It all started out innocently: a tiny plant that hitchhiked its way into my yard in the pot of a coralberry bush that I purchased from a nursery a few years ago. I planted the coralberry in the fall, and in the spring I was delighted to find a robust new perennial with starry yellow blooms growing beneath it.
By the end of that first summer, there was a healthy patch. Believing I had found a perennial groundcover that actually thrived in my difficult backyard, I enthusiastically transplanted patches of this plant in about five different places. And that is where the story takes a disturbing turn.
The following spring (May 2018), the original location looked like this (it’s the groundcover to the right of the path):
I was soon to learn the name of this intruder: Packera aurea, also known as
Wuhan Golden Groundsel. Ha. Actually, this interloper happens to be a North American native, and I have seen it touted on quite a few blogs and articles as a great native groundcover. I suppose it could be, but based on my experience I would put a giant asterisk next to this recommendation. If you plant it, plant it in only one place and then watch it! I have spent the last couple of years trying to flatten the curve on the spread of this plant, which for me has been rampant and exponential.
It is a pretty plant in some situations, but it also has the potential to look rather weedy, as above (though the struggling Skip Laurel doesn’t help this tableau). In a woodland garden, a few patches of it would be delightful, but in my semi-shady-but-not-quite-woodland backyard, it has spread like a ______________, overtaking everything in its path.
Packera aurea is difficult to pull out of the ground as well. It seems to have two kinds of roots: large, fleshy ones and fine, fibrous ones and both seem to reach deep into the soil. The roots quickly entangle themselves into the roots of nearby plants. Here it has grown underneath a sedum and sent up shoots clear through the formidable crown of a mature plant. Note all the little baby Packera that I am desperately trying to keep at bay with assorted mitigation efforts.
Packera aurea spreads aggressively through its roots, but the flowers also produce tens of thousands of dandelion-like seeds that, in April or May, drift through the air and land in all sorts of fun places, like nestled between the rhizomes of iris:
It also seems to be perfectly happy to become a lawn replacement:
So yeah, if I had to do it all over again, I would have instituted a travel ban against this particular native. Based on the positive reviews this plant has received from other sources, I gather that it’s not a scourge in every situation. But this is a perfect illustration of how most gardening advice should be local, and how not all native plants are created equal.
Take, for example, Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells). This native spreads in the best possible way: slow, steady, and polite.
Eleven or twelve years ago I bought three Virginia bluebell plants from the native plant nursery Nature By Design. Since I bought the plants in August and Mertensia are dormant in the summer heat, it looked like I was buying three pots of dirt. But what a great payoff the following February and March: lettucy foliage pushing up into the cold, followed by violet buds, then electric blue bells!
And while Virginia Bluebells do spread, they do so slowly. Do they ask permission before spreading their roots into a new space? Not quite, but almost.
Over the past ten years, I have noticed that new Mertensia plants will appear within a five foot radius of established plants. I am not sure if this spread is down to underground roots or to seeds popping out into surrounding soil, but the spread is certainly not aggressive.
Virginia Bluebells also seem less assertive because they go dormant in the summer. They put on a spectacular show in the early spring, but then they retreat backstage and let other plants step up.
Should you tire of seeing jolly blue blossoms during the gray skies of early spring (i.e., if you are a psycho) you could easily pull out unwanted plants and share them with a lucky friend.
Upshot: not all spreaders are the same. Not all will conquer your entire garden in the blink of an eye. Gardeners must never panic. However, it pays to watch, learn, and intervene when you must.