Down the Garden Path: Tidy native groundcovers

Prairie Smoke shows the start of tufting that gives the plant its name.

Are you tired of the same old groundcovers that you see in every neighborhood – Pachysandra, English Ivy, and Wintercreeper, to name a few?

Here are three less common native groundcovers to consider; all have attractive foliage and unique flowers and are resistant to browsing by deer and rabbits. Being native to our area, they do well in our Midwest climate, which I can attest to as they are growing successfully and well-mannerly in my yard, with little effort on my part. A bonus is that they bloom early in spring and attract and support pollinators.

Two on the Sunny Side

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) provides year-round changing interest. In early spring, pinkish to red nodding flowers appear on 8-inch stems. Then in May, the blooms transform into silky pink heads with wispy seed tails that last into June, resembling smoke plumes. It may bloom a second time in fall, with fewer flowers. Bumblebees are attracted to these early flowers. The foliage is fern-like and lasts year-round, turning red and lying flat on the ground in winter. Prairie Smoke spreads slowly by rhizomes (underground stems). Plant it in well-drained soil where it won’t be overshadowed.

Blooming from April to June, the fuzzy white flowers of Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) look like little cat feet, on stems about a foot tall. The leaves remain year-round, creating winter interest and grow close to the ground which helps keep weeds out. New leaves are covered in short white hairs making them silvery, but the hairs are lost throughout the year. Pussytoes spread by stolons (horizontal stems) and are drought tolerant. Pussytoes is a host plant for caterpillars of the American Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis).

One Made in the Shade

Unless you look for the flowers of Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) under the leaves, you may never even know they are there! The dark reddish-brown, bell-shaped flowers are at the base of the plant in late April to early May, lying on the ground. Wild Ginger is pollinated by flies which are attracted to the unusual color of the flower.

When the seeds ripen, another insect interaction takes place that is mutually beneficial to the ant and the plant. Attached to seeds is a food package called an “eliaosome” that attracts ants. The ants take the seeds to their nest where they eat the eliaosomes. The ants then “plant the seeds” when they discard them nearby in the soil.

Above all this insect drama, Wild Ginger is about 6 inches tall and has heart-shaped leaves that can grow up to 6 inches across in deep shade. The plants emerge in March, with the leaves lasting throughout the growing season but dying back in winter. They spread by rhizomes that have a ginger-like fragrance, forming a dense root mat.

Wild Ginger grows best in a moist, well-drained woodland type of soil. It will wilt and need watering in drought conditions. Wild ginger is a host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor).

Consider these easy-care, tidy native groundcovers to set your yard apart and to attract pollinators, a win-win for you and our environment. For more information on groundcovers, see

• Sue Styer is a certified Master Gardener and Master Naturalist volunteer with University of Illinois Extension serving DuPage, Kane, and Kendall counties.