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Gardening in the Shade

Groundcovers and vines

Since few turf grasses are well adapted to shady conditions, groundcovers are often an excellent alternative to turf in the shade (Table 4). Rather than struggling to keep grass alive in these problem areas, choose from among the following groundcovers that do best with some protection from full sun. Some may be used either as a groundcover or a shade-tolerant vine.

Ajuga, Carpetweed, Bugleweed (Arjuga reptans)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    4 inches tall, flower spikes to 12 inches
  • Semi-evergreen foliage ranges from solid green to variegated green, white and burgundy/red. Flower color is usually blue or purple, but some pink or white forms are available. The closely related (A. pyramidalis) 'Metallica Crispa' has bronze foliage and blue flowers in spring.

Bethlehem sage, Lungwort (Pulmonaria saccharata)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    1 to 1-1/2 foot tall
  • Rosettes of straplike leaves, most varieties with some silvery mottling. 'Mrs. Moon' is a good variety. Pink flower buds open to blue flowers in spring.

Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    6 to 12 inches tall to 50 feet in length
  • Native vine with three-lobed leaves. Similar in growth habit and requirements to Virginia creeper. Lustrous green leaves turn red in fall.

Common periwinkle (Vinca minor)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light to medium
  • Size
    6 inches tall
  • Vining, matlike evergreen groundcover. Glossy green leaves. Blue flowers in spring and sporadically through the summer. Grows well under trees.

English ivy (Hedera helix)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    6 to 12 inches tall
  • Trailing evergreen vine. Prune or mow annually to maintain density. Many selections available. Leafspot can be a problem. Grows well under trees.

Epimedium, Barrenwort (Epimedium )sp

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    Most are 1 to 1-1/2 feet tall
  • Heart-shaped trifoliate leaves, often with some red or bronze coloration. Flowers in spring are usually yellow or white, resembling small orchids. Relatively slow growing.

Hosta, Plantain lily (Hosta sp)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium to full
  • Size
    Varies from 3 inches to 3 feet tall
  • Many species and cultivars of hosta are available. Foliage colors range from solid green, yellow-green or blue-green to variegated forms with white or gold markings. Many produce stalks of white to lavender flowers. Tolerate most growing conditions.

Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light to medium
  • Size
    8 to 10 inches tall
  • Glossy green, semi-evergreen foliage. White flowers in spring. The Allegheny pachysandra, (P. procumbens,) is native, and better adapted to Missouri's climate, but more difficult to find.

Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    8 inches tall
  • Fragrant stalks of white bell-shaped flowers in late spring. Foliage may deteriorate late in the season. Prefers moist, fertile sites, but tolerates most shady locations.

Lilyturf (Liriope spicata)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    1 foot tall
  • Dark green, grasslike foliage. White to lavender flower spikes similar to grape hyacinths develop in late summer. (L. muscari,) Big blue lilyturf grows to 1-1/2 feet tall and produces dark purple flowers. It is best in the southern half of the state.

Mock strawberry (Duchesnea indica)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    6 inches tall
  • Semi-evergreen trailing foliage. Rampant grower. Yellow blossoms through much of the summer, followed by strawberry-like fruits. Tolerates drought and heat.

Plumbago, Leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light to medium
  • Size
    12 inches tall
  • Deep blue flowers from midsummer through fall. Yellow, red and bronze fall foliage contrasts nicely with flowers. Slow to start growth in spring.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)

  • Shade tolerance
    Medium to full
  • Size
    6 to 8 inches tall
  • Whorls of bright green leaves around creeping stems. Small white flowers in late spring. Prefers moist soil.

Virginia creeper, Woodbine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    1 foot tall to 50 feet long
  • Tough vine for most any situation. Will climb to tree tops. Colors early in the fall, developing a red or purplish coloration. Engelmann ivy is similar, but with smaller leaves.

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    6 inches tall
  • Native to Missouri woodlands. Deciduous, heart-shaped, leathery green leaves. Flowers are purplish brown in spring, but usually hidden by leaves. European ginger, A. europaeum is evergreen with glossy foliage.

Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    1/2 to 2 feet tall
  • Vining woody semi-evergreen groundcover. Many cultivars are available: 'Coloratus' turns purple in winter, 'Emerald Gaiety' has variegated white leaf margins, 'Emerald and Gold' is variegated green and yellow. Scale insects can be a severe problem. Considered by many to be an invasive species.

Yellow archangel, Dead nettle (Lamiastrum galeobdolon)

  • Shade tolerance
    Light, medium or full
  • Size
    1 to 1-1/2 feet tall
  • Fast-growing vinelike groundcover. The form with silver variegation is most desirable. Yellow flowers in late spring. Shear in midsummer for more compact growth.

G6911, reviewed April 2002

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G6911 Gardening in the Shade | Page 6 | University of Missouri Extension