Ground Covers that Shine in Late Fall

Ground Covers that Shine in Late Fall

Helleborus Orientalis

There are numerous shade and drought tolerant ground covers available which are also deer resistant. However, many of them are mundane and don’t change much with the seasons.

Vinca minor (Myrtle) makes an attractive ground cover,  fits the above criteria, but often acts as an incubator for weeds. It does exhibit attractive blue flowers.

Pachysandra terminalis is more vigorous than Vinca and less apt to allow weeds to penetrate its understory once established. It is, however, susceptible to several fungal diseases, including Boxwood blight and Volutella blight. Both Myrtle and Pachysandra are deer resistant and shade tolerant.

Pachysandra procumbens (courtesy of Mt. Cuba Center)

Sleepy Cat Farm has utilized numerous ground cover plants in recent years to provide additional interest at key times of the year; when interest in the landscape wanes and we yearn for Spring. Some of these are described below. We will visit others in future posts, and you can see for yourself at our annual open day this coming June 14, 2020.

Pachysandra procumbens, our native Pachysandra, boasts colorful mottled foliage and larger fragrant flowers than its cousin P. terminalis, both of which attract pollinators. Granted, one has to be on hands and knees to appreciate the blooms. Alleghany Spurge, as it is known, is not quite evergreen, but it sparkles in late Fall with its attractive spotted foliage, spreading rapidly once established and is quite shade and drought tolerant. We even have it in full sun near our bee hives and it performs quite well without supplemental watering.

Helleborus orientalis (The Lenten Rose, pictured above), Helleborus niger (The Christmas Rose) and their hybrids are a relatively new ground cover plant to our area. Hailing from Asia, I first spotted these in a mass planting in New Canaan, CT years ago along a roadside as an informal ground cover. It was quite impressive when in bloom, sporting an array of pastel colored flowers and lustrous foliage. Hellebores are quite drought tolerant, pest free and very hardy. Their one fault is their old growth will blacken in late Winter just before the blossoms unfurl, and for best effect should be removed. This can be tedious in a large planting. The long lasting blooms more than make up for this, and breeding has resulted in an array of double flowers, variegated foliage, and unique colors. I have even seen the blossoms floated in water for arrangements and they last for days. On warm sunny days in late Winter, bees are often seen visiting the flowers.

Helleborus x. ‘First Kiss’

Helleborus niger blooms a bit earlier, and seems to retain its leathery foliage in most years. While it tends to be found as mostly white cultivars, recent crosses have resulted in additional shades and forms. The foliage tends to be softer textured and less apt to brown out in Spring.


Epimedium (Bishops Cap) is a genus from Asia with a wide variety of colorful early Spring blooms, held above the foliage for easy viewing. Planted en mass for best results, this makes a durable, pest free, drought tolerant ground cover for three seasons. Its foliage is lustrous, making it shine in late Fall when the sun is lower in the sky and trees are bare. One detriment, as is often the case with Hellebores, is that the Spring foliage  often browns out and will detract from the blooms, which look like tiny Bishops caps. Taking the hedge shears to it before the blossoms extend is an easy task and the foliage is light enough to blow away. We use our battery charged weed trimmer to cut off the canopy, and it shreds the leaves while removing them.

Newer varieties may have bi-color flowers and tend to retain their green foliage longer. Epimedium spreads under the ground via rhizomes, allowing one to divide and move like sod once established Rhizomatous.


European Ginger, or Asarum europeaum, is an evergreen ground cover with lustrous, dark green foliage. It is very slow to grow, which makes it quite expensive to purchase in quantity. Therefore, one rarely sees it outside of specialty nurseries and gardens. Even more costly are the unique variegated forms of it, which are difficult to propagate. Very pest tolerant, and desiring of partial shade, Asarum is a plant that requires a soil high in organic matter and good sharp drainage. Once established to its liking, it will thrive and often reseed itself.  Our stands have dwindled over the years, but when it likes the site it thrives.


Speirantha convallarioides is a monotypic (all alone in its genus) species found in forests of China. In the garden, our 4-year-old clump has reached 2′ in diameter. The evergreen 10″ leaves radiate from a thick, slowly spreading rhizome, resembling narrow lily-of-the-valley foliage. In April and May, patches of Speirantha convallarioides are adorned with short spikes of white, alien, satellite-like flowers just topping the foliage – a superb woodland plant and quite a bit more Winter hardy than books indicate. Deer don’t seem to bother with it.