Everyone is looking for groundcovers these days, and if we let go of the idea that a groundcover has to be short and have blades, a whole new world is opened up. Packera aurea is a plant with an awful name but a lot to offer to those looking for a good way to cover space with something beside grass.
Packera’s most common common name is ragwort, which makes it sound like something sneezy and tattered. However, its neither. It’s a robust and cheerful plant sending out a profusion of golden daisy-like flowers mid-spring, one of the earliest blooming of the aster, (Asteraceae) family. The flowers appear on top of stems that reach from one to three feet high, with two being about average. After blooming what you mainly see is the deep green leaves which form a basal rosette, a kind of circular cluster around the stem, very close to the ground. The rosette stays green all winter in more mild winters, and it keeps a presence in the garden, slightly more subdued, even in the colder climes. What’s more, it blooms in the shade.
Let’s look more closely. Crazy purple undersides. The buds and budding stems are purple too, great contrast to the signature gold. We want groundcovers that are tough, and this one is. It reproduces by self-seeding and also asexually by creeping. See those rhizomes? They creep, they hold, they push the family boundaries ever outward. The heart-shaped leaves of the rosette stay as close to each other as kissin’ cousins. These plants only need a little help to become mature enough to keep the weeds O*U*T.
Just so you won’t be fooled, notice that moving up the stem, ragwort sports a leaf with a new shape. Leaves that attach directly to the stem above ground have a special name, they are called cauline. There. Word for the day. These cauline leaves are more lance-shaped and pinnatifid, or feathery looking.
Ragwort is native to every state in the entire eastern half of the U.S. which should give you a clue about its adaptability. By choice it inhabits shaded stream banks and boggy areas, but it is also found in dry places, and it will grow in sunny gardens if you want to bother providing moisture. Of course you realize what this means, right? If it is happy, it will colonize an area until stopped by natural enemies. This is great if you have a big space to cover, or a hillside to hold. Otherwise, confine it with hardscape like a pathway or edging that penetrates downward.
Ragwort also has a long blooming season, and is highly attractive to the little carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), cuckoo bees (Nomada spp.), as well as some of the Halictids. Syrphid and Tachinid flies use ragwort, as well as many butterflies. The Mt. Cuba center suggests marrying it with white wood aster, (Eurybia divaricata), christmas fern, (Polystichum acrostichoides), eastern wood fern, (Dryopteris marginalis), amsonia, (Amsonia tabernaemontana), and phacelia, (Phacelia bipinnatifida), in the shade garden. Now that would be a Groundcover Powerhouse for wildlife!
Ragworts a great candidate for the rain garden, too, shown in this one with cinnamon fern, (Osmunda cinnamomea). The ragwort here is at the end of its blooming season and forming little achenes with seeds attached to a tuft of white hairs to fly away with.
It comes with many other common names: golden groundsel, heart-leafed groundsel, and butterweed. It even has another formal synonym, Senecio aurea. But ragwort, by any of its other names, is a plant that deserves more attention, especially as a groundcover. And you know where to go for help finding native plants, right? Here: http://findnativeplants.com/
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