Plants for under trees

It can be a challenge to establish plant cover under the canopy of large trees. Shade and lack of moisture are both problems in these conditions, but there are a number of plants that will tolerate these situations.

Introduction

Plants growing under tree canopies suffer from lack of moisture and nutrients because of the competition from the trees. Another problem is the lack of light.

If your garden receives light shade or partial shade – perhaps receiving sunlight for two or three hours in early morning or late evening, the range of suitable plants may be wider and with some summer moisture, it would be worth trying plants from our Shade planting webpage.

Where the canopy is high and soil moisture is good, it may be possible to grow suitable plants directly under the canopy. The main flowering will be in spring with plants such bluebells, bergenia lily-of-the-valley and hardy cyclamen clustered around the base of the trunk.

Planting under trees with low or spreading branches is more restricted, and it may only be possible to grow plants at the edges of the canopy. Common ivy is worth trying in even the gloomiest conditions.

Articles

RHS The Garden ‘Dry Shade’ Dec 2014’ by Jenny Bowden

Books

Planting the Dry Shade Garden: The Best Plants for the Toughest Spot in Your Garden, by Graham Rice (Timber Press, 2011, ISBN 9781604691870)

Gardeners’ World: 101 Shade-Loving Plants by James Wickham (Random House & Ebury Publishing, 2008, ISBN 9781846074509)

These books are also made available through the RHS Lindley Library.

Practical considerations

Ground under conifers: It is very difficult to establish plants under conifers as the soil is dry and the evergreen canopy shades the site all year round. Often accumulating needles and debris create very acid conditions, making it difficult for anything, including grass, to grow satisfactorily.

Aspect: There is a greater chance of successful planting on the lighter south-west side of trees where rain is more frequently driven under the canopy, than to the north-east where conditions are usually drier and more shaded.

Planting and aftercare: Prepare the site by adding well rotted organic matter such as garden compost, farmyard manure or leafmould.

Autumn planting will allow plants time to become established before the leaf canopy develops in spring.  Deep mulching and watering in dry spells for at least the first full growing season are important for successful establishment.

Suitable plants

Suitable plants

This is a small selection. There are often cultivars of these plants, which are just as suitable. The plants listed may be particularly attractive cultivars. For example, white flowered forms brighten up shady areas.

Large evergreen shrubs for deep shade (under evergreen or low tree canopies)

Ilex aquifolium AGM (holly): A medium-sized evergreen tree, slow-growing when young, with dark, glossy green, spiny leaves. Small, dull white flowers in spring are followed by bright red berries, on pollinated female plants
Tolerates regular pruning. Height 20m (70ft). Spread 4-8m (15-28ft).

Taxus baccata AGM (yew): A medium-sized bushy evergreen tree with narrow, leathery, very dark green leaves arranged in two rows on the shoots, and insignificant flowers followed on female plants by fleshy red fruits. Tolerates regular pruning. Height 10m (30ft). Spread 6m (20ft).

Small evergreen shrubs

Daphne laureola: A bushy evergreen shrub to 1.2m, with glossy dark green leaves and greenish-yellow flowers in late winter and early spring, followed by black berries  Height 1m (3¼ft), spread 1.5m (5ft).

Gaultheria shallon: Avigorous, suckering shub with small pink flowers in spring, followed by purple fruit. Requires acid soil. Invasive, but useful for large areas. Height 1.2m (4ft), spread 1.5m (5ft).

Lonicera pileata: A llowspreading shrub with small creamy flowers in spring followed by purple berries. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 2.5m (8ft).

Ruscus aculeatus (butcher’s broom): Aclump forming, spiny foliage; female plants produce red berries in late summer. Height 75cm (30in). Spread 1m (3¼ft).

Viburnum davidii AGM: A small spreading evergreen shrub, with elliptic, deep green, leathery, three-veined leaves and flattened heads of small dull white flowers followed on cross-pollinated plants by long-lasting 'metallic' blue-black berries. Height 90cm-1.5m (3-5ft).

Ground cover evergreen shrubs

Cotoneaster salicifolius 'Gnom' AGM: A prostrate, evergreen shrub forming a wide mat of glossy, lance-shaped leaves, with small white flowers in summer followed by red berries Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 2m (6½ft).

Gaultheria procumbens AGM: A dwarf spreading evergreen shrub, with rounded leathery leaves, aromatic when crushed and turning reddish in winter. Small, bell-shaped white or pinkish flowers are followed by scarlet berries. For acid to neutral soil. Height 15cm (6in). Spread indefinite.

Hypericum calycinum (rose of Sharon): A very tolerant spreading shrub with yellow flowers from mid summer onwards. Height 60cm (2ft), spread indefinite.

Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’ AGM: A vigorous, low, spreading small evergreen shrub with glossy deep green pinnate leaves becoming purplish in winter. Abundant deep yellow flowers in large clusters, followed by black berries. Height up to 90cm (3ft). Spread up to 1.5m (5ft).

Rubus tricolor: A spreading, arching groundcover shrub with shoots covered in red bristles.White flowers followed by raspberry-like edible fruits. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread indefinite.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis (Christmas box). A compact, evergreen suckering shrub forming a neat clump of glossy, elliptic leaves, with small clusters of very fragrant creamy-white flowers with crimson anthers, in winter, followed by black berries. Height 60cm (2ft); spread 1.2m (4ft).

Vinca minor ‘Atropurpurea’ AGM (lesser periwinkle): A mat-forming shrub with trailing shoots and violet-blue flowers from mid-spring to autumn. Height 10-20cm (4-8in). Spread indefinite.

Plants for under raised or deciduous canopies, or for planting at the edge of the canopy

Shrubs

Aucuba japonica 'Crotonifolia' (spotted laurel): Large glossy speckled leaves. Height and spread 3m (10ft).

Cotoneaster simonsii: A deciduous or semi-evergreen with good autumn leaf colour; small pink flowers in summer followed by bright orange-red fruit. Height 2.5m (8ft), spread 2m (6½ft).

Fatsia japonica AGM: A medium-sized evergreen shrub of open, spreading habit, with palmately-lobed leaves to 45cm in width and small white flowers in round clusters followed by small, black fruits. Height and spread 1.5-4m (5-13ft).

Elaeangus × ebbingei ‘Gilt Edge’ AGM: A vigorous medium-sized evergreen shrub with broadly-ovate dark green leaves margined with yellow. Small, fragrant, silvery flowers sometimes followed by orange berries. Height 2.5-4m (8-12ft). Spread 2.5-4m (8-12ft).

Osmanthus × burkwoodii AGM: A dense, slow-growing, large evergreen shrub of rounded habit, with dark green, ovate leaves 2.5-5cm in length and clusters of small, highly-scented white flowers, in spring, occasionally followed by a few black fruits. Height and spread 3m (10ft).

Sambucus nigra (common elder): A bushy large shrub or small tree to 6m, with pinnate leaves turning pale yellow in autumn, flat sprays of fragrant cream flowers in early summer followed by small black berries. Height 4-8m (12-25ft). Spread 2.5-4m (8-12ft).

Skimmia japonica 'Nymans' AGM: An evergreen shrub of bushy, spreading habit, with blunt, narrowly elliptic dark green leaves to 12cm in length, and clusters of small white flowers, and bright red berries. Height 1m (3¾ft). Spread 2m (6ft).

Viburnum tinus 'Eve Price' AGM: A bushy, medium-sized evergreen shrub with broadly oval, leathery dark green leaves and, from late winter, flattened clusters of deep pink buds opening to small, starry white flowers. Berries deep metallic-blue. Height and spread 3m (10ft).

Herbaceous perennials

Bergenia ‘Silberlicht’ AGM: An evergreen perennial, forming a low clump of leathery, oval leaves, with erect, red-tinged stems bearing clusters of white flowers often ageing to light pink; prominent red calyces. Height 20-45cm (8-18in). Spread 45-63cm (18-25in).

Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' (PBR) AGM: A perennial grown for its large, heart-shaped silver leaves edged and veined with green, and sprays of small blue flowers in spring. Height 45cm (18in). Spread 60cm (2ft).

Epimedium rubrum AGM: A deciduous, rhizomatous perennial, with attractive, red-tinted young foliage which colours also in autumn. Crimson flowers with creamy-yellow spurs. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 50cm (20in).

Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff): A vigorous rhizomatous perennial forming a wide mat of erect stems, bearing whorls of bright green, lance-shaped leaves, hay-scented when dry, with terminal clusters of small white, starry flowers from late spring. Height 50cm (20in). Spread 1.5m (5ft).

Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Album’: A semi-evergreen, spreading perennial with red tinted leaves in autumn and white flowers in summer. Height 50cm (20in), spread 60cm (2ft).

Geranium nodosum: A sprawling perennial with glossy 3-lobed leaves and loose clusters of dark-veined, light pink flowers from late spring to early autumn. One of the most tolerant geraniums. Height 30-50cm (1ft-20in). Spread 50cm (20in).

Iris foetidissima AGM (stinking iris): An evergreen perennial to with glossy rich green leaves and small, yellow-tinged, dull purple flowers followed by large pods opening to show bright orange-red seeds, which persist into winter. Height and spread 40cm (16in).

Lamium maculatum ‘Beacon Silver’ (dead nettle): A creeping  perennial with red-purple flowers in summer. Water well until established. Height 20cm (8in), spread 1m (3¼ft).

Liriope muscari AGM: An evergreen tuberous perennial forming a dense clump of narrow, arching, leathery, dark green leaves, with small violet-purple flowers carried in dense, erect spikes to 30cm in height in autumn, followed by black berries. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 45cm (18in).

Maianthemum racemosum AGM: An herbaceous perennial, the arching stems with round leaves and fluffy terminal panicles of fragrant creamy-white flowers, sometimes followed by reddish berries. Yellow autumn colour. Height 50cm-1m. Spread 10-50cm.

Tellima grandiflora: A semi-evergreen perennial, with greenish white flowers from spring to mid-summer. Self-seeds freely. Height 40cm (16in). Spread 25cm (10in).

Trachystemon orientalis: A very strong growing groundcover plant, useful in larger areas. Small blue star flowers in spring. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread indefinite.

Ferns for dry shade

Asplenium scolopendrium AGM: An evergreen fern forming a rosette of arching, rich green, strap-shaped fronds. Tolerant of dry soils once established. Height 30-75cm (1ft-31in).

Polystichum setiferum AGM (soft shield fern): A tufted evergreen fern with rosettes of soft textured, lance-shaped mid-green fronds, the stalks with prominent orange-brown scales. Height 1.2m (4ft) and spread 1m (3¼ft).

Dryopteris felix-mas (male fern): A robust deciduous fern forming a shuttlecock-like tuft of lance-shaped fronds. Height 1.2m (4ft) and spread 90cm (3ft).

Polypodium vulgare (common polypody): An evergreen fern, native to the UK. Spreads, but not invasive. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).

Blechnum spicant AGM: A neat, tufted evergreen fern, with spreading, narrow, dark green, simply pinnate fronds. Height 50cm (20in). Spread 50cm (20in).

Grasses for dry shade

Deschampsia cespitosa: An evergreen grass forming a neat tussock of narrow, leathery, dark green leaveswith feathery panicles of silvery-purple flowers on arching stems in summer. Height 1.5 (5ft). Spread 1.2m (4ft).

Calamagrostis × acutifolia 'Karl Foerster: A clump-forming deciduous perennial grass with flat, arching leaves and bronze flowering panicles that fade to pale brown. Height 1.1-1.5m (3-5ft). Spread 50cm-1.1m (20in-3ft).

Carex muskingumensis: An evergreen, slow-growing groundcover grass. Height 50-60cm (20-2ft). Spread 60-90cm (2-3ft).

Luzula sylvestris ‘Variegata’: An evergreen perennial forming a tuft of glossy leaves narrowly margined with cream, with open panicles of brown flowers in early summer  height 30-60cm (1-2ft). Spread 30-60cm (1-2ft).

Millium effusum ‘Aureum’ AGM: A semi-evergreen perennial grass forming loose clumps of arching, soft yellow leaves, with nodding panicles of yellow flowers in early summer. Height 50cm (20in). Spread 50cm (20in).

Hakonechloa macra AGM: Adeciduous grass with an arching habit. Height 30cm (12in). Spread 45-60cm (18-2ft).

Bulbous or tuberous plants

Anemone nemorosa AGM: A dwarf herbaceous perennial with a slender rhizome and deeply cut leaves. White flowers from spring to early summer. Height 7.5-15cm (3-6in). Spread more than 30cm (1ft).

Colchicum autumnale (meadow saffron): A cormous herbaceous perennial with showy flowers in autumn before the leaves, which are produced in spring. Height 5- 15cm (2-6in), spread 5-10cm (2-4in).

Cyclamen hederifolium AGM: Has attractively marked foliage and pink to maroon flowers in autumn, seeds freely. Height 10-13cm (4-5in), spread 15cm (6in).

Erythronium dens-canis AGM (dog’s-tooth violet): A perennial with green leaves, heavily mottled with brown, and solitary, white, pink or lilac flowers with yellow and red-brown zones at base in spring. Height 10-15cm (4-6in). Spread 10cm (4in).

Hyacinthoides non-scripta (English bluebell): A vigorous perennial with linear leaves and erect stems bearing arching racemes of fragrant, narrowly tubular, violet-blue, or occasionally white, flowers in spring.Height 20-40cm (8-16in). Spread 7.5cm (3in).

Climbers for growing up trees

With the addition of organic matter to the soil and regular extra water throughout the first full growing season of establishment, the following are worth trying. Please also see Climbers and wall shrubs for shade:

Akebia quinata: A climber with bright green leaves and fragrant reddish-purple flowers in spring are sometimes followed by purple fruits. Height 10m (33ft). Spread 8m (26ft).

Clematis montana var. grandiflora AGM: A very vigorous large deciduous climber with trifoliate leaves. Single pure white flowers from late spring to early summer with occasional later flowers. Height 8-12m (26ft-40ft). Spread 2.5-4m (8ft-12ft).

Hydrangea seemanii: A large, self-clinging evergreen climber with white lacecap flowers in summer. Height 7m (22ft). Spread 4m (12ft).

Schizophragma hydrangeoides:  A vigorous woody deciduous self-clinging climber with broadly ovate leaves to 16cm long, and sprays of small creamy-white flowers with showy ovate white sterile florets 6cm long. Height 8-12m (25-40ft). Spread 90cm-1.5m (3-5ft).

Lonicera periclymenum 'Graham Thomas' AGM: A large twining deciduous climber with oval, dark green leaves whitish beneath and terminal clusters of fragrant white flowers which soon turn to buff-yellow. Berries red. Long flowering season. Height 4-8m. Spread 1.1m-1.5m (3½ft-5ft).

Pileostegia viburnoides: A large, self-clinging, slow-growing climber with leathery, narrowly elliptic leaves. In summer, creamy-white flowers are carried in dense terminal panicles. Height 4-8m (12-25ft). Spread 1.1-1.5m (3-5ft).

Stauntonia hexaphylla: A vigorous racemes of fragrant, dull pink flowers, sometimes followed by ovoid purplish fruits. Height 8-12m (25-40ft). Spread 1.5-205m (5-8ft).

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