creeping phlox

Want to beautify an ugly unfriendly patch of ground, an old ditch, a weedy edge?  Want to create a stunning border for a garden path or drape delicate or vibrant colors over a rock wall, or a rock pile?

Want to attract butterflies and bees to your garden?

Want to decorate your yard—permanently—for The Fourth of July?

There is almost no better way to accomplish all of these, separately or together, than to cultivate creeping phlox, also called moss phlox, moss pink, low phlox, ground phlox (phlox subulata)… or, as they call it around here, “Thrift.” (Please note, I have great respect for the other phlox, the standing, or tall, variety, phlox paniculata—I even grow it myself—but this is the story of the creeping kind.) Creeping phlox never gets much over six inches in height and each plant can spread out in a two-foot radius.

carpet of creeping phlox

I first became acquainted with creeping phlox when I moved to our little homestead in rural North Carolina, at the foot of the Blue Ridge of the Appalachian Mountains… where someone, perhaps Mother Nature, had strewn it liberally in a huge swathe across our large front yard, in a patch that stretched to about twenty feet wide and ten feet long.  Being relatively unschooled in the details of the plant, I was simply prepared to enjoy its marvelous colors—anything from snow white to deep red, with at least three blue or purple shades in between. The most common range was mauve to violet.

But my mother- and sister-in-law, discovering this treasure trove of beauteous blooms, soon swooped in and began plucking little clumps of my bounty to take home for replanting. These ladies, natives of these parts and both natural horticulturalists, the kind who can grow a fruit tree from a broken branch or a rose bush from a toothpick, called these little flowering darlings “Thrift.” This local nickname is seen, but only occasionally, when phlox is discussed by gardening experts, and indeed is the common name for a different flower altogether. For me, it was enough to just accept and enjoy my pretty posies without concern for nomenclature.

When we moved to our urban homestead in Mayberry, I noticed two things: lots of people in town were partial to this low-lying flower bouquet, to judge by the many yards graced by them.  So I naively kept looking for this mysterious plant in my flower catalogs, but none had any “Thrift” for sale.  But soon, in the local greenhouses, as spring came on, I began to see plenty of those vivid little blooms, in a spectrum from snow to blueberry, rows and walls and mountains of them.  Cheap they were, and lovely.  Still, I rather regretted that I had not stolen some pluckings of the plant before I left our country home, as my eager in-laws had done, while realizing it would be churlish, if not downright illegal, for me to sneak back and uproot some of the tendrils from the yard of the new owner.

But as a proper inhabitant of Mayberry, I felt I must have this plant for my yard, which I now correctly identified as creeping phlox.  I need phlox for one obvious reason: like many houses in town, our front yard is bordered by a granite wall.  When Robert Frost poetically declared that, “Some thing there is that does not love a wall,” he clearly had not encountered phlox, which would have forced him to say that, “Some thing there is that loves a wall”—a victory for creeping phlox, though possibly a loss of a great poem (“Mending Wall”).  The walls of Mayberry are part of the phlox story.

Phlox can be seen creeping all over the town of Mayberry, from early spring to late summer, in little volunteer patches, in empty lots, and in large intentional displays like ours has gradually grown into, lying along the many granite walls.  This magical meeting of the wall and the flower is no accident, because the same powers of earth and air and sky that put phlox in the Appalachian Mountains also brought great big rocks to the region, long before it had that TV-show designation.  For Mount Airy (see From Mill-town to Mayberry), in addition to being the childhood home of Andy Griffith, is also the home of THE largest open granite quarry in the whole entire WORLD!  (Can’t you just hear Barney Fife saying that?)

Click to enlarge. Photo from North Carolina Granite Corporation.

Before there was Mayberry, there was a deposit of granite the size of 66 football fields right here.  Legend has it that it can be seen from space, and though those who say that haven’t done it, it is a fact that you can see the quarry in all its gleaming white glory from a site about twenty miles away, up on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The Mt. Airy granite lode runs 8,000 feet deep and is scheduled to run out no sooner than 500 years from now.  In many places in the town, granite is so close to the surface that most gardening attempts are useless.  But… something there is that loves to live on rock with the merest bits of soil to cling to and to display its beauty to the world.  That something is phlox.

So, not only did I buy pots of phlox in every available color to drape sensuously over our Mt. Airy-granite wall, but also to patch up a dark border alongside the house shored up by an ugly, inorganic cinderblock wall.

The wonderful thing about phlox as the universal fixer-upper is that it does indeed creep, like many groundcovers, but unlike many others, its flowers do not spread out and lose themselves in the greenery.  No, phlox is all about the blooms.  Where the vines (they are sometimes called “stolons”) go, there go the little five-pointed posies, crowding together in what, after a while, begins to look like a thick, lush blanket.

So, now we have answered the question, “What to do to cover up unsightly areas of your yard, or grace a wall or pathway?”  Last year we began a slow process of covering our entire small patch of grass in the front with, yes, creeping phlox and nothing but.  No more mowing!  I’m pleased to say that when you approach our home from either direction, our phlox is the first and by far the most beautiful feature that will catch your eye.

creeping phlox on a retaining wall

What about the butterflies and the bees?

When I began to get serious about our phlox, I had to do some reading.  For one thing, I learned that “phlox” means “flame” (in ancient Greek, what else?), the flowers having gotten that name for their eye-catching colors.  From Wikipedia, I learned that, “The foliage of Phlox is a food for the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Dot Moth, Gazoryctra wielgusi, Hummingbird Hawk-moth, and Schinia indiana.”  In fact, a lot of people grow phlox, both tall and creeping, to attract butterflies.

Bees also love phlox, because, as I discovered in my research, bees get really turned on by the color blue.  To a bee, blue equals any hue from sharp red to the palest of violet, colors all seen in the many phloxes, both the tall and the short.  By the way—and this is really weird—bees see YELLOW as BLUE.  That’s why they rush into the center of any flower, where the yellow pollen is discreetly tucked away.  So, when she sees phlox, the bee experiences color mania, with the blue of the blue and the blue of the yellow pulsing like a psychedelic cocktail.  That color magnetism is the “mating call” that starts the whole process of reproduction going, and continuing, in the plant kingdom.  What the bee is drawn to is the healthy appearance of the plant in full bloom, just like we human females are often drawn to, well, certain human types displaying healthy attributes such as good musculature and a deep tan.

Blue flowers have a special place in folk memory.  They are a symbol of creative inspiration, memory, and peacefulness.  C.S. Lewis recalled the fleeting beauty of childhood by referencing the elusive, fragile, blue flower.  Poets and singers often use the blue flower to imply something forever lost and ever sought.  In Indian mythology flowers with blue petals are revered for having the same coloring as the god Krishna.  European folklore contains a haunting story of the origin of the tiny sky-colored forget-me-not.  So we, like bees, are ever searching—in memory, imagination, and in our gardens—for the blue flower.

The specific attraction of a phlox flower for the bee is the pigment anthocyanin.  Anthocyanins (the cyan refers to the blue/purple/red color) have gotten a lot of good press in recent years, as their biological properties have been revealed as important for humans, too.  Anthocyanins are antioxidants and are present, as you might guess, in foods with the right color scheme: blueberries, raspberries, black rice, red cabbage, and lots of other healthy foods, including the grapes that make wine.  Deer, rabbits, and other foragers favor the flavor of phlox, but since our dog favors the flavor of foragers, we have not yet observed any critters gnawing on our wall-hanging wonders.

Then, too, it is possible that phlox could be eaten by humans.  Though I have considered munching on phlox blooms, I am leery of trying something with the root word for “cyanide” in its name… so I will stick to berries and wine for my anthocyanin intake until someone tells me for sure that phlox is safe for my consumption.

Phlox honors our nation by being a purely North American species.  Its farthest travels have been to Siberia, but any other outlanders wishing to cultivate it would have to transplant it, as the English did, soon after colonization began.  For, what English gardener, so dedicated to well-coiffed walkways, could resist carrying home a few sprigs of this most excellent edging?

As for cultivation, phlox rewards me by being EASY.  Experts advise us not to try to grow phlox from seed, and buying the plants has the advantage of being able to pick the colors (I am still searching for the mysterious color known as “variegated”).  In the spring you will find the plants for sale at the big box stores and small family greenhouses, and all that is needed is to plunk them in the ground, in a hole about twice the size of the root ball.  Phlox likes, but does not crave, compost or fertilizer, having gotten along quite well, thank you, for hundreds of years (at least) without any help from human planning.  Spreading comes naturally to the plants and by the second year, you will appreciate this effect.  Like many “weeds,” phlox likes tough spots, verges, roadsides, drainage ditches, and of course, rocks and rock walls.  It likes full sun and can grow in desert climates, but ours grows in a yard that is shaded for at least one-third of every day, and along the side of the house where it gets sun no more than 4-6 hours a day depending on the season.

By summer’s end (if you live in zones 4-8), the flowers will be fewer, but here, even in snow, we have kept a few blooms.  In the dead of winter, the phlox plants turn brown and dry, and attract other weeds.  Spending time separating out the chaff from the phlox is a nice contemplative activity for a warmish day in February.  Wild onions simply adore our phlox, and uprooting them by the hundreds is another small but rewarding early spring chore.

In working closely with phlox, I have come to admire its toughness and its resurrective quality, going from what looks like a lifeless dried-out heap to a miracle of bloom, almost overnight.  Referencing this remarkable onset, The Farmer’s Almanac records that, “Native Americans called April’s full moon the ‘Full Pink Moon’ because it heralded the appearance of the moss pink, or wild ground phlox—one of the first spring flowers.”  And our phlox does seem to appear quickly, in full bloom, after the dull days of late winter have passed.

Phlox is subject to the usual range of blights and mildews, cankers and rust that most growing things have to deal with, but I can honestly say that we have yet to see anything attack our creeping darlings from within or without, after nearly twenty years of  “tending our phlox.”

Because it is a child of our continent and a beauty to behold, and because of its range of colors, I feel it is fitting to commemorate our nation’s heritage with red, white, and blue phlox.  I am picturing a large tub over spilling with stripes of red and white and a patch of blue in the middle.

There’s still time before the Fourth of July, my friends, to get patriotic phlox positioned for your celebrations!


  1. I have a small hill that runs the length of my front yard and have been wondering what perennial groundcover would do best there. It gets a lot of sun but the soil is poor. It souds like phlox can handle it. I live in a wooded area where the deer can make short work of the plants they favor, but I have seen yards here where moss phlox grows quite well, so my plan this fall is to plant some phlox and some periwinkle and see how they do.

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