Ankle-high ground covers to knock off your socks in early spring
I can think of many good reasons to use low-growing native ground covers. They promote healthy natural diversity in the garden by attracting bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, bugs, flies, spiders and much more. Prairie pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) is off the charts with its late March or early April flowers that attract copious amounts of tiny wild bees and flies.
Flies you say, really? Yes, amazing flies. Not just houseflies, but native flies with iridescent wings and eyes that bristle, shimmer, and diversify the garden. Wings, heads, bodies, hair, and legs of all sorts reflect the soft spring light that March offers, to those who take time to observe.
Small patches of this tiny ground cover are audible with the sound of music…wings buzzing in the air. In full sun or part shade and dry soils this one will bloom at 3-4 inches in height and remain a half-inch tall the rest of the year. Its cousin – round-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria parlinii) – is similar but is looser in habit and prefers more shade. Try these under Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelus vernalis) or pawpaw (Asimina triloba) to complete the ultimate early spring fly-pollinator garden.
Diminutive native ground covers like spring daisy (Erigeron pulchellus) prefer gravely soils and can soften dry-laid stone paths. This early bloomer looks like summer daisies but blooms in April and is pollinated by tiny digger bees. Flowers sit on 10-inch stems that sway in the wind while foliage lays flat on the ground an inch high. Plants sucker and fill in stepping stone gaps. They also grow thick, crowding out most weeds. Other stepping-stone toe-knockers include woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), crested iris (Iris cristata), and James sedge (Carex jamesii) for shade, and minty smelling Ozark calamint (Calamintha arkansana) in sun.
Unfortunately, some introduced ground covers are highly invasive in the Midwest, such as Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunii) and English/Baltic ivy (Hedera helix). I can’t walk 20 steps in the woods in any direction at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Mo., without finding Wintercreeper, introduced in 1860 by Scottish plant explorer Robert Fortune. It has really taken off in 150 years. If only Fortune had known then how devastating this plant would become to natural woodlands and river bottoms, he and his colleagues might never have moved it from China. It is a top-selling evergreen groundcover and is easy to find at many garden centers. Fortunately there is a native evergreen alternative that grows in shade called Golden Groundsel (Senecio aureus) that has bright yellow flowers topping out at 16 inches in April. Dark evergreen foliage grows six inches high and suckers to form dense weed barriers. This one is even tolerant of water, making it a great shady rain garden groundcover. Its cousin Round-leaved Groundsel (Senecio obovatus) is also shade-loving but prefers drier soils. You can find sources of native groundcovers to purchase by consulting the list of plant suppliers at www.grownative.org, Resource Guide.
Scott Woodbury is the Curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, where he has worked with native plant propagation, design, and education for more than 20 years. A horticulturalist, he also is an advisor the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native!, a regular feature in Ozarks Living.