When the weather gets cold and deciduous plants have lost their leaves, it’s easy to appreciate some evergreen presence in the garden. While groundcover plants that keep their leaves all winter don’t have the weight of an evergreen shrub, they nonetheless add color and softness to an otherwise rather bleak landscape.
The most commonly seen evergreen groundcovers are English ivy (Hedera helix), periwinkle (Vinca minor), wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) and Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis). All are exotics, all are perhaps a little uninteresting because they’re so commonplace, and all are invading our natural areas, displacing native plants. These groundcovers also tend to require a lot of work to keep them within bounds and, with ivy and wintercreeper, to keep them from climbing into trees. Remember that phrases like “spreads rapidly” and “grows anywhere” are clues that the plant is quite likely to be a problem later.
I know we can do better. I’ll start with some native evergreen plants that can be used as groundcovers and then also note a few non-natives that do not seem to be invasive.
There are so many excellent cultivars of coral bells (Heuchera villosa and H. americana) that retain their colorful leaves over the winter. Their tiny blooms, held on long slender stalks in late spring to early summer, can be pretty enough but it’s really the foliage that’s the big draw, with leaf colors ranging from lime green through deep purple. Some cultivars prefer the shade while others will do fine in the sun, so be careful to select varieties that are suitable to your site. Even those that are okay with some sun do best with consistent moisture. Plant in a mass to form an attractive groundcover.
Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) has lance-shaped dark green fronds 12 to 18 inches tall, borne in slowly spreading clumps that expand to form soft, irregular masses. Give it light to deep shade and it will be quite drought tolerant once established, even thriving beneath trees with aggressive root systems such as beeches and river birches.
Our native Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) spreads slowly, is tolerant of conditions from light to deep shade, and is soil pH adaptable. Its large, sharply toothed leaves are borne on 8 to 10 inch tall stems. The leaves are medium to dark green throughout the growing season and become mottled or bronzy green in the winter. In the spring you will enjoy clusters of tiny pinkish-white, pleasantly fragrant flowers.
For showy spring bloom, you’ll love creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera). Evergreen foliage hugs the ground all winter, creating a dense mat, and then comes alive in early May with pale lavender flowers. Cultivar blooms range from deep pink to purple. Full sun to part shade.
Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) is evergreen in mild winters. In the spring, dense white spires are held above the handsome foliage which is suggestive of maple leaves.
Foamflower will naturalize and can be planted in a mass to create an attractive groundcover. These plants have become very popular and there are many cultivars available with gorgeous patterning on the leaves. Give them morning sun and afternoon shade, and keep the soil moist until they are well established.
We need to be careful about using non-native plants in our gardens since they may escape to our natural areas. It is discouraging to see commonly used groundcovers and shrubs like burning bush, honeysuckle and barberry in the woods. Also, remember that native plants have a nurturing relationship with our local ecosystem. Non-natives are outsiders that cannot contribute in this way.
That being said, here are three non-native evergreen groundcovers that seem to know their place.
Angelina stonecrop (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’) is an attractive evergreen groundcover for sunny areas with poor, dry soil, forming a trailing mat of succulent golden-yellow leaves. Clusters of yellow starry flowers appear during the summer. When planted in containers or on a wall, it develops a beautiful cascading habit. Plants may be pruned back at any time if they get too large. Foliage sometimes develops beautiful amber tones in the autumn and winter.
Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) is quite a fabulous plant, with large, palmate evergreen leaves and cup-shaped, rose-like, often nodding blooms that appear in late winter, sometimes even in the snow. When massed, they make an excellent groundcover. Leaves, stems and roots are poisonous.
Bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia) has large, glossy green leaves that form bold rosettes. The magenta flower clusters are pretty spring accents. Bergenia needs full to partial shade and regular watering, especially in extreme heat. After a hard winter, the old leaves will likely look a bit ratty and are best removed.
Groundcovers can be more than just filler. If you use interesting and less expected plants in this role, they will add texture, color and a touch of the unusual to your gardens. And, if they were evergreen, you would be enjoying them right now.