Remember we promised you alternatives to English Ivy? Here goes!
Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), a spreading perennial native to the eastern U.S., will form a dense cover under quite shady conditions. It is only about 6 inches high, with flowers extending up another 6 inches in the spring. Cultivars are available with ¾-inch flowers of blue, white, pink, lilac, or purple.
Foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia) is a semi-evergreen, low-growing, native woodland plant that has ivy-shaped leaves. Some cultivars have leaves highlighted with reddish veining. In addition, bottlebrush-shaped racemes of pinkish white flowers bloom in the spring. Foam flower is available in both clumping and spreading cultivars.
Coral bells (Heuchera spp.) is another low-growing native woodland plant. There are many cultivars available with colored leaves of yellow, peach, red, purple, or bronze. Because of Georgia’s heat and humidity, we recommend you purchase cultivars bred with the eastern native species Heuchera villosa or Heuchera americana. Flowers stand high over the foliage and may not be especially showy. It’s the leaves that count.
Green-and-gold or golden star (Chrysogonum virginianum) is a spreading native plant of about 6 inches in height that displays gold daisy-like flowers in the spring and sometimes sporadically thereafter. It grows well in the shade but will tolerate some sun if it gets enough water. It can be used on a bank to stop erosion.
Alleghany spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) is a native form of pachysandra and not as aggressive as the more commonly sold Japanese pachysandra (P. terminalis). Alleghany spurge’s patterned, semi-evergreen foliage grows 6 inches tall. Clumps may spread to create a 3- to 4-foot patch. Fragrant white bottlebrush flowers appear each spring before the new leaves emerge.
Another native ground cover for shade is partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), an evergreen with white flowers in the spring and red fruit in the fall. It is barely 1 inch tall with trailing stems that root at the nodes to create dense mats. ‘Danny’ is a particularly vigorous cultivar. Partridgeberry will tolerate light foot traffic.
There are also grass-like ground covers for shade. You might consider something other than the ubiquitous monkey grass (Liriope spicata) or mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus). Bristle-leaf or ivory sedge (Carex eburnea) is a native plant that grows 6 to 12 inches high and spreads slowly by rhizomes. It creates spherical clumps of wiry leaves. While it prefers an evenly moist soil, it becomes drought tolerant once established.
Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) is indigenous to dry woodlands of eastern and central North America. Its soft arching blades grow about 6 inches tall. Spreading by rhizomes, it thrives in shade and tolerates drought.
If you really yearn for a vine to grow up your mature oak trees, try our native Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Many people confuse it with poison ivy, but Virginia creeper has a palmate leaf with five leaflets instead of poison ivy’s “leaf of three.” It will adhere to a tree with adhesive disks at the tendril ends and can climb 30 to 50 feet, turning lovely shades of red in the fall and producing dark berries to feed our native birds. Because it is deciduous it will not catch winter snow. Virginia creeper also makes a good ground cover for naturalized areas but it will climb over other shrubs if not tended.
A non-native deciduous vine that will climb a large tree or sturdy trellis is climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris). Its aerial roots help it climb 60 feet high. Because of its large size, it needs a substantial support. Its heart-shaped leaves are mingled with large, white lace-cap blooms in late spring. It, too, can be used as a ground cover, its stems spreading across the ground.
With all the wonderful alternatives, there is no reason to succumb to the temptation to plant English ivy. You will be doing yourself and your neighbors a big favor if you go the less-traveled route to cover your shady areas in greenery.