On Gardening: Frog fruit has a silly name but makes a serious groundcover

July 13, 2015

Frog fruit attracts small butterflies like this colorful Pearl Crescent.

As I looked at the small groundcover from a distance, it appeared to be alive. In reality it was being hit upon by more small butterflies than I had ever seen at one time. I was looking at a large patch of native frog fruit.

I know what you are thinking. Frog fruit sounds like something Kermit might have for a snack or perhaps gracing the top of some salad. But frog fruit known botanically as Phyla nodiflora is a most incredible groundcover native to 24 states, from Oregon eastward to Missouri and Pennsylvania and then everywhere south.  

But if you think frog fruit sounds funny, consider the official USDA common name, turkey tangle fogfruit. Notice it is not "frog" but "fog." It is in the verbena family and produces small white verbena-like flowers nonstop for about six months. It does spread vigorously, which is kind of what you want in a groundcover.

At the National Butterfly Center, in Mission, Tex., where the butterflies had it covered that day, the conditions were torrid: high heat, brisk winds and virtually no rain. The plant performed superbly. It is so tough that some gardeners give up on grass in favor of a frog fruit lawn. There, on the Texas-Mexico border, it reached about three to four inches tall.

It was so resilient there that I presumed it to be a native only to that region, never researching it further. Then after moving to Georgia I was stunned to see it growing at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, and my eyes were opened to the wide range of adaptability of this plant.

We are growing it at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in soil much more fertile than where I was growing it in Mission. The soil is rich with organic amendments like composted cotton burrs, also called gin trash. This luxuriously rich soil couple with irrigation is producing a plant that is growing like itís on steroids. It has reached 8 inches in height and could be sheared if needed.

But just as it did in Deep South Texas, the frog fruit is bringing out the little butterflies, like Crescents, Checkerspots and Skippers. Then as if there were some flashing sign that said tiny pollinators welcome, small bees and wasps have appeared.

There are other little ones you will see as well. At the National Butterfly Center the frog fruit was the favorite visiting spot of little children, preschoolers, kindergartners and first graders. While the older students were fixated on larger butterflies, a trait commonly seen with adults, the little butterflies were favorites with younger children. It was common, seeing them bent over, or on their knees watching this feasting of the miniatures.

While it is a nectar source for all, it is a host plant as well. This is the larval food of the small but colorful Phaon Crescent and the larger extraordinary beautiful White Peacock butterfly. If the thought of caterpillars much bothers you, I promise youíll never have a less than picturesque plant.

Frog fruit is not a staple of the garden center. In fact, you will most likely only find it at progressive garden centers specializing in native plants. We had no problem locating plugs or tiny liners that we grew up for our plant sale. They didnít hang around long.

Frog fruit blooms best in sun. Surprisingly, though, they do quite well given some shade during the day. Anticipate each plant will spread at least three feet. Like all plants they will need moisture to get established, but once acclimated they are among the toughest in the landscape.

Wherever you need groundcover for a tough area, this may be your best choice. If you are creating a backyard pollinator habitat, then this will be a great addition. The frog fruit will also excel as a spiller plant in baskets and mixed containers.

If you want to attract the little ones, from butterflies, to bees and children, too, this is a choice plant. What child could resist a name like Frog Fruit?



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