If you have big oak trees or tall pine trees in your landscape, you can still have smaller trees with pretty flowers and showy foliage underneath. In nature, the tall canopy trees may rule the forest, but the sub-canopy trees create the mood.
Perfect Plants offers several kinds of partial shade tolerant trees for the home landscape. Unless your back yard is 100% shade all day and all year, there are many kinds of trees and shrubs to choose from.
Here we present several trees that will thrive in partial shade to mostly shade.
Best Trees that Grow in Shade Locations:
The deciduous saucer magnolias from Asia (Magnolia X soulangiana), such as ‘Ann’ and ‘Alexandrina’ are shade loving trees beneath tall pines or live oaks. Alexandrina flowering magnolia gets up to 25 feet tall; Ann magnolia stays smaller, to 15 feet tall. Both have fragrant purple or pink flowers with white interiors and are hardy in USDA zones 4 or 5 through 9. These small trees have excellent fall color and green foliage.
Jane magnolia (Magnolia ‘Jane’) is a compact shrubby little hybrid tree that stays under 10 feet tall. ‘Jane’ has fragrant reddish-purple tulip-shaped flowers, and deciduous leaves. She is hardy in USDA zones 6-9 and makes the perfect street tree to turn heads.
The larger native American evergreen magnolia, M. grandiflora, tolerates shady conditions. ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty‘ and ‘Little Gem’ are a couple cultivars that are especially attractive in shady locations. Bracken’s Brown Beauty flowering magnolia gets 30-40 feet tall and Little Gem Magnolia stays under 25 feet in height and are fast growing trees. Both have large and fragrant showy white flowers. Both are hardy in USDA zones 5-9. Southern magnolias have evergreen leaves that will keep their color all year long. It is uncommon to find a broadleaf evergreen that grows in shade which is what makes the magnolias so special.
Sweet bay magnolia (M. virginiana) grows in shaded locations in zones 6-9. It gets as much as 60 feet tall and does best in moist soils.
Native Trees to the United States
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a common understory tree in Eastern North American forests. It gets 20-30 feet tall, sometimes with multiple trunks if not pruned. Redbud blooms in very early spring with rose-purple flowers held close to its branches. The Eastern Redbud prefers medium, well-drained soil and partial sun to partial shade. ‘Forest Pansy’ is a popular cultivar sporting heart shaped leaves that are purplish at first, later turning to dark green leaves. In the fall, these small privacy trees produce orange red fruit.
Several species of dogwoods (genus Cornus) make fine specimens for the shady landscape. Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is one of nature’s finest understory tree species. Perfect Plants has a pink flowered version as well as the typical white flowered dogwood. They get 20-25 feet tall and can be grown in growing zones 5-9. Other shade tolerant dogwoods include the Chinese Tartarian dogwood (C. alba), pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia), silky dogwood (C. amomum), Cornelian cherry (C. mas), and red-osier dogwood (C. stolonifera). All of the dogwoods stay under 20 feet tall in height and are well adapted to partial shade. This tree flowers in spring and loves small spaces.
Panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) is typically a deciduous shrub, but Perfect Plants has created a “hydrangea tree” by pruning it to a single-stem standard that gets 8-10 feet tall. Limelight hydrangea has flowers that start out a pale limey green, eventually turning to creamy white blooms. You can grow the Limelight panicle hydrangea tree in semi shady areas in plant hardiness zones 3-8. This flowering shade tree
Small Shade Trees to Plant
The Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) are popular deciduous trees for partial shade. They are hardy in planting zones 4-8. Several graceful cultivars with colorful leaves are available. Most of these small trees for shaded areas stay under 20 feet in height. Native American maples that thrive in part shade include mountain maple (A. spicatum) and striped maple (A. pensylvanicum). These ornamental trees for shade sure make a lovely statement piece in your yard!
Several species of Holly (genus Ilex) get to tree size and are shade-tolerant plants. American holly (I. opaca), Dahoon holly (I. cassine), and needlepoint holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Needlepoint’) are all good choices for shady spots in plant zones 7-9.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) thrives in the shade and produces delicious fruits. Hardy in USDA zones 4-8, the deciduous pawpaw is an excellent choice for the semi-shady edible landscape.
Crape myrtles are another excellent choice of small trees to plant for shady areas. They will produce bright colorful blooms during the spring and early summer months. Some flowering tree varieties do prefer some sunlight so do your research and choose your planting site wisely. There are dwarf varieties too for small spaces. Some dwarf trees are under 10 feet tall. These fast growing shade trees have a fast growth rate of up to 1-3 feet per year.
American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and eastern hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) are common North American understory trees that are well suited to the backyard landscape. Both are small deciduous trees that stay under 30 feet tall.
Canadian (or Eastern) hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is an evergreen shade tree that makes a good privacy screen. In nature, the Canadian hemlock can grow tall enough to be part of the canopy, but cultivated specimens normally stay smaller.
Another evergreen tree, the weeping willow, is a shade tolerant tree that can be grown as an understory tree.
For a shade tolerant palm tree, consider the windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei). Windmill palms are hardy in zones 8-11, and usually get around 10-15 feet tall but can get up to 25 feet. They are tolerant of light shade.
Some other trees or shrubs that tolerate shaded areas are:
- European beech (Fagus sylvatica)
- Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
- Silverbells (Halesia carolina)
- Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
- Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica)
- Viburnums (Viburnum spp.)
- Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidita)
- Black alder (Alnus glutinosa)
- White birch (Betula papyrifera)
You don’t have to allow tall oaks and pines to dominate the small yard. Brighten it up with smaller, short shade trees! Keep in mind most of these trees do require a small portion of sunlight to grow and thrive. Some may perform better than others with more sunlight so be sure to pick a partial shade planting site.
Shade gardens are a fun way to get creative in your yard and landscape and most of these plants are easy to grow! Smaller shade perennials can even be planted underneath these trees in full shade such as hostas. They will act as a groundcover and cannot tolerate full sun. Shade loving plants are few and far between.
Let us know in the comments if you have questions or other recommendations for shade trees! We would love to hear from you.