“Invasive” Ground Covers and the Case for Allowing Periwinkle

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I have a beef with the inclusion of Periwinkle (Vinca minor) on my coop’s list of banned plants – banned because they’re considered invasive (despite NOT being listed on the Maryland Invasive Plant list).

I’ve grown it in two suburbs of DC and in neither location (or the gardens of my neighbors) has it grown vigorously. If anything, my complaint, echoed by other area gardeners, is that it’s not vigorous enough.

So let’s find out where it’s invasive and under what conditions, shall we?

The Invasive Plant Atlas says it’s “invading natural areas throughout the Eastern U.S. It inhabits open to shady sites including forests and often escapes from old homesites.”

The State of Indiana says: “Once established, Vinca minor forms a dense carpet to the exclusion of other plants. This creates a problem where it is competing with native flora.”

Moving west, a California source says it “tends to become invasive in hot Mediterranean climates.”

Indeed I finally found a spot where Periwinkle IS clearly a problem. In this photo it’s seen covering much of the ground layer in the Treman State Park in Upstate New York.

Plant them in the Right Place

Ground covers have a job to do – covering the ground, and not taking too long to do it, either. When they do their job they prevent erosion and weeds. No surprise that successful ground covers can, in the wrong place, do their job too TOO well. So what’s the right place for Periwinkle?

Commenters on Daves Garden suggest answers: “Yes, vinca can be aggressive, but I am grateful for that, given the difficulty of getting anything to grow under my Norway maples or in the dirty fill around my 1885 house…I would not grow this plant if I lived where it could escape into a woodland.”

One newspaper suggests, “Place this lovely in a nice hanging basket or medium to large planter.”

I like what one commenter on Houzz has to say:

As with any so-called invasive plant, its invasive properties are determined by location and planting situation…It doesn’t play all that well with smaller, herbaceous perennials, as it can easily overwhelm and smother them. And I would avoid planting it in any area that would allow it to spread into any natural plantings, like open woodlands.

David Beaulieu (formerly of About.com, now writing for The Spruce) suggests it as a lawn replacement under trees and lists its many advantages:

Because of their ability to root and spread, they can help hold the soil in place. This can be important on the side of a hill, where soil erosion might be a problem.

The vines need little care. They are deer-resistant and rabbit-proof flowers, and few insects eat them, so there is not much pest control to worry about. A

Tough, low-maintenance, and pest-free, Vinca minor has pretty foliage and flowers; it is also a useful plant. In spite of all of these benefits, it does have one drawback.

The “one drawback” of course is its potential invasiveness:

Vinca minor vines are considered somewhat invasive plants, so, if this is a concern for you, make it a point each year to keep their runners in check. But remember, the flip side of the coin for so-called “invasive plants” is that they are vigorous growers, meaning that they tend to be successful at filling in an area. This is often exactly what you want out of a ground cover.

Back home, here’s a patch of Periwinkle between my front yard and a parking lot. Surrounded by concrete and asphalt in all directions, this “invasive” isn’t going anywhere – because it only spreads by runner, not by birds or wind. It’s nothing like English ivy, which harms trees by climbing up into them, where it makes berries that are then spread by birds.

I wish “invasives” weren’t lumped together as they so often are – with little or no details as to how, where, and under what conditions they can damage other plants or natural areas. Plants that are invasive only along streams or in regions with mild winters can get banned from places where they’re no threat at all.

In my neighborhood the mistaken (I contend) banning Periwinkle creates a special problem. All coop members are required to cover the ground in their (mostly shady) yards, and banning the shade-loving, pest-free, evergreen Periwinkle leaves us with very few choices – mainly Pachysandra and Liriope. They too are listed as invasives – somewhere – and may end up banned, too. Then what?

Flowering Vinca minor photo by Margrit.

18 COMMENTS

  1. After planting this plant and seeing it just “chill” in one spot for 20+ years, then after that it took off and is what I call invasive. I’ve been on a mission to get rid of it for 10+ years. Also not recommended for places you need to walk through. You will trip on the vines.

  2. An invasive is rarely one that escapes the garden by above or below ground stems or roots. Most often the problem is seeding, which is not considered by many comments in this article. I regularly see Vinca minor in the middle of the forest, miles from a house. How did it get there? Of course, from seed.

    Now, these are forests that are practically cleared of understory plants due to deer, so I see that it’s questionable that Vinca is invasive, but Vinca didn’t get there by climbing over a sidewalk and traveling two miles.

    • I attended a seminar on finding old cemeteries and we were informed that when you find patches of by vInca in the woods you are likely standing on one. Vinca was planted on the graves for the evergreen foliage as a symbol of never forgetting those that had passed. I’ve never seen it form seed. Maybe it does somewhere. I like to use it in my winter containers. I choose not to use it in my landscape as it would crowd out and overwhelm my other shade perennials, plus my yard borders woodlands.

  3. I spent some biggish bucks paying a company to spray an acre of vinca that the former owners planted near my house which is located in a rural area near a natural area. (After two sprayings, I am still fighting the stuff.) I totally agree with the comment made by Dave (above). You don’t know how your invasive planted in your yard is going to spread. There is no burning bush planted near my house, yet I have found it growing in my woods and it is a bear to get rid of.
    There is also no barberry anywhere near my house, yet we are fighting a huge infestation of it in the woods. So please don’t plant these invasives!!! There are other plants that will serve your purpose if you do a little research!!

  4. Some of my favorite hikes are ones where you come across old homesteads in the middle of nowhere. The first thing you notice are the small patches of domestic plants here and there, including vinca. You know it’s an old homestead when you poke around a bit and find bits of old foundation, cast iron stove parts, or other castaways of domestic life. My favorite is one where all the irises from what must have been a considerable planting flourished and spread across a patch maybe 50 x 50 yards. I’ve gathered rhizomes from these over the years and have them in my garden, all different colors. I’ve never seen one of these areas where the domestic plants have spread more than maybe a quarter mile down the path, but our climate might be too harsh for the invasives to really get going.

  5. So either vinca spreads by seeds, or it doesn’t. Hmmmm. I live in Provence, France, and there is a bit of it in the borders under oaks on the property, and it doesn’t seem to move. I haven’t ever seen it in the nearby woods. I think it survives along the edge of the garden because of runoff from the road. On the other hand, a friend who lives in a more low-lying part of the area has it coming up everywhere — the water table is high and it gets a lot more moisture. I must do some real research on it, I suppose.
    bonnie in provence

  6. In dry shade there are many plants to try. Hellebores, perennial geraniums, certain sedges and ferns, epemediums, sedum ternatum, and in moister conditions there are so many! Tiarella, heuchera, and also all of the above that will tolerate dry, will also tolerate moist, zizia aurea, chrysogonum, wintergreen (if soil pH is appropriate). Really, just do some research. Hey, sometimes a patch of vinca is fine, but you are missing out on a palette of plants that can create a mixed and varied tapestry. If its deciduous shade there are also sweet little bulbs galore. Come on! We are gardeners!!!!

  7. What to plant? Anemone canadensis, Aquilegia canadense, Asarum canadense, Hexastylis shuttleworthii (evergreen), Aruncus aethusifolius, Eurybia divaricata, Chrysogonum virginianum, Dicentra eximia, native ferns, including evergreen ones like Dryopteris marginalis and Polystichum acrostichiodes), Geranium maculatum, Heuchera americana (‘Dale’s Strain) and H. villosa, Iris cristata, Lobelia siphilitica, Maianthemum canadense, Meehenia cordata, Mitchella repens, Pachysandra procumbens, Packera aurea, Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera, Salvia lyrata, Sanguinaria canadensis (while young plants are ephemeral, established plants have foliage that persist until frost), Sedges–there are native sedges for sun, shade, sand, clay, wet, dry, and some are even evergreen, Sedum ternatum, Sisyrichium angustifolium, S. atlanticum, Stylophorum diphyllum, Tiarella cordifolia, Viola sororia and numerous other native violets — which are the only host plants for the Great Spangled Fritillary.

    I’m sure I’ve missed some, and I may not have used the updated genus/species names for all of these, but I’m sure you can find several good candidates from this list.

  8. I live in the suburban urban sprawl I have problems with Japanese honeysuckle, porcelain Berry, devils vine, creeping charle and trees of heaven these i hate and feel need outlawing! yes vinca minor does spread but not nearly as quickly as a lot of other things and someone stole 12 ft.² of my Canadian ginger when I took vacation.

  9. There’s a substantial expanse of Vinca in Minneapolis’s Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. As far as I can tell, the setting was not a homestead before the native plant garden was established in 1907.

    Regarding your question about what evergreen groundcover to plant, sometimes there’s not a good option.

    And finally, just because a plant isn’t on the state’s list of invasive doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. I can’t address the currency if the official list in Maryland (the state if my childhood), but these lists are often years out of date, if they exist at all.

  10. I love Vinca and grow it in my backyard garden. It’s a great ground cover. I’m not going to walk on Hellebores or many of the others mentioned as alternatives. Gardening is part research and part experimentation, and above all a matter of personal taste.

  11. A skillful combination of locally native woodland plants like the ones in Jacqueline and Astrid’s comments would give the most seasonal interest and benefits for animal life. Sedges in particular are under-used; a matrix of those can give the required cover, then be enriched with other plantings as time goes on. Shade-tolerant Sedum ternatum is a good low companion.

    An evergreen garden plant that covers ground well and is attractive all year, with blooms in late spring, is Geranium x cantabrigense ‘St. Ola’. It’s very similar to ‘Biokovo’, which would also work, but ‘St. Ola’ spreads much more vigorously.

  12. Absolutely! This is a start to a list that could go on and on. All it takes is to expand the definition of groundcover from something that’s almost a carpet, to low vegetation that covers the ground. No one regularly walks on other groundcovers besides grass anyway, so why should we be concerned about maintaining a monotonous expanse of uniform, ground-hugging plants? Besides providing an interesting diversity of colors and shapes, Jacquelyn’s list will draw pollinators and serve as host plants to moths and butterflies. Just being green isn’t good enough.

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