Midwest Regional Reports

Shade Perennials for Weed Suppression

These quick-spreading ground covers are perfect for reducing understory maintenance

Burgundy Glow ajuga
‘Burgundy Glow’ ajuga grows streaks of variegated white among purple and green dappled foliage. Photo: Michelle Gervais

Pulling weeds usually isn’t at the top of the list of anyone’s favorite things to do, so why not utilize nature to prevent those weeds from growing in the first place? Try planting one of these weed-suppressing, colony-forming, shade-loving perennials.

Pink lily-of-the-valley Pink lily-of-the-valley
Pink lily-of-the-valley can range in color from mostly white with a hint of pink all the way to purple. Photos: Chris Schlenker (left), GPOD contributor (right)

Pink lily-of-the-valley

Convallaria majalis var. rosea syn. Convallaria majalis ‘Rosea’, Zones 3–8

Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis, Zones 3–8) is an old-fashioned plant that spreads somewhat aggressively in partial to full shade, creating a dense colony to a height of 6 to 12 inches. Fragrant bell-shaped flowers in spring are usually white; however, there is a pink lily-of-the-valley. There are also a few varieties with very soft pink flowers, but unless they are examined right next to the white flowers, any difference is too hard to notice. ‘Flore Pleno’ is a double-flowered variety worth seeking out, as is ‘Prolificans’, in which each flower is replaced by a cluster of three to seven flowers, giving even more flowering power and fragrance.

Brighten up the understory of your trees with the yellow flowers and streaked foliage of ‘Herman’s Pride’ yellow archangel. Photo: Bill Johnson

Yellow archangel

Lamium galeobdolon, Zones 4–9

A species to consider in dry shade is yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon, Zones 4–9). Growing 1 to 2 feet in height and width, yellow archangel features medium green leaves with silvery markings along the margins and beautiful, tubular yellow flowers. The plant spreads quickly and somewhat aggressively, requiring some thought into placement in the garden to avoid having to weed it out later. However, there is a clump-forming and nonspreading cultivar called ‘Herman’s Pride’ that only grows 10 to 14 inches tall and wide and has similar yellow, tubular flowers to the species but with more noticeable silver marking to the leaves.

Ajuga is a wonderful shade plant Ajuga 'Burgundy Glow' shade plant
Contrast the straight species of ajuga (left) with the variegated cultivar ‘Burgundy Glow’ (right). Photos: Amy Knofczynski (left), Michelle Gervais (right)


Ajuga reptans, Zones 3–10

Reaching only a few inches high, ajuga is a wonderful plant for weed suppression in shade. As it steadily spreads, the flat leaves and vigorous stems form an intertwined and dense net that prevents weed seeds from even getting started. The main feature is the foliage, which can come in a wide array of colors: green, white, cream, pink, bronze, and shades of purple. As a bonus, blue spikes of flowers cover the plants in late spring, and these blooms are popular with pollinators. If you grow one of the variegated varieties such as ‘Burgundy Glow’, promptly remove any nonvariegated sections, as they will quickly dominate. My favorite cultivar is ‘Bronze Beauty’, which sports deep blue flower spikes and attractive, contrasting, bronze-tinged green foliage.

It might take a little work to get shade perennial plantings established, but it will save you time in the long run that you won’t spend weeding. For more ideas on how to suppress weeds in shade, read about these 10 ground covers for shade.

—Chris Schlenker is the head gardener of McCrory Gardens at South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota.

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