Bugle flowers are charming in shady gardens

Ajuga reptans 'Burgandy Glow' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofAjuga reptans 'Burgandy Glow' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofAs long as bugle flowers are planted in semi-shade and the soil is fertile and moist, they will carpet the ground with their beautiful foliage, and in spring and early summer their pretty flower spikes are just an added bonus. Read more below on how to grow and use these little charmers in the shade garden.

Ajuga reptans is a spreading perennial groundcover from the mint family (Lamiaceae), and the genus includes around 40 species. It is indigenous to Europe, Southwest Asia where it occurs in northern Iran, northern Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and southern Russia. It is also native to north-western Africa in places like northern Algeria and Tunisia. In the wild it is found growing in damp grassy fields and woods, where it forms a beautiful ground hugging mat of evergreen, dark green to bronze or purple coloured leaves which form a pretty, flat rosette shape. The plant spreads continually by runners, and from mid spring to early summer, dense spikes of tiny purple flowers emerge, to carpet the ground with colour.

Ajuga reptans has sometimes escaped garden cultivation and is known to have naturalized in most of the eastern half of North America and Canada, as well as in New Zealand, and some parts of south-eastern Australia, in places like Tasmania, in the Central Tablelands region in sub-coastal New South Wales, and sparingly in Victoria. For this reason we should keep an eye on this plant in our own country, especially in regions where it flourishes to such an extent that it may also escape garden cultivation and start invading our wild areas.

There are many garden cultivars to choose from and Bugle flowers are grown mainly for their beautiful leaves. Selections include foliage variegated in green, bronze, purple, white, red, yellow and pink, and if planted as a groundcover they will create a lovely carpeting effect.  Their dense spikes of charming flowers are an added bonus, and they come in shades of blue, purple, pink or white, that bees, butterflies and moths also love.

Ajuga reptans has green-bronze leaves and tall purple flower spikes.

Click here to see Google images of Ajuga reptans

Ajuga reptans ‘Dark Mahogany’ has dark burgundy glossy leaved foliage and light blue flowers.

Click here to see Google images of 'Dark Mahogany'

Aguga reptans 'Burgundy Glow' (also known as 'Burgundy Lace') has tricoloured foliage of creamy-white, rose-burgundy and dark green, and produces lovely blue flowers. 

Click here to see Google images of 'Burgundy Glow'

The following Ajuga varieties no longer seem to be freely available in SA so if you do see some growing in old gardens or parks, try to get some rooted cuttings.

Ajuga reptans 'Alba' has glossy, dark green leaves and short spikes of white flowers.

Click here to see Google images of Ajuga 'Alba'

Aguga reptans 'Atropurpurea' has dark purplish-bronze foliage and purple flower spikes .

Click here to see Google images of 'Atropurpurea' 

Aguga reptans ‘Catlins Giant’ has bronzy-purple leaves and blue flowers that are twice the size of most other bugle flowers.

Click here to see Google images of ‘Catlins Giant’

Aguga reptans ‘Chocolate Chip’ is noted for its extremely dwarf habit and chocolate coloured foliage with burgundy highlights. The beautiful bluish-purple flower spike rise only about 7cm above the foliage.

Click here to see Google images of 'Chocolate Chip' 

Ajuga ophrydis is our very own indigenous Ajuga which is also called bugle plant, as well as moonyane, and se-nyarela.  It has bright green leaves and can grow 60 to 250mm high. From October to February, the beautiful mauve, white or blue flowers appear. The species is found mainly on rocky slopes and open grasslands, occurring at an altitude of 0 to 2,700m. It is the only species of Ajuga indigenous to South Africa and occurs naturally in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Gauteng, and Mpumalanga, and extends into Swaziland and Lesotho.

Click here to read more about Ajuga ophrydis at PlantZAfrica

Ajuga reptans 'Dark Mahogany' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofAjuga reptans 'Dark Mahogany' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofUses: 

Ajuga is an ancient medicinal plant that was used as a wound coagulant, which led to its lesser known common name, "carpenter's herb", and still today it is considered very useful in arresting haemorrhages. The entire plant is aromatic, astringent and bitter, and a homeopathic remedy is made from the whole plant, which is harvested as it comes into flower in late spring and used fresh, or dried for later use. The plant is usually applied topically, and is used in ointments and medicated oils, but it is also widely used in various preparations against throat irritations and especially in the treatment of mouth ulcers.  

The plant also contains digitalis-like substances that are commonly found in Digitalis, or foxglove species, and are used in treating heart complaints, because they are thought to possess heart tonic properties.

Click here to see Google images of Digitalis species

Last, but not least, ajuga is also considered to be good for the treatment of excessive alcohol intake!

In the Garden:

Bugle flowers are an excellent groundcover for moist shady to semi-shade areas, and surprisingly they even grow well in dry shade if they can be watered a bit, however, in dry shade they will not be as luscious looking as those growing in moister areas. This versatile little plant is used to stabilise the soil on banks and thrives under tree and shrub canopies.

Their attractive foliage is a good contrast plant for any style of garden, be it modern, county or cottage. Try planting ajuga along the edges of shaded borders and flagstone pathways, and add it to mixed plantings in pots or hanging baskets.  An added bonus is that although they spread by runners and grow fairly quickly they are generally not invasive when planted between other plants.

Ajuga is considered to be a good selection for a green roof, and is recommended as a groundcover in regions prone to wildfires. The United States has created a system of firebreaks for areas prone to wildfires, and these are separated into concentric zones surrounding buildings. Ajugas have been included in Zone 2, which is the second zone away from the house, as these low-level groundcovers provide little fuel for fires.

Ajuga reptans 'Burgundy Glow' Picture courtesy Nu-leaf NurseryAjuga reptans 'Burgundy Glow' Picture courtesy Nu-leaf NurseryCultivation/Propagation:

Ajuga grows well almost throughout South and is hardy to quite severe frost, and even in extreme conditions the plant will go totally dormant in winter, only to shoot again in spring, as long as the roots are mulched to prevent them from freezing.  

In humid subtropical regions ajuga must be planted in very well drained soil, and where there is a good air flow, to prevent fungal diseases like powdery mildew.

In the dry winter rainfall regions, and very hot and arid inland regions, the plants will require regular watering during long, dry spells.  Ajuga will survive more severe drought conditions by wilting and shrivelling up completely, but if the ground is well mulched, and if the roots receive some water, they will most often spring to life again once the rains arrive.

Unfortunately ajuga is not salt tolerant and cannot be planted to close to the coastline, but will thrive just a little inland in more sheltered conditions.

The plants thrive in semi-shade and even full shade, but will take a lot more sun if the soil is kept moist. A purple-leafed form called 'Atropurpurea' does well in full sun and moist soil. In very arid and hot regions, semi-shade is best. Surprisingly, the plant will even grow in dry shade areas that receive some water, but in dry shade the leaves will not look so luscious.

Ajuga adapts to most garden soils, ranging from mildly acid, neutral, and mildly alkaline soils. It prefers moist well-drained soils of average fertility, but is adaptable to chalk, heavy clay, clay loam, loam, loamy sand, sand, sandy clay, sandy clay loam and sandy loam soils.

An annual mulching of the roots with compost and an occasional feeding with a general purpose organic fertiliser is sufficient to keep the plants looking at their best in the garden.

Deadhead old flowering stems regularly to encourage leaf growth. Variegated cultivars will slowly revert back to green or bronze unless the non-variegated sports are periodically removed.

Propagation is by root division at almost any time of year. To rejuvenate and minimise congestion, lift and divide the clumps every couple of years. In very cold inland regions, division is best done after flowering in spring.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

High humidity and unpredictable spring weather, with a high temperature swings between the day and night hours, coupled with frequent rains, favour the development of fungus diseases like powdery mildew; and crown rot can become a problem under extremely wet conditions.

In humid subtropical regions, several fungi cause crown and root rots, showing as roughly circular patches of plants dying out, and sometimes entire plantings may die.

Planting bugle flowers in well-drained soil and situating the plants in a well-ventilated area will go a long way in helping to prevent fungal infections. Drip irrigation would be perfect as it does not wet the leaves. Preventing overcrowding of the plants by dividing them whenever necessary, plus regular applications of a recommended fungicide, will all help control this problem.


Bugle flowers belong to the mint family and are used medicinally. They are not considered toxic for cats and dogs. However it is always advised to supervise small children and pets in the garden and to discourage them from chewing on plants.

Always consult with a medical professional before embarking on a home treatment programme.