Tuesday, April 17, 2018

One of the Best Groundcovers - Erigeron puchellus, Robin's plantain

I've sung the praises of groundcovers for years.

But it's hard to find the right groundcover - one that is assertive enough to spread and block weeds, but not so aggressive that it rampages over the landscape.

I tend to prefer and seek out native plants -- because I think they contribute to a 'sense of place', because I think they tend to fit into an intricate web of ecosystem services that I only dimly understand, and because I don't worry about messing up any wild spaces if the plants spread outside the garden.

Of course, I also want the plant to look good! Gardens should have aesthetic beauty too!

For a groundcover, I'd love to have an evergreen - something that's capable of tolerating Tennessee winters - multiple nights in the 20s, teens, even single digits. (It rarely gets below zero degrees Fahrenheit here, but it does happen occasionally.) And then something that can take hot, humid, droughty Tennessee summers without wimping out.

Surely if a plant filled all these criteria, it would be famous! People would be shouting its (slightly unwieldy) name from the rooftops, draping it with garlands and crowning it with honors.

Or not.

In this case, hardly any seems to have heard of Robin's plantain (Erigeron pulchellus), despite the fact that it's native throughout much of the Eastern and Central U.S. and thus is probably growing (literally) right under our noses. Or our feet.

It's a lovely plant - splendidly fuzzy and touchable. Unlike that other fuzzy, touchable groundcover - lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) it doesn't turn to mush in the winter. (It does get tattered, but I say tatters are better than mush.)

And the old foliage tends to decompose quickly on its own, again unlike lamb's ears, where the detritus just builds from year to year.

So far, I've only trialed Robin's plantain in partial to heavy shade. It seems to tolerate heavy clay soil just fine. It can even grow on a slope beneath an eastern red cedar in what must be pretty dry conditions (to put it mildly).

So yeah, it's Tough with a capital "T".

But I've found it easy to pull (unlike say exotic Ajuga) and relatively easy to transplant. It does seem to do best when transplanted in early-to-mid autumn -- past the heat of summer but with some time to settle in and put down roots before the real winter chill sets in.

Without further ado, here are some glamour shots of this lovely creature:

Here she is in February. A little tattered, but not bad, considering evergreen plants here in Tennessee have to endure harsh sub-freezing temperatures without the insulating snowy blanket that protects plants in white winter areas.

Here's Robin's plantain doing its best Venus flytrap impersonation.

Here you can get a good sense of the plant's capacity to cover ground and block weeds.  In my experience, Robin's plantain is not aggressive at all. I don't think gardeners would have much trouble keeping it from invading lawns. (Although how much better to replace parts of a lawn with Robin's plantain... That's my plan, to dig out strips of the lawn as Robin's plantain approaches. And it grows so low to the ground that I can't imagine it would be a threat to any shrubs or taller perennials.

The flower stems can be a bit droopy and wavy at first, but they tend to rise upright and erect as they come into bloom.

I believe the flowers bloom for about 3-4 weeks. They do attract small pollinators, so that's another major bonus if you're trying to grow a garden that is welcoming and supportive for wildlife!

If you garden in the Eastern or Central U.S., you may be able to find Robin's plantain at a nearby nursery that specializes in native plants.

Otherwise, you could try ordering it from a mail order supplier. If you live in the South, I'd recommend Mail Order Natives. If you garden in the North, I'd suggest trying to find a supplier that would probably carry a more local ecotype.


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  1. Great article. I intend to try it. Never knew of it before. A groundcover I love among others is Chrysogonum virginiana 'Eco-Lacquered Spider'. Very dense, almost perfect weed suppressor. Although I haven't trialed it under harsh conditions. Let me know if you would like to try it and I'll send you a start.

    1. Thanks for the reply quercusnut!

      I think you may have suggested Eco-Lacquered Spider before. I'm actually trialing it in my garden now, although for some reason Chrysogonum virginiana (a.k.a. green-and-gold) has not done well for me despite the fact I've trialed it in several different spots with various amounts of sun exposure.

      Do you find it does better with sun or shade? And do you think it needs to be transplanted in spring or fall?

  2. I probably did mention it before. So far I only have it in shade. I plan to try it in sun. I transplant pretty much any time of year making sure it doesn't dry out until well established.

    1. Good to know, quercusnut.

      Well, I'll hope that mine flourishes this year in a semi-shady spot underneath some crape myrtles and among other perennials. If it does grow well, maybe I'll take you up on your offer to send some of the Eco-Lacquered Spider this autumn. And if you want some of my Robin's plantain, maybe I can figure out how to send some your way!

  3. Cool plant! I've seen it growing in the wild and admired it. The slight purplish tinge to the flowers is special. The foliage, especially in winter, is nifty, too. Have you tried Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny Spurge)? I have P. terminalis here, because it was here when we moved in, but if I was starting from scratch, I'd definitely go with the native one. Both are great evergreen groundcovers with white flowers that attract butterflies in early spring.

    1. It's just an awesome plant. I was away for three weeks traveling and came back to find it still blooming and still attracting pollinators. The foliage looks better than ever and even the seedheads are pretty and fluffy!

      I have tried P. procumbens. I have not had much success with it, sadly :(

      My parents grew P. terminalis at their place in Pennsylvania. It thrived there, even marching into nearby woodlands. It definitely makes a thick and resilient groundcover with at least partial shade (at least in the Mid-Atlantic), but sadly I think it's somewhat invasive in parts of the U.S.

      Don't recall ever seeing butterflies visiting our P. terminalis when I was growing up. So either (a) you're lucky to have them visit yours or (b) I was clueless and overlooked the butterflies or (c) both!! :)

  4. Cool. I have some that are spilling into a walkway that I am planning to sell on ebay. I can trade you some for a start of your erigeron if you want to. Postage for postage. Just let me know and we can swap mailing addresses.

    1. Sounds like a plan. Let's revisit this plant swap idea in the fall. It'll be nearly 90 this weekend in Tennessee. Too hot to swap!

  5. Here's a link to a pic of one of mine.


    1. That's a good-looking ground cover!

      Sure, feel free to send me your mailing address using the contact form in the upper right corner of the blog. I will respond via email, but I would rather wait until early fall to exchange plants if you don't mind...

  6. Interesting plant, thanks for sharing. Is it hardy in zone 5?

    1. Yes, most sources I have seen indicate that it is hardy in zone 5 and marginal in zone 4.

      That said, you might want to try planting it in the spring or early fall, like September, in zone 5 to make sure as a chance to get established before winter.

  7. I love P. procumbens. It's beautiful. I've had mine for several years now and it hasn't spread an inch. Maybe it's my soil.

    1. Mine never really spread either. In fact, you're doing better than I did, as I had trouble keeping my P. procumbens alive!


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