Groundcover or ground cover is any plant that grows over an area of ground. Groundcover provides protection of the topsoil from erosion and drought.

In an ecosystem, the ground cover forms the layer of vegetation below the shrub layer known as the herbaceous layer. The most widespread ground covers are grasses of various types.

In ecology, groundcover is a difficult subject to address because it is known by several different names and is classified in several different ways. The term groundcover could also be referring to “the herbaceous layer,” “regenerative layer", “ground flora” or even "step over."

In agriculture, ground cover refers to anything that lies on top of the soil and protects it from erosion and inhibits weeds. It can be anything from a low layer of grasses to a plastic material. The term ground cover can also specifically refer to landscaping fabric which is like a breathable tarp that allows water and gas exchange.

In gardening jargon, however, the term groundcover refers to plants that are used in place of weeds and improves appearance by concealing bare earth.

Vinca major1
Groundcover of Vinca major

Contributions to the environment

The herbaceous layer is often overlooked in most ecological analyses because it is so common and contributes the smallest amount of the environment’s overall biomass. However, groundcover is crucial to the survival of many environments. The groundcover layer of a forest can contribute up to 90% of the ecosystem’s plant diversity. Additionally, the herbaceous layer ratio of biomass to contribution to plant productivity is disproportionate in many ecosystems. The herbaceous layer can constitute up to 4% of the overall net primary productivity (NPP) of an ecosystem, four times its average biomass.[1]


Groundcover typically reproduces one of five ways:[2]

  • Lateral growth
  • Side growth: Branches on the side of the plant extend outwards upon contact with the soil.
  • Base growth: New plants produced from the base of the origin plant.
  • Under/Above Ground growth: Produced from rhizomes and stolons
  • Roots

Like most foliage, groundcover reacts to both natural and anthropogenic disturbances. These responses can be classified as legacy or active responses. Legacy responses occur during long-term changes to an environment, such as the conversion of a forest to agricultural land and back into forest. Active responses occur with sudden disturbances to the environment, such as tornadoes and forest fires.

Groundcover has also been known to influence the placement and growth of tree seedlings. All tree seedlings must first fall from their origin trees and then permeate the layer created by groundcover in order to reach the soil and germinate. The groundcover filters out a large amount seeds, but lets a smaller portion of seeds pass through and grow. This filtration provides ample amount of space between the seeds for future growth. In some areas, the groundcover can become so dense that no seeds can permeate the surface, and the forest is instead converted to shrubbery. Groundcover also inhibits the amount of light which reaches the floor of an ecosystem. An experiment conducted with the rhododendron maximum canopy in the southern Appalachian region concluded that 4 to 8% of total sunlight makes it to the herbaceous layer, whereas only about 1 to 2% reaches the ground.[3]


Two common variations of groundcover are residency and transient species. Residency species typically reach a maximum of 1.5 meters in height, and are therefore permanently classified as herbaceous. Transient species are capable of growing past 1.5 meters, and are therefore only temporarily considered herbaceous. These height differences make ideal environments for a variety of animals, such as the reed warbler, the harvest mouse and the wren.[4]

Groundcover can also be classified in terms of its foliage. Groundcover that keeps its foliage for the entire year is known as evergreen, whereas groundcover that loses its foliage in the winter months is known as deciduous.

In gardening

Microstegium vimineum
Microstegium vimineum, an invasive groundcover

Five general types of plants are commonly used as groundcovers in gardening:[5][6][7]

Of these types, some of the most common groundcovers include:

In roof gardens

Groundcover is a popular solution for difficult gardening issues because it is low maintenance, aesthetically pleasing and fast growing, minimizing the spread of weeds. For this reason, ground cover is also a common choice for roof gardens. Roofs take on the brunt of incoming weather, meaning any plants on a roof must be resistant to long-term exposure to sun, overwatering from rain and harsh winds. Groundcover plants are able to sustain themselves in such conditions while also providing lush vegetation to what would otherwise be unused space.

See also


  1. ^ Gilliam, Frank (2003). "The Dynamic Nature of the Herbaceous Layer". The Herbaceous Layer in Forests of North America (PDF). USA: Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Niemiera, Alex (2012). "Selecting Landscape Plants: Groundcovers" (PDF). Virginia State University. Retrieved 2016-04-22.
  3. ^ Gilliam, Frank (2003). "The Herbaceous Layer as a Filter Determining Spatial Pattern in Forest Tree Regeneration". The Herbaceous Layer in Forests of Eastern North America. USA: Oxford University Press.
  4. ^ Harris, Steve (2010-06-09). "How to identify bird and mammal nests". Discover Wildlife. Retrieved 2016-05-01.
  5. ^
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  7. ^
Ajuga reptans

Ajuga reptans is commonly known as bugle, blue bugle, bugleherb, bugleweed, carpetweed, carpet bugleweed, and common bugle, and traditionally but less commonly as St. Lawrence plant. It is an herbaceous flowering plant, in the mint family, native to Europe. It is invasive in parts of North America. Grown as a garden plant it provides useful groundcover. Numerous cultivars have been selected, of which 'Catlin's Giant' has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit. Ajuga reptans is also a component of purple moor grass and rush pastures, a Biodiversity Action Plan habitat in the United Kingdom.

Ajuga reptans has dark green leaves with purple highlights. It is a spreading and dense ground cover. The leaves grow 5–8 cm (2.0–3.1 in) tall, but in the spring it sends up 10–15 cm (3.9–5.9 in) tall flower stalks bearing many purple flowers. The flowers are frequently visited by flies, such as Rhingia campestris.


Bioretention is the process in which contaminants and sedimentation are removed from stormwater runoff. Stormwater is collected into the treatment area which consists of a grass buffer strip, sand bed, ponding area, organic layer or mulch layer, planting soil, and plants. Runoff passes first over or through a sand bed, which slows the runoff's velocity, distributes it evenly along the length of the ponding area, which consists of a surface organic layer and/or groundcover and the underlying planting soil. The ponding area is graded, its center depressed. Water is ponded to a depth of 15 cm (5.9 in) and gradually infiltrates the bioretention area or is evapotranspired. The bioretention area is graded to divert excess runoff away from itself. Stored water in the bioretention area planting soil exfiltrates over a period of days into the underlying soils.

Carpobrotus rossii

Carpobrotus rossii is a succulent coastal groundcover plant native to southern Australia. It is known by various common names, including karkalla, pig face (Western Australia), sea fig and beach bananas.Karkalla leaves are succulent, 3.5–10 cm (1.4–3.9 in) long and 1 cm (0.4 in) wide, and curved or rarely straight. The flowers are light purple in colour, and 6 cm (2.4 in) wide. The globular purplish red fruit is about 2.5 cm (1 in) long and 1.5 cm (0.6 in) wide.


Eragrostis is a large and widespread genus of plants in the grass family, found in many countries on all inhabited continents and many islands.Eragrostis is commonly known as lovegrass or canegrass. The name of the genus is derived from the Greek words ἔρως (eros), meaning "love", and ἄγρωστις (agrostis), meaning "grass".Lovegrass is commonly used as livestock fodder. The seeds appear to be of high nutritional value for some animals, but they are also very tiny and collecting them for human food is cumbersome and hence uncommon. A notable exception is teff (E. tef), which is used to make traditional breads on the Horn of Africa, such as Ethiopian injera and Somalian laxoox. It is a crop of commercial importance. E. clelandii and E. tremula are recorded as famine foods in Australia and Chad, respectively.Other species, such as E. amabilis, are used as ornamental plants. E. cynosuroides is used in the pūjā rites in the Hindu temple at Karighatta. Bahia lovegrass (E. bahiensis) is known as a hyperaccumulator of caesium-137 and can be grown to remove the highly toxic radioactive atoms from the environment. Weeping lovegrass (E. curvula) has been planted extensively to prevent soil erosion.

Seed dispersal is often done by passing animals; the grains' hooks latch on to fur or hair, or to clothes. Others are wind or gravity dispersed. Several herbivores feed on lovegrass, including invertebrates such as the caterpillars of the Zabulon skipper (Poanes zabulon) and vertebrates. The extinct bluebuck (Hippotragus leucophaeus) was known to graze these grasses. The dense bunches also provide cover for small animals such as the rare Botteri's sparrow (Aimophila botterii). Lovegrasses may be important groundcover on oceanic islands like Laysan, where other plants are rare.

Euonymus obovatus

Euonymus obovatus, the running strawberry bush, is a trailing, woodland groundcover plant of the family Celastraceae, which is native to eastern North America in the eastern United States and southeastern Canada.

Euphorbia amygdaloides

Euphorbia amygdaloides, the wood spurge, is a species of flowering plant in the family Euphorbiaceae, native to woodland locations in Europe, Turkey and the Caucasus. It is a bushy evergreen perennial, growing to a height of 80 cm (31 in), with dark green slightly hairy leaves about 6 cm (2 in) long. The complex green-yellow inflorescence (cyathium), typical of Euphorbia, appears in late spring and early summer.It is among the few plants that thrive in the dry shade of trees, where it is used as groundcover. It spreads rapidly by underground rhizomes and can become invasive, though relatively easy to remove.One form known is Euphorbia ‘Efanthia’. The subspecies E. amygdaloides subsp. robbiae (Turrill) Stace, known as Mrs Robb's bonnet, is grown as a garden plant, and has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.The milky latex of the plant is toxic and can cause irritation on contact with the skin.


Fittonia (nerve plant) is a genus of flowering plants in the acanthus family Acanthaceae, native to tropical rainforest in South America, mainly Peru.The most commonly grown are F. albivenis and its cultivars. They are spreading evergreen perennials growing 10–15 cm (4–6 in) tall. They bear lush green leaves with accented veins of white to deep pink and have a short fuzz covering their stems. Small buds may appear after a time where the stem splits into leaves. Flowers are small with a white to off-white colour. Plants are best kept in a moist area with mild sunlight and temperatures above 55 °F (13 °C), therefore in temperate areas they must be grown as houseplants. Without water for a few days, this plant is known to "faint" but is easily revived with a quick watering. Its spreading habit makes it ideal as groundcover.

Frog Wood Bog

Frog Wood Bog is a Site of Special Scientific Interest in the Teesdale district of County Durham, England. It lies alongside Bedburn Beck, approximately 3.5 km west of the village of Bedburn.

The site mainly consists of mire vegetation, of two distinct varieties, one characterised by an abundance of bog mosses, Sphagnum spp, the other dominated by soft rush, Juncus effusus, and hare's-tail cottongrass, Eriophorum vaginatum. There are also areas of grassland and a secondary woodland of downy birch, Betula pubescens, with a groundcover of rush, bog mosses and purple moor-grass, Molinia caerulea. The importance of the site is the mire vegetation, which, of this type, is scarce in County Durham.


Gazania is a genus of flowering plants in the family Asteraceae, native to Southern Africa.They produce large, daisy-like composite flowerheads in brilliant shades of yellow and orange, over a long period in summer. They are often planted as drought-tolerant groundcover.

Indigofera tinctoria

Indigofera tinctoria, also called true indigo, is a species of plant from the bean family that was one of the original sources of indigo dye. It has been naturalized to tropical and temperate Asia, as well as parts of Africa, but its native habitat is unknown since it has been in cultivation worldwide for many centuries. Today most dye is synthetic, but natural dye from I. tinctoria is still available, marketed as natural coloring where it is known as tarum in Indonesia and nila in Malaysia. In Iran and areas of the former Soviet Union it is known as basma. The plant is also widely grown as a soil-improving groundcover.

True indigo is a shrub one to two meters high. It may be an annual, biennial, or perennial, depending on the climate in which it is grown. It has light green pinnate leaves and sheafs of pink or violet flowers. The plant is a legume, so it is rotated into fields to improve the soil in the same way that other legume crops such as alfalfa and beans are.

Dye is obtained from the processing of the plant's leaves. They are soaked in water and fermented in order to convert the glycoside indican naturally present in the plant to the blue dye indigotin. The precipitate from the fermented leaf solution is mixed with a strong base such as lye.

The rotenoids deguelin, dehydrodeguelin, rotenol, rotenone, tephrosin and sumatrol can be found in I. tinctoria.Marco Polo (13th century) was the first European to report on the preparation of indigo in India. Indigo was quite often used in European easel painting, beginning in the Middle Ages.

Jordaaniella anemoniflora

Jordaaniella anemoniflora, the anemone vygie, is a plant species in the family Aizoaceae. It is indigenous to a tiny area of the Cape Flats suburbs within the city of Cape Town, South Africa, but is now extinct in the wild.

This is a small, delicate succulent groundcover. It has fat, grey leaves and large pink or white flowers.

The natural habitat of the anemone vygie now lies beneath the urban sprawl of the city of Cape Town. Its last population in the wild was at Macassar on the Cape Flats but it was destroyed in 1992 to make way for housing. Consequently it is now extinct in the wild, although specimens have been preserved at botanical gardens such as Kirstenbosch. There is currently a project to reintroduce the plant to the grounds of a military base that is near to its original Macassar habitat.

This unique little plant grows surprisingly well in coastal gardens, and it makes a very attractive groundcover for sunny parts of the garden. It can be propagated very easily by cuttings.

List of Award of Garden Merit roses

The following is a selected list of rose varieties and cultivars which currently (2017) hold the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.

Maianthemum dilatatum

Maianthemum dilatatum (snakeberry, two-leaved Solomon's seal or false lily of the valley) is a common rhizomatous perennial flowering plant that is native to western North America from northern California to the Aleutian islands, and Asia across the Kamchatka Peninsula, Japan, and Korea. It grows in coastal temperate rainforests, and is often the dominant groundcover plant in Sitka Spruce forests.

Malephora crocea

Malephora crocea is a species of flowering plant in the ice plant family known by the common name coppery mesemb and red ice plant. It is native to Africa and it is grown in many other places as an ornamental plant and a groundcover. In California and Baja California this is an introduced species and often a noxious weed in coastal habitat such as beaches and bluffs. It is planted along highways in California and in Arizona it is utilized in landscaping for its low water needs and tolerance of sun. It has been recommended as a groundcover in areas prone to wildfire in southern California due to its low flammability.This is a perennial herb with a creeping corky to woody stem which roots where nodes come in contact with soil. The succulent leaves are triangular in cross-section, a few centimeters long, pale green to reddish in color, and somewhat waxy in texture. The flower is borne on a short stalk. It has many narrow petals in shades of red, orange, and yellow, sometimes with purplish undersides. The fruit is a valved capsule containing many lens-shaped seeds.

Natural landscaping

Natural landscaping, also called native gardening, is the use of native plants, including trees, shrubs, groundcover, and grasses which are indigenous to the geographic area of the garden.


Sarcococca (sweet box or Christmas box) is a genus of 11 species of flowering plants in the box family Buxaceae, native to eastern and southeastern Asia and the Himalayas. They are slow-growing, monoecious, evergreen shrubs 1–2 m (3–7 ft) tall. The leaves are borne alternately, 3–12 cm long and 1–4 cm broad. They bear fragrant white flowers, often in winter. The fruit is a red or black drupe containing 1–3 seeds. Some species are cultivated as groundcover or low hedging in moist, shady areas. The basic chromosome number for genus is 14 (2n = 28).The genus name Sarcococca comes from the Greek σάρξ (sárx) and κόκκος (kókkos) for "fleshy berry", referring to the black fruit.

Stratification (vegetation)

Stratification in the field of ecology refers to the vertical layering of a habitat; the arrangement of vegetation in layers. It classifies the layers (sing. stratum, pl. strata) of vegetation largely according to the different heights to which their plants grow. The individual layers are inhabited by different animal and plant communities (stratozones).

Thymus vulgaris

Thymus vulgaris (common thyme, German thyme, garden thyme or just thyme) is a species of flowering plant in the mint family Lamiaceae, native to southern Europe from the western Mediterranean to southern Italy. Growing to 15–30 cm (6–12 in) tall by 40 cm (16 in) wide, it is a bushy, woody-based evergreen subshrub with small, highly aromatic, grey-green leaves and clusters of purple or pink flowers in early summer.It is useful in the garden as groundcover, where it can be short-lived, but is easily propagated from cuttings. It is also the main source of thyme as an ingredient in cooking and as an herbal medicine. It is slightly spicier than oregano and sweeter than sage.

The Latin specific epithet vulgaris means “common” in the sense of “widespread”.

Vinca major

Vinca major, with the common names bigleaf periwinkle, large periwinkle, greater periwinkle and blue periwinkle, is a species of flowering plant in the family Apocynaceae, native to the western Mediterranean. Growing to 25 cm (10 in) tall and spreading indefinitely, it is an evergreen perennial, frequently used in cultivation as groundcover.


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