Some Native Ground Covers for Spring

Text by Elaine Mills, Certified Master Gardener
Photos by Elaine Mills and Bob Kline

Fact sheets for fifteen native ground covers are featured on the MGNV web site under “Tried and True Native Plant Selection for the Mid-Atlantic.” Here are some additional species that are native to our region and that are suitable for use in the home landscape.

Antennaria plantaginifolia (plantain-leaved pussytoes)

Spreading colony of Antennaria plantaginifolia

Spreading colony of Antennaria plantaginifolia
Photo © 2015 Elaine Mills

Antennaria plantaginifolia (plantain-leaved pussytoes) is native to the eastern half of the United States and can be found in dry forests, clearings, and meadows throughout Virginia. This highly drought-tolerant perennial prefers full sun and does best in poor, dry, and gritty conditions such as rock gardens and rocky slopes. It can also be grown in the dappled shade of dry woodlands. The plant features low woolly basal leaves and 10-inch flower stalks with tight clusters of white flowers that are thought to resemble the toes of a cat’s paw. Blooms appear on both male and female plants of this dioecious species from April to June. Colonies spread from 9 to 18 inches and serve as hosts to the American painted lady butterfly.

Antennaria plantaginifolia flowers resemble cat’s paws

Antennaria plantaginifolia flowers resemble cat’s paws
Photo © 2015 Bob Kline

Silene caroliniana (wild pink)

Silene caroliniana (wild pink) is another drought-tolerant ground cover that is found throughout the state. It can adapt to a wide variety of soil types and pH levels provided the soil is well-drained. While it is described as a sun-loving plant, it does best with part-shade conditions in the afternoon. This Silene species has a mounded habit, measuring 9 to 12 inches high and wide, with numerous clusters of five-petaled pink flowers that somewhat resemble those of Phlox stolonifera (creeping phlox) from April to May. Its narrow, lance-shaped basal leaves are evergreen in this region, giving the plant an attractive look throughout the seasons. Wild pink is a nice choice for rock gardens or borders, underplanted in front of or amid taller perennials such as Amsonia hubrichtii (Arkansas bluestar) or Baptisia australis (wild blue indigo) or shrubs like hydrangeas. It provides nectar for native bees and butterflies, hummingbirds, and nocturnal moths.

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Geum fragarioides (barren strawberry)

Geum fragarioides (barren strawberry), also classified as Waldsteinia fragarioides, is not considered locally native, but can be found in dry upland forests in the central and western parts of Virginia. It favors humus-rich soil and partial shade in our region. The plant has compound fan-shaped leaflets and ½-inch yellow flowers with five rounded petals from April to May. This low, evergreen, deer-resistant, mat-forming perennial spreads by rhizomes to form colonies, making it an excellent substitute for invasive non-native ground covers. It can even take some light foot traffic for use as a grass substitute in limited transitional areas of the garden. Barren strawberry also combines well with native woodland perennials and shrubs such as Eurybia divaricata (white wood aster), Geranium maculatum (wild geranium), Viburnum acerifolium (mapleleaf viburnum), and Rhododendron periclymenoides (wild azalea).

Sisyrinchium angustifolium (narrow-leaved blue-eyed grass)

Despite its name, Sisyrinchium angustifolium (narrow-leaved blue-eyed grass), a common native perennial throughout Virginia, is not actually a grass, but a member of the iris family. The plant favors sunny to partly shady conditions with consistently moist but well-drained soil that is not heavily mulched. It has spreading foot-high tufts of narrow, sword-shaped leaves topped by umbels of dainty, star-like, bright blue flowers with yellow centers in May and June. Blue-eyed grass is a good choice as a ground cover in woodland gardens where it combines well with sedges, ferns, and native perennials. It can also be used in rock gardens, as edging for paths, or naturalized in lawns or meadows. This short-lived perennial benefits from division every two to three years.

Caltha palustris (marsh marigold)

A native perennial ground cover for wet conditions is Caltha palustris (marsh marigold). It is found in boggy soil or in the shallow water at the edges of ponds from Fairfax County west to the mountains in Virginia. This member of the buttercup family forms clumps 12 to 18 inches high and has glossy green kidney-shaped basal leaves that are deer-resistant. Its shiny bright yellow flowers, which measure 1 to 2 inches in diameter, are pollinated by native flies and bees and later provide seed for birds. Marsh marigold does best when planted in part shade to withstand summer heat, and it should be handled carefully as its juice can cause skin irritation.


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