See our photo section for examples of native plants serving as ground covers.
Groundcovers are used to suppress weeds and to fill in the bottom layer of landscapes with a minimum of work. (Of course, in nature, these are simply the plants that constitute the ground layer, an essential part of the ecosystem.) There is no doubt that the notorious English Ivy, Vinca, Yellow Archangel, and Japanese Pachysandra cover the ground thoroughly and have the added appeal of being easy and inexpensive to install - small numbers of plants will quickly fill in a large area. Unfortunately, they are also invasive introduced plants that escape into our woods and damage the ecosystem.
If you are seeking a native plant that is equally fast-spreading and inexpensive (often free), you could use Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper). It will climb right up your house and shrubs, though, so beware. Viola sororia (Common Blue Violet) spreads prolifically by self-seeding and may be another source of free but aggressive groundcover.
Virgina Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Most other native groundcovers spread more slowly. To achieve a quick cover, space them closely, as suggested in the table below. You can save money by ordering small plugs online.
From an ecosystem perspective, it is best to think of these plants more as the ground layer, where numerous insects shelter, than as just a "groundcover." Aesthetically, it is usually more pleasing to have some variety rather than a monoculture of a very low-growing plant. For example, you can dot some Seersucker Sedge within a mass of Woodland Phlox, or some evergreen ferns within an expanse of Green-and-Gold to get some height variety.
In a sunny area, it is very difficult for any low-growing plant to compete with grass that seeds itself in, so unless you want to spend your time weeding, there is a lot to be said for using taller shrubs, trees, or native ornamental grasses, or possibly some aggressively spreading perennials such as one of the Mountain Mint species. If you don’t mind more weeding, low-growing choices for full sun include Phlox subulata, Salvia lyrata, Sisyrinchium angustifolium, Packera aurea and some of the Carex species (where there is enough moisture). Antennaria plantaginifolia (Plantain Pussytoes) grows flat on the ground in full sun on poor soil.
In places with high deer pressure, grasses, sedges and ferns are the safest bet. Of the ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris (Ostrich Fern) and Dennstaedtia punctilobula (Hay-Scented Fern) spread the fastest but are deciduous. Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas Fern) and the Dryopteris species are evergreen but clumping, not spreading.
Packera aurea and Carex amphibola
The chart at the bottom of this page lists plants that are particularly suitable for professional landscapers: tough, reliable, widely available, and practical to install even in larger areas. There are lots of other less commonly used alternatives, though, which we describe first.
Carex species not included in the chart below -
Carex swanii (Swan Sedge) - full sun to part shade, consistently moist.
Carex molesta (Troublesome Sedge) - can be grown from seed. Sun to part sun, moist or wet.
Carex rosea (Rosy Sedge) - can be grown from seed. Part sun - shade, dry or wet.
Carex tonsa (Shaved Sedge) - full sun to part sun, dry or medium.
Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern Sea Oats) - Tough and versatile, but best used where it can be controlled in a confined space such as a parking lot median.
Danthonia spicata (Poverty Oat Grass) - tricky to establish, needs acidic soil.
Juncus tenuis (Path Rush) - Able to tolerate much more soil compaction and disturbance from walking or even driving than most sedges. Given its more erect habitat it can be mowed periodically with no ill effect once established. Can tolerate a wide range of moisture and sunlight requirements making it the most robust option but less showy than many sedges. Semi-evergreen.
Erigeron pulchellus (Robin’s Plantain) - spreads by rhizomes; creeps and covers.
Eurybia divaricata (White Wood Aster) - self seeds and gradually covers the woodland floor.
Iris cristata (Dwarf Crested Iris) - spreads politely to form a dense colony.
Maianthemum canadense (Canada Mayflower) - while a rapid grower, it is shallow-rooted and easily plucked up, and will grow around other shade plants.
Meehania cordata (Meehen's Mint) - spreads slowly by runners in shade. Blue flowers in late spring.
Mitchella repens (Partridgeberry) - won’t suppress weeds (in fact weeds and leaves will suppress it) but it is one of very few plants that thrive right at the base of large trees, and it is very cute!
Solidago flexicaulis (Zig-zag Goldenrod) - sun or part shade.
Carex amphibola (Creek Sedge)
Carex pensylvanica (Oak Sedge)
Carex flaccosperma/glaucodea (Blue Wood Sedge)
Carex laxiculmis (Creeping Sedge)
Carex plantaginea (Seersucker Sedge)
Carex stricta (Tussock Sedge)
Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium)
Phlox subulata (Creeping Phlox)
Heuchera americana (Coral Bells)
Heuchera villosa (Hairy Alumroot)
Packera aurea (Golden Ragwort)
Phlox divaricata (Woodland Phlox)
Tiarella cordifolia (Foamflower)