Plant This, Not That: Shade Plants for Suburban/Urban Woodland Buffers

The exotic (non-native) Japanese Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), periwinkle (Vinca minor), English ivy (Hedera helix) and Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) have long been staples of New England gardens for their shade tolerance and ground covering habit. Go to any garden club sale or plant swap in the spring and you’ll find these plants available by the bucketload — but if you live in the northeast US and have a bit of woods separating your property from your neighbors, think twice before bringing any of these plants home.

DCF 1.0

Vinca minor forms mats under trees, but can spread into nearby woods if not contained or blocked with edging or walkways. This small wooded buffer in Boston’s suburbs is completely covered with vinca which has crowded out the lady’s slippers, lowbush blueberries and solomon’s seal which once grew here.

DCF 1.0Because these plants spread aggressively by their roots or stems, when they are planted adjacent to moist woods in New England, they can quickly spread into the woodlands, choking out anything else that happens to be growing there and threatening unique and fragile woodland plant communities. English ivy and Wintercreeper also climb trees and can eventually kill them (not to mention the damage the  ivy can do to your house if you allow it to climb walls).

And once these plants are established in an area to their liking, good luck getting rid of them if you ever decide you’d like to plant anything else! Pictured below is a small woodland buffer in Sudbury, MA, highly valued by the homeowner for its summertime privacy screening from neighbors. The vinca, pachysandra and English ivy planted decades ago near the house have escaped into the woods and the homeowner is frustrated that the young trees are dying, and that she cannot get seem to get any other plants established here:

vinca pachysandra invasive

This client opted for professional removal of the invasive plants using a mixture of low-impact (non-herbicidal) removal methods and looks forward to establishing a woodland garden with plants such as trilliums, bugbane, wild phlox, baneberry, wild ginger and ferns.

If you drive around the leafy outskirts of Boston MA, you might be impressed at the established trees, especially in older neighborhoods (more than 50 years old).  Many of the spaces between houses are heavily wooded — in New England, trees don’t need much encouragement to grow. But take a closer look at what else is growing under those trees. You’ll quickly notice those same few species of plants in just about every neighborhood!

You won’t see these plants on New England state invasive plants prohibition lists, simply because they don’t reseed themselves the way invasives such as Asiatic bittersweet do — by birds eating and dispersing their berries far and wide. They spread mostly from being planted in favorable conditions near moist woodlands. As so much of our region is now gobbled up by roads and development, those wooded buffers between homes are often the only wildlife habitat that remains in metropolitan areas of the northeast. Although birds might utilize the trees for their nesting opportunities and insect forage, a buffer taken over by invasives will lack most of the ecological benefits provided by a diverse understory of native woodland plants. For homeowners that understand that their yard plantings have an impact on the wider environment, a little effort to search out appropriate native plants will go a long way towards increasing the biodiversity and wildlife value of suburban yards. Not to mention, the results are much more interesting!


Woodland garden at New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA.

So, if you do border on moist woodlands, what are some “safe” alternative groundcover native plants to look for? Try the beautiful running foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), which is (mostly) evergreen and forms a thick weed-suppressing mat under trees:

There is also a native pachysandra called Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) that hails from the southeast US, but grows happily in my zone 5 central Massachusetts garden. It looks a lot like Japanese pachysandra but its leaves are less glossy:


Early season foliage of allegheny spurge is bright and green, and later in the season turns to a mottled pattern. It is not evergreen in my Zone 5 Massachusetts garden.

Canada Yew (Taxus canadensis) is a native yew that loves the cool, damp shade of New England forests. Unlike its popular Eurasian cousins that are standard as sheared foundation shrubs in the US (T.cuspidata, T. baccata, T. x media), this yew stays low (2-3′) and spreads up to 10′ from its base:


Canada yew growing along a stream at Turkey Hill Brook Farm in Spencer, MA. It loves the cool damp microclimate of this forested north-facing valley slope.

Because it’s a deer favorite, wild populations of Canada yew are becoming rarer in Massachusetts, as suburbia pushes outwards and deer populations soar out of control. Unlike other conifers, however, Canada yew will resprout after being pruned (by deer or hedge-clipper), so if you live where deer populations are somewhat under control (or you are willing to put up deer fencing), the evergreen Canada yew is worth growing to help preserve local populations and genotypes.

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is another native that will quickly cover an area in moist shade. It’s growing here at Garden in the Woods along with several types of fern and Allegheny Skullcap (Scutellaria serrata).

asarum canadense

More native eastern ground covers suitable for moist shade include bunchberry and mayapple:

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I don’t believe Japanese pachysandra or Vinca will disappear from our home landscapes any time soon, and admittedly, as long as they are contained, they should not cause much harm. A patch CAN be useful if you have dogs. Our border collie Speck hates the heat of summer and loves to cool off in pachysandra, which appears to bring him much relief. I have left one well-contained patch as his personal dog bed…


More Information:

Tried and True Native Perennials for Shade from Ellen Honeycutt (southeast)

Native Woodland and Shade Garden Plants for Southern Connecticut from Sue Sweeney

Made in the Shade: Shade Plants for a Beautiful Wildlife Garden from Suzanne Dingwell (Mid-Atlantic)

Groundcovers for Moist Shade (my New England Natural Habitat Gardens blog)

Native Groundcovers for Shade from Debbie Roberts (CT)

Plant This, Not That: Groundcover Edition from Vincent Vizachero (Mid-Atlantic)

Read about my efforts to eradicate a large patch of pachysandra that spread into a nearby moist woodland area on my property in The Year I Shall Win the Pachysandra War. Several years later, I can attest that I have finally won this war (I only pulled a few persistent bits of root this year), and I now see native plants making a comeback.


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  1. Marilyn says

    “Border Collie and Pachysandra”—what a gorgeous picture and what a beautiful dog. I will not be planting any for our dogs, though. ;) I remember garden books from the 70’s or earlier singing the praises of pachysandra and strenuously urging gardeners to plant it. Apparently they did.

    • says

      Marilyn, yes they did, and you can still go into some nurseries and find crates of them available for sale to the well-meaning but uneducated gardener looking for shade groundcovers. I’ve noticed that in recent years that even the conventional nurseries have begun selling natives such as serviceberry, foamflower and liatris…people ask for things that they see and like blooming, and I’ve never met anybody who didn’t love any of these plants in bloom :)
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Bale Beds

  2. says

    Hi Ellen. I love this post! And a minor note: in paragraph two, you wrote wintergreen where I think you meant to write wintercreeper. Anyway, if I can figure out how to get my book’s FB page to work again, I will post a link to this piece. Nice work!!

  3. says

    Loved this post. So many good ideas. I have a north facing steep slope that has an orchard. Presently I begrudgingly mow it as a lawn. The area is well shaded and this article gives me some great ideas for replanting the slope. Thanks!
    WildBill recently posted..Hold Me

    • says

      Bill, it’s been interesting to watch what thrives in hemlock understory on a steep, cold, north-facing slope in Massachusetts…I have found the foamflower really does well, also Christmas fern (evergreen!), witch hazel, mountain laurel, trilliums, and golden ragwort/groundsel (Packera aurea) which is one of my faves…cheerful yellow blooms in spring and spreads quickly, nice ground cover. Hard to find though, I found mine at Project Native in western MA. Good luck :)
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Bale Beds

  4. says

    What a great post, Ellen! Thanks for this excellent resource, I’m bookmarking. I love your assessment that if these creeping monsters spread by bird dispersal they’d likely be labeled invasive and unsaleable, too. That’s such a helpful way to describe it. In my experience, people want to use Vinca, English Creeper and Japanese Pachysandra because they see these plants as a sure thing, and they aren’t aware of the amazing alternatives, like Foamflower (great shot of the Tiarella!). Little thought is given to the future behavior of these groundcovers, and images like the one you show of the shade trees being devastated are invaluable. Consequences in garden decisions can take time, without access to information like this most people would just stay confused. (“I’m not sure why those trees died.”)

    At our new place there’s a wooded edge infested with Vinca. It’s a small area relative to the whole yard. I planted some native Mayapple this fall in the middle of it, because Mayapple can pick up steam and outcompete tougher plants than Vinca in my experience. It’ll be interesting to watch the battle. I plan to add another muscular native at the other end, Canada Anemone, and like a reality tv show that’s actually interesting, let them fight it out.
    Jessecology recently posted..Please Don’t Feed the Wildlife

    • says

      Jesse – let me know the outcome of the Mayapple, Anemone and Vinca war. Go natives! I love that idea. I have an area of moist, rich soil where I let Bee Balm and Obedient Plant duke it out, so far it’s been a draw which is just fine with me because I like both and they make a lovely combination in bloom!

      You are right that people tend to think short-term when they are buying plants…as a culture we find it very difficult to be patient – we want instant landscapes whatever the cost. I’ve heard people say “I want something fast growing so invasive is GOOD”, but they are not thinking about 10 yrs down the road when their gardening tastes might change and they would like to plant something else in that spot. Or that their plants might be responsible for destroying natural habitat elsewhere…the ecological damage caused by some of these invasives is just not even on the radar for most people especially those in metropolitan areas. The good news is that awareness is slowly growing at least in my neck of the woods, where people really value their open spaces (farms, woods, lakes & ponds) and are willing to do what it takes to protect them for the future.
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Bale Beds

    • says

      Foresight is useful! It’s interesting to hear what’s invasive in other parts of the country because with the climate changing so radically, who knows what might be tomorrow’s invasive pests here in New England!
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Bale Beds

  5. says

    Great article Ellen! I wish these alternative groundcovers were more available commercially since they are hard to find sometimes, especially in large quantities. Some comments I’d like to emphasize: I believe winter creeper is truly an ecologically invasive species and more needs to be done to document its spread. The berries are eaten by birds and the method of dispersal is no different than Asiatic bittersweet. Also it is in the same genus as burning bush, which is rapidly spreading in woodland habitats across New England. Also, English ivy may not be invasive, but it can easily kill trees that it climbs, by accelerating rot and with the extra weight and stress on the tree.
    If anyone in MA is looking for Allegheny pachysandra, the Worcester County Conservation District will have it for sale in this year’s Seedling Sale!

    • says

      Tyler, this article actually came about after the conversation I had with you about the WCCD plant sale…as you said, Japanese Pachysandra is a big seller as a shade plant, people buy what is easy to grow, readily available and what is recommended to them – so making some of these natives more available is key – fortunately this is changing and there are more and more nurseries that sell native plants here in New England….

      Great to hear you’re carrying the Allegheny pachysandra at the seedling sale!
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Bale Beds

  6. Lynn says

    I’ve been trying to rid my garden of scads of English ivy. Really pretty and just horrible. It was there when I moved in and I want to plant natives. I began planting natives 2 seasons ago but the ivy is a real plague. Any suggestions? Thank you very much!

    • says

      Lynn, is it climbing the trees? If so, cut stems at ground level to prevent more growth. English Ivy needs to have all its roots yanked right out of the ground because it will regrow from bits of root left in the soil. Tedious work but not hard to yank, usually! Or, if you are willing to wait a year or so, you could try smothering the ground ivy with black plastic something that will prevent light from hitting the plants (plants cannot survive without photosynthesis) – but make sure you block the edges so it won’t come slithering out the side of the barrier. After a year or so, remove the plastic and it should all be dead. You could cover the plastic with a layer of mulch to make it look less “unsightly” during the “smother” period. good luck. I’m not sure where you live but in Mass. we have landscape professionals that can do this kind of non-chemical removal for you.
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Bale Beds

  7. Angela Moxley says

    Great suggestions but I had some of the same questions about availability. Did they just show up in your yard or did you plant them; if the latter did you find them at native nurseries? Thanks for the informative piece and photos!

    • says

      hi Angela, I’m not sure where you are located but in Mass. I have found the Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) widely available at large nurseries across the state. The Allegheny Spurge was harder to find until recently but Bigelow’s Nursery in Northborough, MA now sells it, along with Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense). The others you might need to ask at a native plant nursery (there is a list of US native plant nurseries elsewhere on this site somewhere). I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Canada Yew for sale, anywhere, but I do propagate it here on our farm…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Bale Beds


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