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.