your yards where you would like to grow a "filler," something that will look pretty while, at the same time, choke out weeds. For, just to spite those who crave well-manicured landscaping, weeds often seem to be the one thing that will flourish in shady conditions.

"Shade" means "partial shade," not deep shade (few plants that you would be interested in growing do well in deep shade).

To choke out weeds, a ground cover must be vigorous. But, therein lies the dilemma. Vigor is a double-edged sword. Some plants overdo it. Yes, those are the dreaded invasive plants.

Some of the ground covers for shade on this list are invasive in some areas. If you are interested in one of these plants, and if it is identified below as being potentially invasive, contact your local extension office to determine whether it is invasive in your particular region. There could be restrictions on growing it.

The first five ground covers thrive in shade and are relatively safe to grow (in many cases, they will not spread out of control). The next seven are questionable selections and marked "Beware." This division is not intended to be a hard-and-fast rule of good and bad plants, it really depends on where you live.

  • 01 of 12

    Bunchberry

    Bunchberry (a type of dogwood) is a short plant

    David Beaulieu/The Spruce

    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is a native plant in northern regions of North America. It is showier (when in bloom, at least) than some of the other native choices in the region, such as spotted wintergreen. Based on its short height, alone, you might do a double-take to see it classified as a type of dogwood (Cornus). However, one glance at its flowers and leaves will leave no doubt as to its pedigree in the minds of plant geeks.

  • 02 of 12

    Hosta

    Plantain lily (Hosta) El Nino

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    When you hear mention of ground covers for shade, ​Hosta may immediately come to mind. Do understand, though, that some types of hosta need a bit more sun to achieve their best color. In general, hostas with green leaves, as well as blue-leaved types such as Halcyon hosta, are ideal choices for shady spots. Gold-leaved types and those with variegated leaves, such as Patriot hosta and the similar "Minuteman," should be given a little more light.

  • 03 of 12

    Ferns

    Interrupted fern with its fall foliage

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    Ferns are generally great choices for shady areas, although they do not offer flowers. The absence of flowers may be a deal-breaker for some gardeners, but others adore good foliage plants. There are many different kinds. The interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) is a tall type (2 to 3 feet). It turns golden in autumn, but, otherwise, offers only a green color. Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) stays shorter (1 to 1.5 feet) and gives you more interesting colors throughout the growing season. Its gray-green fronds are painted with a silvery overcoat, studded with maroon veining. For these reasons, the painted fern is more popular in landscaping.

  • 04 of 12

    Barrenroot

    Flowers of Epimedium x rubrum.

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    Barrenroot is the common name for the Epimedium genus of plants. There are a number of different types. Epimedium grandiflorum "Rose Queen" has one of the prettier flowers among the barrenroots. It reaches a height of 12 to 18 inches. As its cultivar name suggests, it has rose-colored flowers. Epimedium pubigerum is one of the taller types (24 inches). It bears white flowers with yellow centers. Many types of barrenroot are planted for their nice leaves, more so than for their blooms, although the jester's-hat shape of Epimedium pubigerum is very nice. But the best feature of Epimedium x rubrum may be the fact that its flowers bear three colors.

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  • 05 of 12

    Spotted Deadnettle

    Lamium maculatum Album with its white flowers

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    Like hosta, this is an evergreen ground cover for shade that sometimes offers variegated leaves as a selling point. But unlike many hostas, its beauty is further enhanced by pretty flowers. Spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) is considered slightly invasive, but most gardeners will have no major problems with it.

  • 06 of 12

    Beware: Yellow Archangel

    Lamiastrum galeobdolon var. variegata (Yellow archangel)

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    What a shame that yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon) is invasive. Its bright yellow flowers would go a long way toward brightening a shady spot in one's landscaping. But don't be deceived by its good looks. This invasive plant tends to get out of control in the yard. 

  • 07 of 12

    Beware: Liriope

    Liriope spicata ground cover in bloom

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    Liriope spicata is another potentially invasive ground cover for shade. Like Liriope muscari and species of Ophiopogon (such as black mondo grass), it is commonly called "monkey grass." Although all three function as if they are ornamental grasses, none of them really are (botanically speaking).

  • 08 of 12

    Beware: Sweet Woodruff

    Woodruff plant
    Image Souce/Getty Images

    Shade created by a structure is quite different from shade cast by trees when it comes to planting choices. What makes the latter situation different is that there are roots involved. The roots of a big tree draw up a lot of water, water that would otherwise be going to what's trying to grow under the tree.

    The main point here is that, in such growing conditions, you need not just ground covers for shade, but plants for dry shade. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is one of those plants that can grow under trees.

    While this entry lies in the "potentially invasive" portion of the list, a factor to consider is that sweet woodruff will not spread much unless the conditions are ideal for it. So, if you do not want it to spread, simply deprive it of those conditions.

    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12

    Beware: Pachysandra

    Pachysandra plant carpet and tree trunk
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    Pachysandra bears the common name, "spurge." But by using the common name, you might confuse Pachysandra with a totally different plant, namely, wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides Purpurea).

    Coincidentally, though, you can treat wood spurge as a ground cover for shade. Both are capable of spreading out of control if you do not keep an eye on them.

  • 10 of 12

    Beware: Vinca Minor

    Periwinkle

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    Take a look at a common scenario with Vinca minor. Say you grew up with the beautiful purple, lavender, white, or blue flowers of Vinca minor in the yard of your parents' home. It grew in the shade of a huge pine tree. Your parents were active in the yard with gardening and mowing. Vinca minor never had a chance to spread out of control. In fact, you might not have even noticed it that much.

    Now, after many years, you return to your childhood home. As your parents grew older, they gardened less and less. Little by little, Vinca minor spread well beyond its original bounds, choking out other plants and taking over the yard. The lesson here, is, yes, Vinca minor is invasive, but the degree to which this quality becomes a problem depends on how active you are with your landscape maintenance. In other words, this is not a ground cover that you can plant and forget.

  • 11 of 12

    Beware: Bugleweed

    Ajuga reptans Mahogany

    Forest and Kim Starr/Flickr/ CC by 2.0

    Bugleweed (Ajuga) is another matter altogether. No matter how careful you are in your landscape maintenance, you will never stay ahead of this vigorous spreader. Along with English ivy, it is a no-brainer to say that they are two of the worst plants you can grow.

  • 12 of 12

    Beware: English Ivy

    Ivy wall

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    You have probably heard of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, in which the patriot of the American Revolution famously warned about the coming British invaders. Despite the more pleasant British Invasion that came centuries later (led by The Beatles), it's still a good idea to be somewhat suspicious about another English invader: the long-used ground cover for shade, English ivy (Hedera helix).

    English ivy has been used for a long time in North America in problem areas, including shady spots. It has been used long enough for people to realize that this ivy can become a big problem. English ivy will even scale trees making it more of a problem than most other invasive plants.