Monkey grass is the South’s favorite ground cover. It’s easy to find, simple to care for, usually evergreen, and tolerates heat. Throw in the fact that many types boast showy flowers, and you have a keeper.
It’s tough too. Tolerant of shallow soil, drought, dogs, and deer, these Asian natives can survive the occasional crushing by car tires, bicycles, and the disoriented FedEx guy. Because it grows thick and mat-like, weeds rarely become a problem. Little or no fertilizer is required. For all of these reasons, this plant is one of the best secrets to low-maintenance gardening.
Select the right monkey grass, and your reward is even greater. Some prefer full sun, while others are better suited to shade. Some clump, and others creep. All monkey grasses fall into one of two groups: the genuses Liriope or Ophiopogon.
Common and Distinguishing Features
Liriope and ophiopogon are evergreen, flowering plants from the Asparagaceae family, which also includes asparagus, yucca, hosta, snake plant, and spider plant, according to World Flora Online. Both are generically called monkey grass, while liriope also goes by lily turf or spider grass, ophiopogon’s common name is mondo grass. Liriope is larger, has wider blades, and comes in lighter colors than mondo grass. They are both used as ornamental grasses in borders, beds, slopes, and edging.
In general, all liriopes do well in filtered sun to full shade and aren’t picky about soil. The best time to plant them is in fall, a month before the first frost, so they have time to establish their roots. Trim liriope in late winter or early spring. Mow or cut back foliage to the ground before new shoots emerge. If you do it after the shoots are up, the tips will be snipped blunt, and your liriope will be stuck with a ragged look for a year.
Types of Liriope
The most common is the clumping form (Liriope muscari), which is often used for edging. Popular selections include «John Burch» and «Silvery Sunproof,» which excel in sun.
«Big Blue» is the perfect choice for dry shade. These liriopes boast lavender to purple flowers followed by dark purple fruit. White-flowering selections such as shade-loving «Monroe White» are available too. Heights range mostly from 10- to 15-inches tall.
For slopes, try ‘Cleopatra’ (Liriope muscari ‘Bigun’) that grows 15-inches tall and wide with dark green leaves with purple flowers.
If you live in the Coastal or Tropical South, try «Evergreen Giant,» which stretches to 2-feet tall and makes a great substitute for a low shrub.
Avoid Creeping Liriope
When planting liriope, make sure to not get it confused with creeping liriope (Liriope spicata), which spreads fast by underground stems and is considered invasive.
Equally durable and just as carefree, mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) likes filtered sun to shade and well-drained soil. Foliage is fine and dark, making it an elegant choice for a formal or small garden. Heights can range from 2 to 12 inches, depending on selection.
Types of Mondo Grass
Dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nanus’) is a slow-growing, compact, clumping variety that grows just 4- to 6-inches tall and wide with purple flowers. It works well planted in clusters or lined along borders and edges.
Ground-hugging, slow-growing «Gyoku Ryu» is a nice choice for between stepping-stones. It’s dark green and only grows 3-inches tall and wide.
Black mondo grass (O. planiscapus «Nigrescens») grows well in containers and looks dramatic when paired with anything chartreuse. It grows in clumps 5- to 6-inches tall and wide with pink flowers.