12 Ground Cover Plants for Shade

Blue flower of Vinca, a ground cover

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Plants that perform well as ground covers in shady areas earn this reputation because they are extremely tenacious and able to thrive without much sunlight. But this virtue can lead to problems, since some shade-loving plants can overrun a landscape and may even escape a garden, naturalize, and threaten native plant species. Some plants, such as lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), have such a bad reputation that they don't even bear consideration. Lily-of-the-valley has overrun many abandoned homesteads in eastern North America, and many garden centers no longer even sell the plant.

Other plants, though, require some consideration. In this list of 12 common ground cover plants, the first five are well-behaved species that generally can be used without fear, but the remaining seven have a reputation for unruliness and invasiveness in some regions; before using them, check with local experts to make sure they won't cause problems. Your local University Extension office is usually the best place for information.

Here are 12 common ground cover plants you should know about.

Part Shade Means Some Sun

A very common gardening error is to think that a plant that "tolerates" shade will grow in complete dense shade. This not true, as horticulturists define a "part shade" plant as one that requires 2 to 4 hours of sunlight each day. If you have a location with dense, full shade that gets no direct sunlight at all, make sure to choose plants rated for such locations—there aren't many of them, but several are described here. On the other hand, a ground cover with a reputation for invasiveness can sometimes be more easily controlled if you plant it in deep shade that is not its preferred environment.

  • 01 of 12

    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)

    Bunchberry (a type of dogwood) is a short plant

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    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is a native plant in northern regions of North America. Classified as a form of dogwood, this is a low-growing (3 to 9 inches) deciduous shrub that makes for an excellent ground cover plant in part shade locations. It is showier (when in bloom, at least) than some of the other native choices in the region, such as spotted wintergreen.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 2 to 6
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture, well-drained soil
  • 02 of 12

    Hosta (Hosta spp.)

    Plantain lily (Hosta) El Nino

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    When you hear mention of ground covers for shade, ​Hosta immediately comes to mind. This is an enormous genus of landscape plants, comprising dozens of species and hundreds of hybrids and named cultivars. Remember, 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 dense shade, while gold-leaved types and those with variegated leaves, such as Patriot hosta and the similar 'Minuteman', should be given a little more light. Hostas are generally well-behaved plants that grow and spread slowly. You can use them without fear of rampant spreading.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade (depends on species)
    • Soil Needs: Rich, well-drained soil
  • 03 of 12

    Ferns (Various Genera)

    Interrupted fern with its fall foliage

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    Garden ferns are an unusual family of plants, since they include several different genera that reproduce from spores rather than from flowers and seeds. There are fern species to meet the needs of shady locations in just about every climate zone.

    Ferns are generally great choices for shady areas. The absence of flowers may be a deal-breaker for some gardeners, but others adore good foliage plants. For example, 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 (12 to 18 inches) 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 this reason, the painted fern is more popular in landscaping.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 2 to 10 (depending on species)
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium-moisture soil (depends on species)
  • 04 of 12

    Barrenroot (Epimedium spp.)

    Flowers of Epimedium x rubrum.

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    Barrenroot is the common name for the Epimedium genus of plants, comprised of several dozen species, a few of which are important landscape plants. (The plant is also known commonly as Bishop's hat). Epimedium grandiflorum 'Rose Queen' has one of the prettier flowers among the barrenroots. It reaches a height of 12 to 18 inches with 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. Epimedium x rubrum produces flowers with three colors. These are excellent ground cover plants for dry shade.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9 (depends on species)
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium-moisture, well-drained soil
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  • 05 of 12

    Spotted Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum)

    Lamium maculatum Album with its white flowers

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    Spotted deadnettle is an evergreen ground cover for shade that sometimes offers variegated leaves as a selling point, though its beauty is further enhanced by pretty white, pink, or purple flowers. This plant is considered slightly invasive in portions of the Northeast and Northwest U.S., but most gardeners will have no major problems with it. It grows 6 to 9 inches tall, forming dense mats of foliage.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture, well-drained soil
  • 06 of 12

    Yellow Archangel (Lamium galeobdolon)

    Lamiastrum galeobdolon var. variegata (Yellow archangel)

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    It's a shame that yellow archangel is invasive, since its bright yellow flowers would go a long way toward brightening a shady spot in the landscape. The plant resembles spotted deadnettle, but is slightly larger (1 to 2 feet) with larger leaves. But don't be deceived by its good looks. This invasive plant tends to get out of control in the yard. It is an especially severe problem in the Northwest U.S.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium-moisture, well-drained soil
  • 07 of 12

    Creeping Liriope (Liriope spicata)

    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 the Ophiopogon family(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 grasses from a scientific classification. Creeping liriope has a very bad reputation in the Southeast U.S., though it is less troublesome in the northern part of its hardiness range. It grows to 9 to 18 inches and quickly spreads by forming grass-like clumps.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 10
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Average, well-drained soil
  • 08 of 12

    Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)

    Woodruff plant
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    Sweet woodruff is a mat-forming perennial that grows 8 to 12 tall and will positively overtake an area where growing conditions are perfect. For this reason, it is considered an invasive species in some places, especially areas of the Northeast and Northwest. It is, however, relatively easy to control by cropping in closely with a mower or by denying it water.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium to wet, well-drained soil
    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12

    Pachysandra (Pachysandra spp.)

    Pachysandra plant carpet and tree trunk
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    Pachysandra is an evergreen perennial or subshrub comprised of five species, of which P. terminalis (Japanese pachysandra) is the most commonly used landscape variety. Pachysandra often goes by the common name spurge, which leads to sometimes confusing this plant with wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea'), which is also used as a ground cover plant. However, pachysandra is an aggressive plant that is considered invasive in many areas of the northeastern U.S., from the Atlantic coast to Wisconsin. Growing 6 to 12 inches high in dense mats, it can overtake areas where growing conditions are ideal—dappled shade under large trees. This habit can make it an ideal ground cover for some areas where lawn grasses are difficult to grow, but it does require you to monitor its spread.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, medium-moisture soil
  • 10 of 12

    Common Periwinkle (Vinca Minor)

    Periwinkle

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    Common periwinkle is a low, spreading vine with attractive purple/lavender flowers. It can be a very good ground cover for a gardener able and willing to keep it under control, but it has escaped cultivation and naturalized in many areas of the northern U.S, thanks to its ability to adapt to almost any soil condition. This is not a plant you can plant and forget. Many experts caution against growing it.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Prefers moist, rich soil but also grows well in dry soil
  • 11 of 12

    Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)

    Ajuga reptans Mahogany

    Forest and Kim Starr/Flickr/ CC by 2.0

    Bugleweed is such an aggressive plant that the best advice is to avoid it altogether in all situations. No matter how careful you are in your landscape maintenance, you will never stay ahead of this vigorous, creeping spreader. Gardeners who plant it for its attractive shiny dark-green or bronze leaves often come to regret the decision, as it can quickly spread into turf grass or onto neighboring properties. On the positive side, it does form such a dense mat that weeds are generally choked out.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 10
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Average, well-drained soil
  • 12 of 12

    English Ivy (Hedera helix)

    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. It's a good idea to be highly 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 for problem areas, including shady spots, but its problems are now well known. Branching out as much as 80 feet, English ivy will even scale trees, making it more troublesome than most other invasive plants. It is a notable problem in many parts of the U.S., especially the Pacific coastal states.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture, well-drained soil