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.
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)
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 (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 (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)
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.”