10 Best Shade-Tolerant Ground Cover Plants

Updated: Apr. 30, 2024

Struggling with what to grow in your yard's shady spots? These 10 ground covers are problem-solvers, and many are natives that support pollinators.

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Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)
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Canadian Wild Ginger

This native ground cover is as useful as it is pretty, acting as the larval host of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly and as a weed suppressing ground cover. It even takes on the terribly invasive Garlic Mustard.

Within two to three years of planting, it forms a lush carpet of velvety, green, heart-shaped leaves that hug the ground. Curious reddish brown flowers bloom in spring at ground level under the foliage. They don’t add much ornamental value, but they do help out the pollinators.

Grow Canadian wild ginger in humus-rich, moist soil in light shade to deep shade conditions in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 through 8. In its native environment, it spreads slowly to cover the forest floor, where deer and rabbits typically leave it alone.

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Phlox divaricata - wild sweet william - woodland phlox - wild blue phlox
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Woodland Phlox

Imagine sky blue flowers popping up in and around your shade garden in the springtime, swaying in the slightest breeze, rising above a carpet of Canadian wild ginger or lamium (see below).

That’s the beauty of this native spring ephemeral that goes by several names including woodland phlox, wild sweet William and Phlox divaricata. Swallowtail butterflies, hummingbird moths and hummingbirds are all fans.

It spreads by seed, but not aggressively, making its way around the garden in light shade to full shade conditions in USDA Zones 3 through 8. Although rich, moist, acidic soils are ideal, this plant will also grow in alkaline, sandy and clay soils. It tucks into shaded rock gardens and naturalized borders.

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Saxifraga stolonifera
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Strawberry Begonia

It’s not often that a plant is classified as an evergreen ground cover, a trailing plant for containers and a houseplant.

The versatile strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera) is neither a strawberry nor a begonia. It got its name from the way its red stems spread like strawberry plants do, and how its rounded, dark green leaves with white veins and maroon undersides resemble a begonia.

This plant forms a ground-hugging mat topped with wispy white flowers that flutter atop 15-inch-tall stems in late spring to early summer. Try it in part shade to full shade, with moist, well-drained soil.

Although strawberry begonia is winter hardy in USDA Zones 7 through 9, some people in Zone 6b have reportedly had luck with it overwintering, too. If you aren’t sure if it will survive the winter outdoors where you live, pop it out of the ground and into a container to grow as a houseplant until the following spring.

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Golden Groundsel
Courtesy Edward Lyon

Golden Groundsel

There are so many reasons to grow golden groundsel (Packera aurea).

This native, weed-suppressing ground cover spreads quickly by seed and offshoots to fill challenging spaces under tall trees, along the water’s edge, or in that tough strip between the street and sidewalk. Pollinating bees and butterflies delight in its bright golden yellow, daisy-like flowers that appear from late spring into early summer.

If you live in USDA Zones 3 through 9 and have a low spot where grass struggles because it’s too wet, try planting golden groundsel there instead. It will happily soak up the excess moisture, especially if it’s a sunny spot. In shade, it’s OK if the soil dries out now and then.

When not in bloom, the heart-shaped, dark green leaves with purplish undersides make an attractive deer and rabbit resistant ground cover.

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Nodding onion - Allium cernuum
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Nodding Onion

You may not have thought of using an onion as a ground cover, but doing so has some important advantages. It’s off the menu for deer and rabbits, but a feast for pollinating bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

The leaves, bulblets and bulbs of the nodding onion plant are edible with a strong onion flavor, but it’s more common to grow Allium cernuum for its easily identifiable flowers. Look for the distinctive crook at the top of the stem to identify this species.

If you have a sunny to partially shaded spot in USDA Zones 3 through 9 where you’d like a flowering ground cover but want something more colorful, try this ornamental onion. Its cheerful bright lilac pink flowers add whimsy to the garden from early summer through midsummer. No special soil is needed for it to flourish and reseed. Once established, it’s drought tolerant.

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Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
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Hardy Plumbago

True blue flowers are rare, especially late in the season. But with hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), you’ll enjoy a carpet of cerulean blue blooms every year from late summer to frost.

This quickly spreading ground cover forms a tight, six- to 10-inch tall mass of shiny green foliage that blushes bright red and bronze beginning in early fall. The kaleidoscope of red, blue and green all at once lights up the shade like ground level fireworks.

This species of plumbago is cold hardy to USDA Zone 5, but will survive winter better if you cover it with a light mulch, or if there’s snow cover. It’s also heat tolerant through USDA Zone 9. It grows best in morning sun and afternoon shade.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t reappear first thing in spring. This ground cover is a late riser, making it ideal for covering up the spent foliage of spring flowering bulbs.

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Himalayan Maidenhair Fern
Courtesy Susan Martin

Himalayan Maidenhair Fern

This elegant fern looks as dainty as a pearl necklace, but is tough enough to survive winter growing in the Himalayan Mountains, where it is native. Here in North American home gardens, it serves as a six- to 10-inch tall, slowly spreading ground cover for part shade to full shade.

Try growing it as a green carpet laid at the feet of your big leaf hydrangeas or Lenten roses. It’s fascinating to watch in the spring as its semi-evergreen foliage emerges bronze, then brightens to fresh green and covers up the previous year’s growth.

Hardy and deer resistant in USDA Zones 4 through 8, this colonizing fern prefers humus-rich, moist but well-drained soils. It detests hot, humid weather, but thrives where temperatures drop at night. Once it settles in to its new home, this fern will speed up its spread and transplant easily if you find new shady places for it in your landscape.

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Lamium
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Lamium

The little silver leaves of lamium are like bits of glitter strewn about the garden floor, reflecting any dappled sunlight that finds them. Look for varieties like ‘Ghost’ that are heavily silvered and really brighten up lightly to densely shaded spaces.

Because the leaves are scented when crushed, deer and rabbits may take one bite and then move on to something more palatable. Bright pink, purple or white flowers are a bonus that draws in bumblebees from mid-spring to early summer.

This ground cover forms a low-growing carpet that spreads quickly as its stems root when they touch the ground. It can cover large areas if you let it, so take care to find a place where its spreading tendency will be welcomed. Lamium will grow under tree canopies and fill in around taller perennials, tolerating some dryness from the roots of other plants, but it grows better with irrigation.

Hardy in USDA Zones 3 through 8, it will be deciduous in all but the mildest climates.

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Oak Sedge
Courtesy Stonehouse Nursery

Oak Sedge

There are more native species of sedge than any other plant in North America, and many make fine ground covers for shade. One of the most popular is Carex pensylvanica, commonly known as oak sedge, and it can be found across the eastern half of North America.

This woodland sedge can tolerate drier soils than many species. Use it as an underplanting for tall trees, as a ground cover in places where the hose can’t reach, and even as a no-mow lawn alternative where there isn’t much foot traffic.

Finely textured, semi-evergreen, bright green blades form a slowly spreading mass that tops out about six to eight inches tall. Mow it down once in late winter and watch the fresh green growth fill right back in. Oak sedge prefers partial shade to full shade in USDA Zones 3 through 8. It isn’t too particular about soil type as long as the drainage is decent.

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White Wood Aster Flowers Eurybia Divaricata
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White Wood Aster

Like sedges, many different types of asters that will grow in partial shade to full shade. You might be more familiar with the short, colorful asters commonly sold along with potted mums in the fall. That kind doesn’t make a good ground cover and needs lots of sun to grow well.

Our native white wood aster (Aster divaricatus), which grows in USDA Zones 3 through 8, spreads underground and by seed to form dense colonies even in dry shade conditions. Its starry white flowers appear late in the season at a time when many other perennials are finished blooming, making it an important food source for pollinators.

Deer are usually not interested, leaving more for you to enjoy for your garden and fresh bouquets.