Mention the word “pachysandra” to any self-respecting gardener and chances are you’ll get a look of horror or revulsion at even the whisper of the aggressive, invasive groundcover that is Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis). While that plant is used liberally in so many areas, I think it’s high time we declare our independence from that introduced species and celebrate our own charming American version of pachysandra: Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)!

Patch of Pachysandra

Allegheny spurge’s fantastically unique foliage adds a lot of year-round interest.

Photo Credit: © 2007 Pennystone Gardens

Pachysandra foliage

With its variety of green hues, Pachysandra procumbens really lightens up shady areas.

Photo Credit: © 2007 Pennystone Gardens

Pachysandra flowers

Spikes of curious spring flowers are tucked in the center of Allegheny spurge clumps.

Photo Credit: © 2007 Pennystone Gardens

This truly charming native is found primarily in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, as well as in Indiana (where it’s listed as endangered). And there’s no real reason this shade-loving beauty can’t be part of your garden, too. In fact, it was born in cooler areas and pushed south in front of advancing glaciers, where it adapted to warmer climates and stuck around.

Allegheny spurge is a well-behaved clump-forming groundcover that cloaks itself in mottled leaves of dark bluish-green with blotches of silver that are sure to create season-long interest in your garden. The wonderful foliage patterns vary from leaf to leaf, and no two plants are alike – making this a truly unique beauty. Just about the time you’re wondering whether the plant actually survived winter, springtime shoots erupt over the old leaves and a fresh wave of growth begins. These are bright green and light up the spring landscape with cheery promise.

Like all good shade plants, this one is prized for its foliage and makes a graceful accent to beds with ferns and delicate wildflowers. But in springtime, this little groundcover puts on a show of its own: Somewhat bashful, whitish-pink blossoms on cinnamon-scented racemes appear in the center of the clump, with the male flowers held above the female blooms.

This pretty perennial technically shines in dappled shade and appreciates a rich, organic soil on the acidic side. The ideal pH range is 5.0-6.5, so incorporating some leaf compost into the soil is always a good idea. (And don’t forget to mulch around clumps with shredded leaves in fall. This feeds the plants nicely and encourages new growth.)

Spurge can be planted out in an open area of shade to form a carpet over several seasons, doing a swell job as a groundcover in often-troublesome spots of the garden. But I also like it in tight clumps on gentle hillsides, as well as a foundation plant for polite ferns, anemone and even wood asters. It’s good to note that Pachysandra procumbens isn’t as drought-hardy as some other native groundcovers, and it’ll wilt when it’s languishing for lack of water. That’s a signal to give the plant a very heavy drink, right in the center of the clump. It should perk up in a day or so.

Despite the fact that it needs a good watering from time to time, Allegheny spurge is a truly sturdy plant, able to withstand the abuse of being relocated, even at times in the season when it should be left alone: I’ve had a couple clumps that got a bit too much sun because of tree canopy changes. They lost their fine leaf texture, turned a pure green and needed a new home at the height of summer. Admittedly it was a tough move, but I had prepared a good, well-watered site for them, so I relocated them and watered the clumps in thoroughly. Sure, they were grumpy for a few days, but they rebounded beautifully!

Want more Allegheny spurge? Propagating them is easy. The preferred way to expand your stock is by cuttings. Well, actually, “tearings.” Just grab a new stem after it’s hardened in midsummer and give it a yank. You’ll often pull up a piece of the rhizome and some roots, which you can pot up as a cutting. If you’re squeamish about ripping chunks off your plant, you can divide it with a sharp spade in spring or fall to keep clumps in the boundaries of your landscape plan.

This year, consider lightening up your shady spaces with a true foliage plant star! The uniquely beautiful patterns and easy-to-control clumps of Allegheny spurge may be just what your garden needs to fill in those tough spots with style and grace.