English ivy, although a nostalgic ground cover, is invasive. If you missed last month’s article, read it at https://townelaker.com/archives. There are many alternatives to English ivy as a ground cover for shade, and also as a climbing vine. Here are nine native alternatives:
- Creeping phlox is a spreading perennial that is native to the eastern U.S. It will form a dense cover under quite shady conditions. It is only about 6 inches high, with flowers extending up another 6 inches in the spring. Cultivars are available with ¾-inch flowers of blue, white, pink, lilac or purple. You can check out the performance of woodland phlox cultivars at
- Foam flower is a semi-evergreen, low-growing, native woodland plant that has ivy-shaped leaves. In some cultivars, the leaves are highlighted with reddish veining. In addition, bottlebrush-shaped racemes of pinkish white flowers bloom in the spring. Foam flower is available in both clumping and spreading cultivars.
- Coral bells is another low-growing native woodland plant with interesting leaves. There are many cultivars available, with colored leaves of yellow, peach, red, purple or bronze. Because of Georgia’s heat and humidity, we recommend you purchase cultivars bred with the eastern native species Heuchera villosa or Heuchera americana. Coral bells’ flowers stand high over the foliage. In many of the cultivars with colored foliage, the flowers are not especially showy. Other cultivars are bred for heavy displays of rose-colored flowers.
- Green-and-gold or golden star is a spreading native plant of about 6 inches in height that displays gold, daisy-like flowers in the spring. Sometimes, the flowers recur sporadically. It grows well in the shade, but will tolerate some sun if it gets enough water. It can be used on a bank to stop erosion.
- Allegheny spurge is a native form of pachysandra that is not aggressive like the more commonly sold Japanese pachysandra. Allegheny spurge’s patterned, semi-evergreen foliage grows 6 inches tall. Clumps may spread to create a 3- to 4-foot patch. Fragrant white bottlebrush flowers appear each spring before the new leaves emerge.
- Another native ground cover for shade is partridgeberry, an evergreen with white flowers in the spring and red fruit in the fall. It is about 1-inch tall, with trailing stems that root at the nodes to create dense mats. The cultivar, Danny, is a particularly vigorous selection. Partridgeberry will tolerate light foot traffic. There also are grass-like ground covers for shade. Try something other than the ubiquitous monkey grass or mondo grass.
- Bristle-leaf or ivory sedge is a native plant that grows 6 to 12 inches high and spreads slowly by rhizomes (continuously growing underground stems). It has wiry leaves growing in a spherical clump. While it prefers an evenly moist soil, it becomes drought-tolerant, once established.
- Another grass-like plant, Pennsylvania sedge, is indigenous to dry woodlands of eastern and central North America. It has soft arching blades growing about 6 inches tall. Spreading by rhizomes, it thrives in shade and tolerates drought.
- There is a native plant that also sometimes goes by the name climbing hydrangea. Also known as woodvamp, it can grow 20 to 60 feet, with the dark-green leaves mixing with numerous small, white flowers that attract bees and butterflies in early to midsummer. Only mature, vertical-growing stems produce the new growth that creates the flowering stems.
With all the wonderful alternatives, there is no reason to succumb to the temptation to plant English ivy as a ground cover. You will be doing yourself and your neighbors a big favor if you go the less-traveled route to cover your shady areas in greenery.
– Carolyn Puckett is a Cherokee County master gardener and a master naturalist.