Note carefully that, just because certain plants qualify as ground covers for shade, that doesn't necessarily mean you'd want to grow them. Twelve qualifying plants are listed below, but use these choices only as a springboard for further research. In fact, part of the purpose of this article is to alert you to plants that many of you probably 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.
Let's start from square one. Why does one seek a ground cover for shade? Well, in some cases, we have shady spots in our yards where we'd like to grow a "filler," something that will look pretty while, at the same time, choking out weeds. For, just to spite those of us who crave well-manicured landscaping, weeds often seem the one thing that will flourish in shady conditions.
But to choke out weeds, a ground cover must be vigorous. Therein lies the dilemma: Vigor is a double-edged sword. In trying to please us with their vigor, some plants overdo it. Yes, we are talking about those dreaded invasive plants.
They say all politics is local, and a similar principle must inform this discussion. Some of the ground covers for shade on this list are invasive in some areas. If you're 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's invasive in your particular region.
Let's begin by talking about five ground covers for shade that are relatively safe to grow (that is, in many cases, they won't spread out of control). We will then proceed to the more questionable selections. But let's emphasize that this division is not intended to be a hard-and-fast division of these plants into "good" and "bad" camps. Again, it will really depend on where you live.
Finally, note that "shade" here means "partial shade," not deep shade (few plants that you'd be interested in growing do well in deep shade).
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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). But one glance at its flowers and leaves will leave no doubt as to its pedigree in the minds of plant geeks.
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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.
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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.
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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 the latter is very nice. But the best feature of Epimedium x rubrum may be the fact that its flowers bear three colors.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Like hosta, this is a 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. The next entry, however, a relative of spotted deadnettle's, is known to be much more vigorous (and therefore should raise some red flags).
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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.
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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 were ornamental grasses, none of them really are (botanically speaking).
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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. Happily, several of the entries on this page are tough enough... to grow in such situations. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is one of these plants to grow under trees.
While this entry lies in the "potentially invasive" portion of the list, a factor to consider is that sweet woodruff won't spread much unless the conditions are ideal for it. So if you don't want it to spread, simply deprive it of those conditions.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Pachysandra bears the common name, "spurge." But using the common name, in this case, would be an open invitation to 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, as well. Both are capable of spreading out of control if you don't keep an eye on them.
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Maybe you grew up with Vinca minor in the yard of your parents' home. It grew in the shade of a huge pine tree. Because your parents were active in that part of the yard (with gardening, mowing, etc.), the Vinca minor never had a chance to spread out of control. In fact, perhaps you never even noticed it that much.
After many years, you returned to your childhood home. As your parents grew older, they gardened less and less, so you noticed some changes. For example, little by little, the Vinca... minor had spread beyond its original bounds. The lesson to glean from this story? Yes, Vinca minor is invasive, but the degree to which this quality becomes a problem depends, to some degree, on how active you are with your landscape maintenance. This isn't a ground cover that you can plant and forget.
Vinca minor flowers can be purple, lavender, white, or blue.
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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 the next entry (English ivy), it is a no-brainer to say of bugleweed: "This is one of the worst plants you can grow."
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You've probably heard of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, in which the patriot of the American Revolution famously warned about the coming of the British. Despite the more pleasant British Invasion that came centuries later (led by the group, The Beatles), it's still a good idea to be somewhat suspicious about one thing that's English: that long-used ground cover for shade, English ivy (Hedera helix).
Yes, English ivy has been used for a long time in North America in problem areas,... including shady spots. In fact, it has been used long enough for people to realize that the ivy, itself, can become a big problem. English ivy will even scale trees, making it, in a sense, more of a problem than the other invasive plants discussed in this article.