Groundcovers for Shade

Low growing foliage plant with shiny smooth green oval leaves
Peperomia in St. Petersberg, FL. Photo courtesy of Scott Zona.

While we may be in the Sunshine State, many Florida gardeners still face the challenge of growing in the shade. Beautiful trees in the landscape provide respite from the heat, but their cooling shade also makes it hard for some plants and turfgrasses to grow. Fear not though, there is a right plant for every place.

Groundcovers can be an important part of any landscape, sunny or shady. Statement plants can be eye-catching, but a good groundcover provides the perfect backdrop for your other plants to shine. Groundcovers also help increase soil moisture, while preventing weeds and soil erosion. In addition, many groundcovers are an excellent alternative to turfgrass, especially in shade where turf does not thrive.

In areas of your yard that have consistent shade, you’re better off planting a groundcover that’s easy to grow in low-light conditions. Just remember that many of these groundcovers won’t tolerate foot traffic, so you’ll need to plan for walkways or paths.

Before deciding on which groundcover to plant, you need to determine what type of shade you have.

Shade tolerant groundcovers do well in the following conditions:

  • Fewer than four hours of full sun (preferably during the cooler hours of the day)
  • Shifting shade from taller trees, like pines
  • Partial, mottled shade all day long

Most plants, no matter how shade tolerant, will struggle in the following conditions:

  • Shade from canopies so dense that you cannot see the sun from ground-level
  • Shade created by the shadow of buildings or fences
  • Wet, dry, or heavily-rooted areas

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the following groundcovers can be grown in partial to even dense shade, depending on the plant.

Low-growing teeny tiny flowers that are more purple center than pale lavender petals
Frog fruit. UF/IFAS

Frog Fruit (Phyla nodiflora)

Frog fruit’s purple flowers may be small, but they make quite the show when this native groundcover is planted en masse. Frog fruit is a host plant for several butterflies and the blooms attract pollinators. It doesn’t require much maintenance, but it won’t tolerate long dry periods. Frog fruit thrives in zones 6 through 11 in partial shade to full sun.

A mass of tall green sword shaped leaves surrounding a palm trunk
Cast iron plant. UF/IFAS

Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior)

If you’re looking for something with a little more dimension for a shady spot, cast iron plant may be for you. This evergreen perennial has glossy green leaves that grow upright reaching about one to two feet tall. There are a number of variegated cultivars to choose from as well. Cast iron plant is ideal for adding a little tropical flair to North Florida, as it’s also cold hardy. You can grow cast iron plant in zones 7-11 in areas that have filtered or deep shade.

Lyreleaf Sage (Salvia lyrata)

Lyreleaf sage is a Florida native and member of the mint family, with the characteristic square stem. The lovely purple flowers appear in the spring and are a favorite stopping place for pollinators. This hardy groundcover is tolerant of most soil types and can survive drought and flooding. With enough irrigation, it will form a dense cover and remain green year-round. Lyreleaf sage grows in zones 5a through 8b in either partial or full shade.

Short, deep green strappy grasslike plant edging a stone patio
Mondo grass. UF/IFAS

Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)

Mondo grass is an evergreen that is actually a member of the lily family. This grass has blade-like slender leaves that curve back toward the ground, giving this plant the appearance of turfgrass. Leaves can be dark green or variegated depending on the variety. It won’t tolerate mowing, which is fine since it only grows to be three to four inches tall. Its carpeting habit makes it ideal for covering exposed tree roots or prevent erosion on hills. Mondo grass thrives in zones 7 to 11 in most shady areas.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Partridgeberry is a native, low-growing perennial. It grows up to two inches tall and tolerates (but does not require) mowing. In late spring to fall, it produces tiny white to purple flowers that are followed by red berries. Pollinators enjoy the flowers and berries will be snagged by birds and small animals. You can grow partridgeberry in zones 4A to 9B in both partial and full shade.

Very close view of smooth green leaves

Peperomia (Peperomia obtusifolia)

Peperomia (aka baby rubber plant) is a native groundcover with round, smooth, dark green leaves. The plant tends to max out at a foot tall, and quickly grows into spreading clumps. This is a tropical plant, so it is only ideal for zones 10 through 11. It thrives in both partial and deep shade.

A rather ordinary fern frond
Swamp fern. Stephen Brown, UF/IFAS.

Swamp Fern (Telmatoblechnum serrulatum)

Swamp fern is a Florida native that is particularly suited to areas that are shaded and moist. This upright fern can grow pretty tall for a groundcover, reaching 4 feet in height. For extra visual interest, the new growth on this plant is coppery pink which then becomes dark green with age. Swamp fern will grow in zones 8B through 10B.

Twinflower (Dyschoriste oblongifolia)

Twinflower is a native groundcover that is named for its small purple flowers that appear in pairs throughout the year. It grows to a height of six to 12 inches with an open habit. Twinflower is also a host plant for buckeye butterflies, so it makes an excellent addition to your butterfly garden. You can grow twinflower in zones 8 through 11 in partial shade.

Asiatic Jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum)

Asiatic jasmine is a fast-spreading, densely growing groundcover that will thrive in sun or shade. This plant requires very little maintenance; just occasional trimming of edges is needed to keep it looking neat. In fact, Asiatic jasmine is easiest to control when it is a bit neglected, as too much water, sun, or fertilizer can turn it aggressive and unruly. It’s also salt tolerant, making it ideal for coastal areas. Asiatic jasmine thrives in zones 7B through 10 in partial shade.

While shady areas can be difficult to grow in, there are quite a few options out there—much more than listed here. Don’t let the shade get you down! After all, a problem spot in your garden is really just an opportunity to try something new.

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