Japanese Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis)

Japanese Spurge a Useful Ground Cover

Close-up of a pachysandra tree
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Taxonomy and Plant Type for Japanese Pachysandra:

Plant taxonomy classifies Japanese pachysandra (also called "Japanese spurge") as Pachysandra terminalis. The plant is in the boxwood family.

These widely grown plants are evergreen perennials. They are herbaceous in the sense that they lack woody stems, but their foliage does not die back in winter (it merely yellows a bit). In terms of usage, Pachysandra terminalis plants are classified as ground covers.

Characteristics of Japanese Pachysandra, Related Plants:

Wider than it is tall, this ground cover spreads via underground runners. It is commonly found standing at 6 inches tall with a spread twice that. Pachysandra terminalis produces white blooms in spring but is grown primarily for its foliage.

Japanese pachysandra has an American relative called "Allegheny spurge" (Pachysandra procumbens), a plant native to the Southeast. 

But there are many plants with the common name of "spurge" that are not related to Japanese pachysandra. For example, I grow purple wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea') in my rock garden. Notice that the latter is in a totally different genus: the Euphorbia genus, to be precise. Euphorbia is also the name of a whole family of plants, commonly known as the "spurge" family.

Sun and Soil Requirements, Planting zones:

This plant is best grown in partial to full shade and in a well-drained, acidic soil rich in humus.

The plant prefers medium moisture but will tolerate dry shadePachysandra terminalis can be grown in zones 4-8.

This is a plant that can solve three prominent landscaping problems:

  1. Pests (see below under Uses)
  2. Drought
  3. Shade

As drought-tolerant ground covers (once mature), you do not have to worry much about watering established plants.

And as plants that tolerate full shade, they give you a ground-cover choice for areas where many plants would fail.

Care for Japanese Pachysandra:

Pachysandra terminalis should be provided with some shelter for winter in cooler climates, or patches of brown may mar its appearance. Likewise, if exposed to too much sunlight, the leaves may burn. If you wish to keep it confined to one area, dig up trespassing runners annually. This ground cover is susceptible to leaf blight, which results from a fungal invasion. Fungus loves moisture, so do not water overhead. Good air circulation also deters fungus, so thin out Pachysandra terminalis occasionally. Spring division is a good means of propagation.

Uses in Landscaping:

I frequently observe large swaths of Japanese pachysandra planted in yards on my drives through Connecticut (U.S.). This is the home of the town, Lyme, which has the rather dubious distinction of having a disease named after it: Lyme disease. The disease is carried by deer ticks. As you have probably guessed by now, gardeners in this area are plagued by deer. 

Thus the popularity there of our featured plant: it is a deer-resistant ground cover. It is commonly planted in people's front yard landscaping under trees, where the objective is low-maintenance landscaping.

These plants are effective ground covers for weed control, as they spread to form a dense mat that inhibits weed growth. This spreading action is accomplished via runners, or "rhizomes," underground plant parts commonly confused with roots.

This ground cover is sometimes compared to another low ground cover for shade, Vinca minor. The latter is a vine and stays shorter than Pachysandra terminalis. Both are moderately invasive plants, but both are also useful for deer control since deer pests tend not to eat them. They also share the status of rabbit-proof plants. Finally, both are flowering ground covers, but Vinca minor has by far the more attractive blooms of the two: blue in color, and much larger than the flowers of Japanese pachysandra.