Periwinkle is invasive; see 5 better alternatives for Western New York

vinca minor in Amherst NY by Stofko
Periwinkle or vinca minor can easily get out of your garden and invade wild spaces. Consider replacing it with a better plant. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

I have enjoyed periwinkle in my garden, but it’s time to consider some alternatives.

Periwinkle or Vinca minor is used as an ornamental groundcover. The leaves are glossy and the purple flowers are a delight.

Here’s the problem: This invasive plant can easily spread outside of our gardens. It invades natural spaces, gets established and pushes out the native plants. It offers nothing to insects, birds and other animals.

When it comes to control, periwinkle or Vinca minor is at Tier 4, according to WNY PRISM. That means we probably can’t eradicate it from Western New York, but we can try to control it locally.

One way you can help is to plant something else in place of periwinkle or Vinca minor.

Here are five suggestions for native groundcovers that are better for insects, birds and our environment as a whole.

Bonus: All of these plants can tolerate some shade, and some can grow in a variety of conditions.

I don’t know which local nurseries might be carrying these plants. Since stock varies from year to year and throughout the growing season, you’ll have to contact garden centers to see what they have.

Be very careful about digging up these plants yourself. It’s illegal to dig up plants from national forests or state land unless you have obtained a permit. If you are on private property, make sure you have the permission of the landowner.

Canadian anemone
Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis). Photo courtesy Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org

Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis)

Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis) is easy to grow and gets attractive spring flowers.

This plant tolerates a range of growing conditions. It takes full sun to partial shade, according to this chart from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). It grows in soil ranging from dry to wet and is flood tolerant.

Canada anemone gets one-inch flowers in late spring that are showy, white and long blooming. This species often occurs in large colonies, and the mass blooms can be spectacular, according to this article from the U.S. Forest Service.

The plant has dense clusters of bright green leaves. It’s a tall groundcover, growing 12 to 24 inches tall.

It tolerates deer and clay soil, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden. It may spread aggressively.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)
Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense). Photo courtesy John Ruter, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org

There are two plants that are referred to as wild ginger. Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is the plant that is native to Western New York. The other plant is a European variety called Asarum europaeum.

Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense) has dull, green, pubescent (hairy) leaves and is a bit larger than the European plant. The leaves of the European ginger are glossy and dark green.

“Sadly, most nurseries carry only the European ginger,” said Ken Parker, CNLP. He is a co-founder with Lynda Schneekloth of the WNY Native Plants Collaborative and does consulting through his business Native Plant Guy.

The native wild ginger (Asarum canadense) likes shade to partial shade, so it makes a beautiful groundcover under deciduous trees, according to this chart from the DEC. It has heart-shaped leaves that are three inches across. The plant grows four to eight inches tall.

Once established in your garden, the plant will grow into a colony that can expand up to six to eight inches in all directions each year, according to this article the U.S. Forest Service.

While this plant does get a flower, it’s hidden at the base of the plant under the leaves.

This isn’t the ginger that we use in cooking– the cooking spice is Zingiber officinale. Native Americans and early Euro-American settlers did use wild ginger as a spice, but scientists have determined that the plants may contain poisonous compounds and highly discourage its use as food, according to this article the U.S. Forest Service.

partridge berry with berry
Berry on partridge berry. Photo courtesy Wendy VanDyk Evans, Bugwood.org

Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens L.)

Some gardeners consider partridge berry (Mitchella repens L.) a must for winter gardens because of the plant’s dark green leaves and occasional scarlet berries, according to this article from the U.S. Forest Service. Birds are the primary consumer of the berries.

In a garden setting, partridge berry will form a thick, substantial groundcover. This evergreen prefers shade, but accepts the morning sun.

In late spring, small, fragrant, hairy flowers appear.

Once established, partridge berry is relatively trouble free. You may have to keep garden debris from covering the mats. See how to sweep leaves into groundcovers here.

Partridge berry does best in acidic soils, Parker said, though it can grow it in average soils and it does okay.

Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata)

wild blue phlox
Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata). Photo courtesy Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) blooms in spring, according to this page from Missouri Botanical Garden. Loose clusters of slightly fragrant, tubular flowers range in color from rose to lilac to blue. The flowers are about 1.5 inches wide.

It’s another plant that likes part shade to full shade.

Wild blue phlox prefers rich, moist, organic soils. Giving it a light summer mulch will help it retain moisture and keep the roots cool.

The plant gets 12 to 15 inches tall and forms mats of foliage. It can form large colonies over time as leafy shoots spread along the ground.

While wild blue phlox tolerates deer, the Missouri Botanical Garden says to watch out for rabbits.

Another common name for this plant is wild sweet William.

Tip: Powdery mildew can be a serious problem with this plant, but cutting back the stems after they flower helps combat mildew, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Powdery mildew can occur in wet years or when gardeners have bad watering habits, Parker added.

“If you have pretty good soil you shouldn’t have to water,” he said. “Phlox would appreciate ‘woodland’ type soils—rich loam. Adding compost to these beds will benefit their population.

“Many city gardens have dry shade—we need to stop raking up the leaves. Perhaps add the chopped leaves back to these garden beds.”

Appalachian Barren Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides)

barren strawberry
Appalachian Barren Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides). Photo courtesy Caleb Slemmons, National Ecological Observatory Network, Bugwood.org

Appalachian barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) thrives even in dry shade, and it can take full sun, too, according to this chart from the DEC.

It grows three to six inches tall and can tolerate a wide variety of soil conditions as long as they’re well drained, according to this page from Penn State Extension.

Barren strawberry is attractive year-round. It is semi-evergreen with strawberry-like, dark-green foliage that turns bronze in the winter.

In mid-spring it gets bright yellow flowers.

It grows relatively fast into a dense mat.

Unlike real strawberries, the plant does not bear an edible sweet fruit, hence the common name of “barren.”

14 Comments on “Periwinkle is invasive; see 5 better alternatives for Western New York

  1. Hi Liz, Ken Parker had suggested Allegheny spurge, too. I didn’t include it in the article because I decided to include only plants that are native to Western New York in this article. While Allegheny spurge is native to the southeastern United States, it’s not native to Western New York. It’s still a better choice than periwinkle. Thanks for both suggestions.

  2. Native Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) and Foam flower (Tiarella sps.) both grow well in my fairly shaded garden. Both also tolerate my black walnut.

  3. I’m looking for a groundcover that will help stabilize steep slopes on my property. Any suggestions for which native plants grow well in sun and will develop a good root system to prevent steep (60-70degree) slopes from eroding? Thanks!

  4. whatever you do, don’t grow vinca vine! It’s almost impossible to control; same with houttanyia (chameleon plant).

  5. Hi Daniel, thanks for sharing your experience. I like that you emphasize the height–that’s knee high. It’s probably not a good groundcover for a path.

  6. Hi Terry, it’s nice to hear from you. I’ll try to squeeze in a reminder next spring that gardeners should try to use native plants.

  7. Hi Susan, that’s an interesting question.

    Sweet woodruff and lamium aren’t native, but I don’t see them listed as invasive, either. They have been introduced, but they’re not causing a lot of trouble the way periwinkle is.

    But do lamium and sweet woodruff provide benefit for local bees and insects? I don’t know. I’m not sure that scientists have data on that. Maybe those plants do provide benefits, but maybe not. Even “nativars,” a native plant crossed with a non-native plant, may not be as helpful to native animals as the native plant is.

    So then the question is: Should we use only native plants? Most people in the gardening community say it’s okay to use some non-native ornamental plants, but there definitely is a push to use more native plants in our gardens.

    If anybody can fill in the blanks here, please leave a comment.

  8. We have Canada Anemone in a south facing partial sun area, and it is getting really aggressive. We had to cut off the nice white flowers to prevent more plants from the seeds. I would use caution as it is native, but it wants to spread just like the Vinca minor, and it’s definitely a 12-24″ plant.

  9. Great suggestions. Of the ones you mentioned wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is one I find works the best for difficult areas. Not showy with flowers but absolutely problem free including deer and rabbits.

    Another good native suggestion is Gold Star (Chrysogonum virginianum). Low growing, dense foliage that never gets weedy. It blooms yellow in late spring and sporadically through the season. This groundcover spreads fast so is not appropriate for small areas.

  10. I have great luck with Lamium, as long as it’s on shady side. It doesn’t do well in full sunshine. It’s my favorite. Great for hanging baskets in the summer with other plants and then plant in garden in the fall.

  11. Well, you just may have convinced me to ditch the vinca that came with my house and put in Canada Anemone if I can get my hands on some (and remember next spring–perhaps you will be so kind as to remind us?). I haven’t noticed the vinca spreading anyplace else, but is sure tries to overgrow its little concrete-bound patch and not having to cut it off my walkway will be an added bonus.

  12. What’s your opinion about the two ground covers that do well in my garden: sweet woodruff and lamium? I see that they are not native species. Do they provide any benefit for our local bees and other insects?

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