Invasive Ground Covers and Native Alternatives

by Sustainability Correspondent Doug Lockard

As we grow increasingly aware of the importance of bio-diversity, we are also learning that small decisions we make at home can have far-reaching consequences well beyond our property lines. Ground cover for part- to full-shade gardens has always been a particular challenge. Some of the more common ground cover and border plant solutions employed here in South Carolina are particularly problematic — but there are native alternatives that can be just as aesthetically pleasing, while also being non-threatening and even beneficial.

Monkey Grass (muscari) is a common name for a group of plants that are among the South’s favorite border plants. They are readily available, inexpensive, fast growing, and low maintenance. Unfortunately, depending on which species it is, it also tends to be an invasive species.

Monkey Grass (Liriope muscari) with black berries and Dwarf Mondo (Ophiopogon japonicus) with blue berries are non-native clumping varieties commonly seen in South Carolina. Birds eat the non-toxic berries, spreading them into the wild where they grow rapidly, forming impenetrable underground mats, blocking and out-competing our native plants.

Liriope spicata, however, is another species that is less particularly aggressive — but it’s hard to tell the difference between species.

Telling the difference:

L. muscari displays purple flowers while L. spicata flowers are white or lavender and has much narrower leaves. Both have black berries in the fall.

Note: Although L.muscari is not classified ‘invasive’ in SC because it is a clumping variety and tends to stay in place; however, the berries are eaten by birds and spread to other locations, and for this reason we discourage planting it nonetheless.

English ivy (Hedera helix) is another creeping groundcover that was introduced circa 1800 into American landscapes and is today loved by some and hated by others. Contained, it offers a lovely texture that quickly fills in. But it easily escapes pots and beds to cover shrubs and trees, climb structures, and out-compete even turf grass. And no, it has no regard for property lines!

Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortune) is a similarly problematic creeping vine whose berries are digested by birds and spread into the wild where they become a threat to our state conservation areas. It grows aggressively, covering structures and trees in a short time, and is very difficult to effectively eradicate.

The last plant we’ll touch on is Periwinkle (Vinca minor and V. major). This family of pretty little flower plants is popular here in South Carolina and carried by many commercial nurseries. They are powerfully invasive perennials that easily escape their beds, forming a dense carpet, out-competing other flora.

Alternate Native Ground Covers

The good news is that there are plenty of attractive and beneficial native alternatives that are commercially available in South Carolina. Visit our “Right Plant Right Place” page to see several new guides listing some of our favorites with the reasons why.

Here are a few more resources:

6 Responses

  1. gina zompanis says:

    best way to get rid of mokey grass/ I have never come across any plant that is so hard to get rid of. It has taken over our place. We just bought a house in Hartsville

  2. Doug Lockard says:

    Gina, monkey grass grows such a dense mat that nothing can grow through it, and it spreads aggressively. Taking it up is a challenge but one worthy of any good steward!

    The most effective way to remove this invasive perennial is to uproot it; however, hand pulling will not work due to the tendency for roots and rhizomes to snap off. Similarly, using hand tools like hand cultivators can break off rhizomes as you are digging. A soil knife or shovel is needed to pop up the roots. Bag up the grass and roots and send it to the landfill.

    Another approach is to spray it with the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup). This can be tricky as any over spray will likely also kill other plants, like grass, around it. Also, although the glyphosate is short-acting, the dead root mat will remaim for several years, preventing anything else from growing there.

    Thanks for asking and best of luck!

  3. Gail Shapiro says:

    My neighbors vinca periwinkle is always coming into my yard and now it’s getting too big to deal with. I can dig it in little doses but that won’t really control it. It’s creeping down into my property fast.
    What do u suggest? Would round up kill it? I’m never really in favor of chemicals.

    And I’m in the Fingerlakes region of NYS

    I’m having my metal roof replaced and thought I could have sheets cut in half or 3rds and try to dig these sheets down into the ground near their fence and keep it from coming over. How deep in ground and how high might it actually be needed to stop it or slow it down?
    Thank you,

    • Doug Lockard says:

      Gail, I sympathize. I had vinca growing in my ivy; ironically, two invasives battling it out in my front yard! My vinca is now mostly under control as I’ve been carefully pulling up the plants by the roots and/or weedeating the tops off the vinca when it flowers; thereby eliminating the re-seeding. It’s taken several years, but it’s mostly died out.

      Glyphosate is certainly an option; however, if sprayed it’ll kill indiscrimantly any other plant growing in the same space. If you’re willing to go that route, use a wetting agent called nonionic surfactant like Southern Ag Surfactant) that enhances spreading and foliar absorption of the herbicide. Alternately, you can brush it on the individual plants leaves; but with vinca that can be a chore. When using herbicides and surfactants, you must follow all pesticide label directions to ensure personal and environmental safety and treatment efficacy.

      However you attack it, be sure to burn the plant waste, or throw it in the trash, so it doesn’t escape. Good luck!

  4. Larken says:

    You incorrectly list L. muscari as not invasive in the paragraph on telling the difference between L. muscari and L. spicata. The paragraph above that lists both as invasive.

  5. doug.lockard says:

    Larken, thank you for your comment. I added a ‘note’ about L.muscari’s classification as an invasive.

Leave a Reply