One of the best, in my opinion, are any of the epimediums. There are many species and forms of this extremely adaptable plant to choose from,  ranging from 10” to over 2’ tall.  The somewhat leathery leaves are divided into 3 to 9 crisp, heart-shaped leaflets on thin wiry stems.  Panicles of small delicate flowers with elongated spurs dangle like little columbines above the emerging foliage in spring. The flowers can be yellow, white, pinkish-lavender, orange, or red/white, often with contrasting colors of petals and sepals. There are spreading forms with evergreen leaves that turn bronzy or reddish in winter, and deciduous, clumping forms with a pleasing apricot-yellow fall color. Hardy and long lived (there are some 50 year old clumps in a New York garden), they have the distinct advantage of being able to compete with roots of nearby trees and shrubs. Epimediums will grow in considerable shade but tolerate sun with sufficient spring watering. Following are some of the more readily available varieties: bright yellow E. pinnata ssp. colchicumand soft yellow E. versicolor  ‘Sulphureum’ are evergreen spreading forms;  E. x ‘Rubrum’ is a semi-evergreen clumper with red/ white color and reddish fall/ winter foliage;  E. grandiflorum has the largest flowers of the group, about 1” across with long graceful spurs, usually white, deciduous and clumping; E. x youngianum ‘Roseum’ (pink) or‘Niveum’ (white) have a more delicate wildflower charm. Any of the clumping forms can be planted ‘en masse’  to eventually fill in the allotted space. Our native Vancouveria hexandra (Inside-Out Flower) is very closely related to Epimedium, but has more delicate leaflets and sprays of small white flowers to 12”.  It fills the same niche under similar conditions.  It will also tolerate root competition and forms a weed smothering mat with time.  Although deciduous, it is an excellent and attractive choice.  Epimediums are members of the Berberidaceae Family along with such shrubby genera as Mahonia and Berberis, and the herbaceous genera Achlys (Vanilla Leaf) and the east coast Jeffersonia.  To see exceptional stands of epimediums as groundcovers,  be sure to visit  ‘Bishops Close’ in the spring.  

NW native Oxalis oregana can be invasive, but is a good choice in the right situation. Growing to about 6” high, the large clover-like leaves are almost translucent when unfolding in early spring, especially pretty in the dappled sunlight beneath deciduous trees. The flowers are pinkish white, but a fine form with extra large deep pink flowers is available.  An area under trees that is well drained and stays fairly moist is a good spot to try a combination planting of Oxalis underplanted with deep rooted tuberous plants such as Trillium and Erythronium.  Try planting Oak Fern (Gymocarpium dryopteris) Vanilla Leaf (Achlys triphylla) and Vancouveria hexandanearby and each will find it’s own niche as they intertwine to form a cool tapestry of textures and shades of green all summer long, following a quiet symphony of ephemeral spring bloom. Oxalis ‘Wintergreen is new on the market, denser growing and deeper green, each leaf ornamented with a diffuse central spot of silver, and purple beneath, studded with bright rose-pink flowers. It also spreads, but not as widely as O. oregana. It is evergreen and keeps a neat appearance all winter


Omphalodes verna  (Blue eyed Mary), is an uncommon shade lover with low growing elongated heart shaped leaves of mid-green and 6” clusters of flowers reminiscent of Forget-Me-Nots in size and intensity of true blue.  This plant spreads by runners, rooting at the tips as it goes, eventually becoming a loose mat just a few inches high. It blooms in early spring for about 6 to 8 weeks. For a pretty combination try combining O. verna  with yellow, cream, or pink Erythronium. The Erythronium easily come up through the loose mat of Omphalodes and bloom at the same time, creating a charming garden picture.


Gaultheria procumbens has smooth shiny oval leaves about 3” long and 1” wide.  It is perfectly evergreen and spreads at a nice pace to make a solid cover about 6” high, excellent under shrubs such as rhododendrons.  It is related to rhododendrons and thrives under the same cultural conditions. The clusters of small pale pink urn shaped flowers give way to long lasting large bright red berries. The flavor and smell of the crushed berries give it the common name of Wintergreen.  It is native to the East Coast of the USA


Wild ginger is another option to consider . Our nativeA. caudatum is a fast and wide spreader when happy.  It has mid-green heart shaped leaves that lie almost at ground level, and curious brownish red flowers nestled beneath the leaves, but worth looking for. The roots and rhizomes of this plant smell and taste strongly of ginger.  A. europeum, European Wild Ginger, is perhaps an even better groundcover choice. It has shiny, thick, dark green, heart shaped leaves, and is perfectly evergreen. It spreads, but not as quickly, and it’s neatness of habit and density of growth make this one a favorite.  


Groundcovers do not necessarily have to be spreaders.  Consider an underplanting of hosta or pulmonaria. Hostas are deciduous shade lovers native to Asia, and are quickly gaining favor for their hardiness, longevity and  the multiplicity of forms available.  Hostas form neat rounded clumps of big, bold, lance to heart-shaped leaves of varying shades of green. There are an abundance of striking variegated forms, with streaks or splashes of gold, creamy yellow, or white, especially effective in brightening up a shady spot.  Hostas are exceptionally long lived, becoming more impressive each year. There are varieties that rise no more than  2“ off the ground and 4” across, to giants over 3’ high and 6’ across.  A planting of hostas under a tree or along the shady side of a building will quickly fill in to create a weed smothering groundcover. Local nurseries are now stocking a wide selection, and if that is not enough to satisfy, hundreds of cultivars can be found at some specialty nurseries.


Pulmonaria  (Lungwort) is also enjoying renewed popularity.  Low growing and clump forming, pulmonarias are excellent groundcovers when planted ‘en masse’.  They have elongated, broadly sword shaped leaves, some up to 2’ long and lying flat, some a mere 8” and somewhat upright.  They are commonly a deep rich green with varying degrees of showy silver spotting on the leaves, with the rough texture typical of most plants in the Borage family. The sprays of small flowers are usually of some shade of clear blue, blooming in early to mid-spring.  Some varieties have flowers with the interesting trait of emerging pink and changing to blue, so that pink and blue flowers share the same plant.  There are also white flowered forms. New varieties are being bred for mildew resistance, heavy silvering of leaves, (P. ’Ex Caliber’ is almost pure silver), abundance of flower, and undulating leaf edges.  P. longifolia ‘Bertram Anderson’, P. ‘Roy Davidson’,  and P. ‘Ex Caliber’ are all excellent choices. They are semi-evergreen, only losing their leaves completely during the coldest winter. 


Another plant, not usually thought of as a groundcover, but which suits the role perfectly, is Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose), now more correctly considered H. x hybridus. These plants have large, shiny, thick, dark green leaves deeply divided into 5 or more leaflets.  They are evergreen, grow to about 2’ tall, and each plant will cover a space about 3’ x 3’ after a few years.  Depending on the form, they start to bloom in late winter to early spring. What we see as petals are actually the sepals, and, fading slowly, will hold their ‘bloom’ for a very long time, sometimes up to 2 months. The nodding cup shaped flowers are about 2” across and grow in clusters just above the foliage. They can be  white, pinkish or deep purple and are frequently finely spotted. Much hybridizing and selecting is being done for flower form and color, mostly in England and Germany, and hopefully we will soon have improved forms to choose from. But for groundcover effect alone, the flowers are a bonus, incidental to the rich green foliage effect.  Good displays of H. x hybridus can be seen at the Berry Garden.


There are many more possibilities.  Consider a planting of ferns. Our native Sword Fern is still one the best, although there are so many choices it is hard to choose a favorite.  New Heuchera  varieties (Coral Bells)  with robust leaves overlaid with purple and silver will overwinter as tidy clumps, expand with luxurious foliage in spring and bloom most of the spring and summer. Spreading woodland phlox  (P. stolonifera)  will also do the job..


So let your imagination loose. Get ideas from the local Botanical gardens and from the display gardens of the numerous specialty nurseries in the area.  Seeing the plants in a garden setting is a world apart from seeing them in small pots on the nursery sales table.    






English Ivy - it can sometimes be a blessing, with shiny, evergeen leaves, fast growth, and an ability to seemingly grow anywhere (and then some),  but too frequently it’s a curse - and most of the cursing seems to come from those who have lived with it a little too long.  If “Ivy, ivy everywhere” is your lament,  take heart dear gardeners,  there are other choices. For those of us who seem to have to cover up any bare piece of ground in our custody, I‘d like to suggest a few alternatives that may take the edge off the ivy boom.

Collector's Nursery,16804 NE102nd Ave, Battle Ground, WA 98604, 360-574-3832 / dianar@collectorsnursery.com