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Covering Ground in the Hills of Virginia

A challenge was issued by a property owner in the lovely hills of Virginia: How do you cover a steep hillside with something pretty that does not require mowing? Let's add another challenge: Are there any suitable plants that also reflect the homeowner's heritage?

Moss Phlox

A preliminary scan of the site indicated a sweet lavender-pink little flower already growing in tiny clusters. The timing of the observation was fortuitous, because native Phlox subulata typically blooms for only two to four weeks during Spring. This was an earlier than normal bloom time, especially for a plant that is rarely found in the Piedmont of Virginia. It is typically found in the Appalachian Mountains, although it could have been planted there long ago by someone who knew it would favor the sometimes dappled spots of sunshine. Actually, a few trees were taken down in the area, thereby giving this Moss Phlox (also known as Creeping Phlox) a chance to re-emerge. That's the first lesson: Look at what is already there, preferably during all seasons, if possible.

Sure, a few clusters look cute, but would it make an ideal ground cover? According to North Carolina State University's Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, yes, it would be a viable candidate for covering steep slopes. Despite its preference for mountainous regions, this particular area seems to have a unique micro-climate, because other mountain plants have been spotted throughout the property. Also, the maximum height of Moss Phlox averages about 6 inches according to numerous sources. While that would eliminate some mowing, it takes a while for this plant to mature to the point of covering enough ground. Besides, there are recommendations to shear the plants occasionally to encourage better flowering, so it may not be entirely maintenance-free.

The idea of using a native species is also appealing, but acquiring source materials can be challenging right now. There are some other available varieties of Creeping Phlox specifically bred for different colors. However, it may be costly to acquire enough plant material for the entire hillside. Does this mean only part of the hillside should be tilled and prepped for phlox? For now, the property owner has installed a dozen 2.5-quart plants found at a local nursery. If they prove successful this year, then the plantings may be increased, possibly incorporating other colors.

As the logistical challenges are tackled, I decided to look for this type of phlox in one of my favorite books, André Michaux in North America. Not be to confused with taller varieties of Phlox, he did seem to find a similar ground cover type now known as Phlox nivalis, which has also been labeled as pineland phlox. Michaux found it in South Carolina, and ironically, in an area very close to where the property owner's French Huguenot ancestors lived! It is possible that some of those ancestors came across similar looking flowers, if not in their gardens, then perhaps during their travels. Okay, so it's not the same exact type of Phlox, but it is similar, and you would expect a different native type in the sandhills of South Carolina versus Virginia's location in the Upper South. These are the kind of happy compromises you must make when including heritage plants in a landscape different from that of your ancestors!


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