Japanese Pachysandra a Useful Ground Cover

But This "Spurge" Can Also Cause You Problems

Close-up of pachysandra plants.
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Japanese pachysandra is a tough plant, and this toughness makes it useful in the yard. Like many a plant that is tolerant of challenging conditions, however, its toughness can be a double-edged sword. Learn how it is useful, how it can be problematic, and how to overcome this potential problem.

Plant Type for Japanese Pachysandra

Plant taxonomy classifies Japanese pachysandra (also called "Japanese spurge") as Pachysandra terminalis and as belonging to 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, Japanese pachysandra plants are classified as ground covers.

Traits of Japanese Pachysandra, Other "Spurge" Plants

Wider (12 inches) than it is tall (6 inches), this ground cover produces white flowers in spring but is grown primarily for its leathery, dark-green leaves.

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, especially plants in the Euphorbia genus that are useful in rock gardens (Euphorbia is also the name of a whole family of plants, commonly known as the "spurge" family). Examples include the following:

  • Purple wood spurge ( Euphorbia amygdaloides Purpurea) 
  • Ascot Rainbow spurge (Euphorbia Ascot Rainbow) 
  • Cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma)

Sun and Soil Needs, Planting Zones

This foliage plant is best grown in partial to full shade, in an acidic soil enriched with compost, in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 8. Give the plant adequate water to get it established. 

This is a plant tolerant of various challenges. Its "tolerance" allows it to solve four prominent landscaping problems:

As pest-tolerant plants, they supply a fall-back option in cases where homeowners seem foiled by wildlife at every turn in their attempts to landscape their properties. 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 and clayey soil, they give you a ground-cover choice for areas where many plants would fail. Dry shade provides one of the most challenging conditions for plants (since it requires toleration on two fronts), and Japanese pachysandra is one of the plants up to this challenge.

Care for Japanese Pachysandra, Uses in Landscaping

Patches of brown may mar its appearance in winter in cold climates. Likewise, if exposed to too much sunlight, the leaves may burn.

The plant is susceptible to leaf blight, which results from a fungal invasion. Fungus loves moisture, so do not water the plants overhead. Good air circulation also deters fungus, so thin out Japanese pachysandra occasionally and remove the fallen leaves that may blanket them in autumn and trap moisture in their planting bed. A good means of acquiring more of the plants if you wish to establish them somewhere else in the yard is spring division.

You can observe large swaths of Japanese pachysandra planted in yards in Connecticut (U.S.). This is the home of the town, Lyme, which has the dubious distinction of having a disease named after it: Lyme disease. The disease is carried by deer ticks. Gardeners in this area are plagued by deer pests. 

Thus the popularity there of Japanese pachysandra: 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 in a shady spot.

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"; if you wish to keep them confined to one area, dig up the spreading runners annually or surround them with bamboo barriers.

This ground cover is sometimes compared to another low ground cover for shade, Vinca minor. The latter is a vine and stays shorter than Japanese pachysandra. Both are moderately invasive plants, but both are also useful for deer control. 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: They are blue in color and much larger than the flowers of Japanese pachysandra.