20 Easy Shade-Tolerant Native Southern Groundcovers
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
Finding native groundcovers for shady areas seems to be one of the most common scenarios in Atlanta where we still have more tree canopy left than most cities despite losing more of it every day to development. Native groundcovers are becoming popular as a living mulch and a low maintenance alternative to resource hungry lawns, exotic non-native ornamentals, and common invasive landscape plants. Native ground covers are sustainable, crowd out unwanted non-native weeds, increase biodiversity, protect and enrich soil, help prevent erosion, and support habitat for wildlife including insects and birds.
My intention was to make a short list of my favorite easy, shade-tolerant native woodland plants to use for shady bare spots, but I kept adding to the list and had to stop myself at 20 because there are so many great choices! I’m not even including native spring ephemerals like mayapple/Podophyllum peltatum with foliage that may disappear in the summer. I also tried not to include worthy but slow growing groundcovers such as partridgeberry/Mitchella repens because it takes a long time to spread. To expand how we look at what a native groundcover can be, my cheeky definition of a shade tolerant groundcover is a native plant that can be used in some way to cover a shady area. Mix and match the suggested plants after removing non-native shade tolerant invasives like liriope, mondo grass, vinca and English ivy or a section of lawn.
Visit native plant nurseries including Beech Hollow Farms intown Atlanta near YDFM or North Georgia Natives in Canton, or any one of the multiple Atlanta area spring native plant sales to look for these groundcovers. Also ask your native plant friends if they might have any of these to spare since groundcovers generally spread so easily!
20 Easy Shade-Tolerant Native Southern Groundcovers (In no particular order)
1) Wild Strawberry/Fragaria virginiana hosts 60 butterflies and moths in Atlanta and thrives in partially shady areas where it will naturalize quickly. It's a cool season semi-evergreen perennial and actively grows in the fall and early spring. Native strawberry prefers a slightly shady area, not bright sunny places. This is my go-to plant for places where little else grows or I need to quickly cover a space. Native wild strawberry has white blossoms, not the yellow blossoms like the invasive non-native Asian mock strawberry (potentilla indiga). Last year I devoted a post called Native Strawberry Field Forever to sing the praises of native strawberry because it’s such a useful landscape plant that has so much to offer wildlife. (If you live in Atlanta, I'd be happy to give you wild strawberry plants to start your own patch.)
2) Sensitive Fern/Onoclea sensibilis colonizes quickly in a moist, shady spot to make a sturdy groundcover with tall 2-4 foot green-yellow leaves. Its name comes from the leaves withering and turning black at the first hint of frost. It's also sensitive to drought and sunlight. Sensitive fern is sometimes called bead fern because the stiff fertile fronds have decorative bead-like spores that stay throughout the winter and release the spores in the spring. Despite being intolerant of frost, drought, and sun, sensitive fern is one of the more common ferns found in wet areas. It will colonize quickly and make a hearty groundcover with tall 2-4 foot green-yellow leaves if you have a moist shady spot. In my yard it was holding its own growing in Georgia red clay at the bottom of a retaining wall competing with fig ivy and iris japonica (both have since been removed).
3) Royal Fern/Osmunda regalis is one of the largest ferns in North America. Even though this is a clumping fern, this deciduous fern can certainly "cover" a lot of ground because it can grow up to 6 feet in a shady, moist, humus rich area! Royal fern is also called flowering fern because its spores are on decorative brown fertile clusters at the top of the fronds.
4) Christmas Fern/Polystichum acrotichoided is an adaptable, low maintenance, evergreen woodland plant with 1-2 foot dark green, lance-shaped fronds that grows in partial dry shade and form large clumps that can be easily divided in the spring. It makes a lovely groundcover when mass planted and is known as one of the best ferns for stabilizing soil and preventing erosion. It is a good fern for restoration projects because it's not eaten by deer or rabbits and will grow under allopathic plants like black walnut trees. Christmas fern also provides cover for ground-feeding and nesting birds.
5) Woodland Stonecrop/Sedum ternatum is a carefree, low-growing perennial, evergreen groundcover with starry white flowers and spreads easily in moist, partial shade, but tolerates slightly drier, partially sunny areas. Plant sedum ternatum along a path where the clusters of tiny star-shaped flowers can be appreciated, or around shrubs, trees, or taller perennials where it forms an evergreen blue-green mat. Sedum ternatum roots wherever the stems touch the ground!
6) Green and Gold/Chrysogonum virginianum has long-blooming golden daisy flowers starting in early spring. It’s a low-growing, rhizomatous evergreen woodland ground cover that prefers some moisture and partial sun but also grows well in dappled shade if the soil is humus rich. I let mine roam to form green mats beneath shrubs, trees, and around larger perennials. Butterflies, native bees, and small pollinators seek it out. Green and gold is a more polite and wildlife friendly alternative to creeping Jenny, ajuga and invasive vinca or English ivy.
7) Golden Ragwort or Groundsel/Packera aurea is a rhizomatous, quickly spreading semi-evergreen groundcover with a long and profuse blooming season of 2' golden yellow daisy flower clusters. Although its natural habitat is the moist dappled shade of woodland areas, golden ragwort seems adaptable to a variety of growing conditions in my naturescaped Atlanta yard. It would make be a great alternative to invasive vinca or English ivy. Packera is attractive to pollinating bees, beneficial flies, and butterflies.
8) Woodland Phlox/Phlox divaricata is a lovely purple-blue, semi-evergreen, spring groundcover for a woodland garden, perennial border, or a naturalized area where it can get filtered shade from trees. It likes moist humus rich soil, but tolerates dry, not-so-great soil. Early pollinators such as swallowtail butterflies and nessus sphinx moths will appear for phlox nectar.
9) Native Gingers are an easy and reliable native groundcover. They are all toxic and not at all related to edible ginger. There are two main varieties of native ginger that are doing well in a moist damp, shady spot in my backyard where I once struggled to grow grass but often ended up with a mud patch. Heartleaf/hexastylis arifolia, a semi-evergreen groundcover, is also called little brown jug because of its curious looking flowers at the base of the plant in spring. Wild ginger/Hexasarum canadense is a hardy deciduous variety of native ginger.
10) Dwarf Crested Iris/Iris cristata is a diminutive and charming, rhizomatous, deciduous woodland ground cover. It flowers best in the kind of bright shade like at the edge of the woods where it might grow in the wild. It likes moist, humus rich soil, but does fine in a drier area of my yard where there is plenty of leaves left to protect the roots from drying out. Mine intermingles nicely with woodland stonecrop. I don’t get deer in my semi-urban neighborhood, but dwarf crested iris is also deer resistant. This native iris is an alternative to the more common non-native netted iris bulbs from Turkey.
11) Lyreleaf Sage/Salvia Lyrata is a diminutive and delightful semi-evergreen spring blooming native groundcover. Plant it instead of the more cliched groundcover bugleweed (ajuga), its non-native look-alike. Lyre leaf sage likes damps soil but is intrepid enough to grow just about anywhere including sunny to partially shady areas. Lyreleaf sage will self-seed and naturalize along borders, flowering lawns, as a groundcover, or as a naturescaped understory plant with taller natives. I have some growing as a border along my driveway and I’m letting it self-seed between my walkway pavers because it seems to tolerate some foot traffic.
12) Violet/Viola sororia is a low maintenance, edible and high wildlife value native plant. In Atlanta twenty-six species of butterflies and moths use this as a caterpillar host plant including the giant leopard moth and a handful of fritillaries! Violet's landscape utility and charm is best seen if they are used a groundcover edging plant along a driveway, walkway, or massed wherever a diminutive and hardy groundcover is needed. Violet is another native plant I wrote a post about called You Can Only Have a Violet Bouquet if You Grow It to encourage using it in the landscape.
13) White Wood Aster/Eurybia divaricate is a hardy, low-growing, woodland perennial with a multitude of small daisy flowers and a dull yellow center in the late summer. It is drought tolerant but grows easily in both damp and dry areas in partial to full shade. White wood aster self-seeds and is rhizomatous so it spreads quickly to form large semi-evergreen mounds in otherwise challenging areas such as dry shade. It is also deer and rabbit tolerant. Small native bees and butterflies always seem to be on the flowers and it’s a host plant for the Pearl Crescent and Checkerspot Butterflies.
14) Heartleaf Foamflower/Tiarella cordifolia is a low growing, semi-evergreen woodland plant with pretty leaves and long-lasting spring white flower spikes. It spreads freely by runners to form a groundcover in shade or dappled sunlight. Heartleaf foamflower is another deer resistant option. This native is so naturally ornamental looking that there are many cultivars of it. For habitat value buy the straight species from a native plant resource not a traditional nursery. (If the label has a name in single quotes in it, it's a cultivar, not the straight species)
15) Allegheny Pachysandra or Spurge/Pachysandra procumbens is an evergreen, woodland native with small white flowers blooming in late winter just before new spring growth. In partial to full shade native pachysandra is a perfect alternative to non-native Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis) which is a more well-known and somewhat invasive groundcover. Bees, flies, and beetles visit the sweet-smelling flowers of native pachysandra. It is easy to grow but critically imperiled in Georgia because of development, deer, and invasive exotic plants, particularly Japanese Honeysuckle.
16) Jewelweed/Impatiens capansis is an unconventional groundcover suggestion because of its size, but if you have a shady, challenging area, this native annual will aggressively self-seed every year to make a tall groundcover that crowds out all unwanted plants in its path with tiny, nectar-rich orange flowers hummingbirds fight over and other pollinators appreciate. It can form such dense stands that it has been shown to outcompete invasive garlic mustard! Jewelweed will grow up to 5 feet tall in full sun and 2-3 feet in full shade as long as the soil is humus rich, not dry. Jewelweed’s habitat value includes being a moth host plant. Just make sure to plant jewelweed where it can have its own space to roam - it does not play well in a with others and does not transplant well.
17) Virginia Creeper/Parthenocissus quinquefolia is a vigorous and adaptable deciduous native vine. I’m just starting to explore the idea of growing vines horizontally and virginia creeper is one of the vines that makes a luscious ground cover. It is a great option to control erosion on a slope and even grows over invasive English ivy. Virginia creeper grows well in a variety of soil and light conditions including dense shade. As a bonus, the leaves of virginia creeper are deer resistant and turn a spectacular red in the fall. Several moths use the Virginia creeper as a host plant including the unusual Nessus sphinx moth.
18) Yellowroot/Xanthorhiza simplicissima is a 1–2-foot deciduous subshrub that spreads through suckers to form a dense thicket in partial shade. If you look closely in the early spring, you’ll see tiny clusters of purple star-shaped flowers appear just as the feathery foliage emerges. In moist, rich soil yellowroot can be aggressive once established which makes it a perfect groundcover for areas where traditional landscape options like grass are a challenge. It will be less vigorous in drier, poor soil.
19) White Tinged Sedge/Carex albicans is one of my favorite shade tolerant, easy to grow sedges because it prefers moist soil but also does well in dry shade. White tinged sedge makes a great lawn replacement because it spreads slowly from underground rhizomes to gradually form dense yet delicate and wispy tufts of turf-like groundcover. Many of the grass-like native sedges are found in shady, moist woodland areas. If you visit a native plant nursery or plant sale, ask for other sedges that might fit the light and soil conditions of the area you want a groundcover for.
20) River Oats/ Chasmanthium latifolium is one of the most popular native, shade-tolerant grasses because it is a tall, adaptable groundcover that grows easily in just about any soil and light condition. River oats grows into large dense clumps and generously self-seeds to make interconnected colonies. This makes it a fantastic groundcover for erosion control or difficult areas where little else grows. It can overtake less assertive plants so give it room to show off. The habitat value of river oats is as a protective cover and seed source for birds and as a host plant for skippers and other butterflies.
Note - there are no affiliate links in this blog. Click the highlighted text throughout the posts for links to references, explanations or examples that might be interesting or helpful.