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 often suffer from poor growing conditions. In heavily shaded situations they not only struggle from lack of light unsuited to many plants, but may be deprived of moisture and nutrients because of strong competition from the trees.

If your garden receives light shade or partial shade – perhaps receiving sunlight for two or three hours in early morning or late evening, there is a range of suitably shade tolerant plants and with some summer moisture, it would be worth trying plants from our annuals, bulbs and perennials for shade and shrubs for shade pages.

Where the canopy is higher and soil moisture is good, it is possible to grow a wider range of  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.

Practical considerations

  • Ground under conifers: It is very difficult to establish plants under conifers as the soil is usually dry and the evergreen canopy shades the site all year round. Often needles and debris accumulate, making it difficult for most plants, 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: Prepare the site by adding well rotted organic matter such as garden compost, farmyard manure or leafmould
  • Establishment and aftercare: 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

See the list below for some of our suggestions. A much wider range of plants suited to planting under trees including other cultivars of those listed can be found at RHS Find a Plant

(*) suitable for neutral to acid soil
(v) variegated foliage
(e) evergreen
(se) semi evergreen
(w) suitable for reliably moist or wet soils

AGM - RHS Award of Garden Merit

Note: Height and spread for plant is approximate. Location, soil conditions and prevailing weather will influence ultimate height and spread.

Shrubs for deep shade (under evergreen or lower tree canopies)

Larger shrubs

Berberis × lologensis 'Apricot Queen' AGM: (e) spiny, glossy dark green leaves and rich orange flowers in racemes, late spring then blue-black fruits. Height and spread 4m (12ft)
Camellia japonica 'Adolphe Audusson' AGM: (*) (e) dark glossy green leaves and blood-red semi-double flowers with golden stamens. Height to 5m (15ft). Spread 4m (12ft)
Elaeagnus × ebbingei 'Limelight' (v): (e) metallic, silvery young leaves become marked with yellow and pale green in the centres. Small scented creamy-white flowers in autumn. Height and spread to 3m (10ft)
Fuchsia magellanica var. molinae: small dark green leaves and delicate single pale pink flowers during summer. Height and spread to 1.2m (4ft)
Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea Marginata Pendula' (f/v): (e) purple stems and spiny cream-margined, dark green leaves, purple when young and red berries if pollinated. Height and spread 4m (12ft)
Lonicera nitida: (e) pairs of small dark green leaves and tiny white flowers from the leaf axils in spring followed by purple berries. Height and spread 3m (10ft)
Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Variegatus' (v) AGM: (e) (w) creamy-yellow margined emerald green holly-like leaves, Tubular fragrant white flowers in small clusters, late summer to autumn. Height and spread 2m (6ft)
Prunus laurocerasus: (cherry laurel) (e) large glossy dark green leaves and upright panicles of white flowers in mid and late spring followed by dark red fruits. Height and spread to 8m (25ft)
Prunus lusitanica: (Portugal laurel) (e) red-stalked glossy dark green leaves and slender white flower racemes in early summer followed by dark red fruits. Height and spread 8m (25ft)
Rhododendron 'Gomer Waterer' AGM: (e) (*) (w) large dark green leaves, lilac buds open to large clusters of pinkish-white flowers. Height and spread to 2m (6ft) or more
Taxus × media 'Hicksii' (f): (yew) (e) broadly columnar habit with rich, dark green leaves. Height 6m (20ft). Spread to 3m (10ft)
Viburnum rhytidophyllum: (e) vigorous, with dark, deeply veined leaves and in late spring flowerheads of white. Height to 5m (15ft)
Viburnum tinus 'Eve Price' AGM: (e) leathery dark green leaves and, from late winter, flattened clusters of deep pink buds opening to small white flowerheads. Berries deep metallic blue. Height and spread 3m (10ft)

Smaller shrubs

Berberis × stenophylla 'Corallina Compacta' AGM: (e) small dark green leaves and red budded, light orange flowers along the branches in late spring, then blue-black fruits. Height and spread 30cm (1ft)
Chaenomeles speciosa 'Yukigotan' (d): arching spiny branches and glossy dark green leaves. Greenish-white double flowers, in clusters during spring followed by green-yellow fruits. Height to 1.2m (4ft). Spread 1.5m (5ft)
Danae racemosa AGM: (Alexandrian laurel) (e) tapered, glossy, leaf-like stems and racemes of small greenish-yellow flowers in early summer. Orange or red berries follow. Height and spread 90cm (3ft)
Daphne laureola: (e) 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)
Daphne pontica: (e) glossy, dark green leaves and clusters of fragrant yellow-green flowers, mid and late spring. Height 1m (3¼ft), spread 1.5m (5ft)
Gaultheria shallon: (e) (*) small pink flowers in spring, followed by purple fruit. May be invasive, but useful for large areas. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 1.5m (5ft)
Lonicera pileata: (e) small dark green leaves and tiny creamy flowers in spring followed by purple berries. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread to 2.5m (8ft).
Ruscus aculeatus: (butcher’s broom) (e) spiny foliage; female plants produce red berries in late summer. Height 75cm (30in). Spread 1m (3¼ft)
Viburnum davidii AGM: (e) deep green, corrugated, leathery leaves and flattened heads of small white flowers followed by long-lasting 'metallic' blue-black berries on female plants if pollinated by a male plant. Height and spread 90cm-1.5m (3-5ft).

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

Larger shrubs

Aronia × prunifolia 'Viking' (F): (Purple chokeberry) (*) mid green leaves turn dark purple-red in autumn. White flowers often tinged pink, in late spring followed by purple-black berries. Height and spread 3m (10ft)
Aucuba japonica 'Crotonifolia': (spotted laurel) (e) large glossy yellow-speckled leaves. Height and spread 3m (10ft)
Berberis × stenophylla 'Claret Cascade': young red shoots and bronze-red young leaves. Flowers clustered along the branches in late spring are deep yellow. Height and spread 1.2m (4ft)
Cotinus 'Flame' AGM: oval light green leaves turn brilliant orange-red in autumn. Flower panicles are purple-pink. Height and spread to 5m (15ft)
Cotoneaster simonsii: (se) dark green leaves have good autumn colour; small pink flowers in summer followed by bright orange-red fruit. Height 2.5m (8ft), spread 2m (6½ft).
Elaeangus × ebbingei ‘Gilt Edge’ AGM: (e) dark green leaves margined with yellow. Small, fragrant, silvery flowers sometimes followed by orange berries. Height and spread 3m (10ft)
Fatsia japonica AGM: (e) palmate leaves to 45cm in width and small white flowers in round clusters followed by small, black fruits. Height and spread 2m (6ft) or more
Forsythia × intermedia 'Lynwood Variety' AGM: rich-yellow flowers, early to mid spring. Height and spread to 3m (10ft)
Ilex aquifolium 'Golden van Tol' (f/v): purple stems and dark green leaves with golden-yellow margins. Red fruits in autumn. Height 4m (12ft). Spread 3m (10ft)
Lonicera fragrantissima: dark green leaves and in winter and early spring very fragrant small white flowers from the leaf axils. Height and spread 2m (6ft)
Osmanthus × burkwoodii AGM: (se) glossy dark green leaves and clusters of small, very fragrant white flowers in spring, occasionally followed by a few black fruits. Height and spread 3m (10ft)
Philadelphus 'Innocence' (v) AGM: dark green leaves mottled yellow and single or semi-double cup-shaped, very fragrant pure white flowers in summer. Height 3m (10ft). Spread 2m (6ft)
Pieris 'Forest Flame' AGM: (e) (*) slender, glossy dark green leaves, brilliant red when young. White flowers in large panicles, mid and late spring. Height 3m (10ft) or more
Sambucus nigra: (common elder) mid-green leaves turning pale yellow in autumn, flat sprays of fragrant cream flowers in early summer followed by small black berries. Height and spread to 6m (20ft)
Viburnum opulus 'Xanthocarpum' AGM: (Guelder rose) maple-like dark green leaves, red in autumn and flat, lace-cap white flowers in early summer then yellow fruits. Height and spread to 4m (12ft)
Weigela 'Florida Variegata' AGM: white-margined grey-green leaves and funnel-shaped dark pink flowers in early summer. Height and spread 2m (6ft)

Smaller shrubs

Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea 'Atropurpurea Nana' AGM: small red-purple leaves and racemes of red-tinged pale yellow flowers in late spring, then glossy red fruits. Height 0cm (2ft). Spread 75cm (30in)
Euonymus japonicus 'Green Rocket': (e) upright habit, small dark green leaves. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 60cm (2ft)
Pieris japonica 'Little Heath' (v): (e) (*) grey-green leaves, edged silvery-white and pink-flushed when young. White flowers in panicles late winter and early spring. Height and spread 60cm (2ft)
Rhododendron 'Praecox' AGM: (e) (*) early to flower, funnel-shaped lilac-purple flowers late winter to early spring. Height and spread 1.2m (4ft)
Spiraea japonica 'Goldflame': bronze-red young leaves, turning yellow then green and pink flowers mid and late summer. Height and spread 75cm (30in)
Skimmia japonica 'Nymans' AGM: (e) dark green leaves and clusters of small white flowers. Bright red berries if pollinated by a male cultivar. Height 1m (3¾ft). Spread 2m (6ft).
Taxus baccata 'Standishii' (f) AGM: (e) narrow, columnar yew with golden-yellow leaves. Height 1.5m (5ft). Spread 60cm (2ft)

Ground cover shrubs

Cotoneaster salicifolius 'Gnom' AGM: (e) forms a wide mat of glossy, lance-shaped leaves, with small white flowers in summer followed by red berries Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 2m (6½ft)
Cornus canadensis: (creeping dogwood) (*) (w) small mid-green leaves and in early summer, white flowers surrounded by white or pink flushed bracts, followed by fleshy red fruits. Height 15cm (6in). Spread indefinite
Erica carnea 'Springwood White' AGM: (e) trailing mats of bright green foliage and from winter to spring masses of white flowers in racemes. Height 20cm (8in). Spread 45cm (18in)
Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety' (v) AGM: (e) bright green leaves with white margins, tinged pink in winter. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread to 1.5m (5ft)
Gaultheria procumbens AGM: (*) (e) dark green leathery leaves, aromatic when crushed, turning reddish in winter. Small, bell-shaped white or pinkish flowers are followed by scarlet berries. 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: (e) glossy deep green pinnate leaves, purplish in winter. Abundant deep yellow flowers in large clusters, followed by black berries. Height to 90cm (3ft). Spread to 1.5m (5ft).
Pachysandra terminalis 'Variegata' (v) AGM: (e) white-margined dark green leaves and spikes of tiny white flowers in clusters, during summer. Height 25cm (10in). Spread 60cm (2ft) or more
Rhododendron 'Wombat' (EA) AGM: (e) (*) small bright green leaves and in early summer trusses of funnel-shaped pink flowers. Height 25cm (10in). Spread to 1.2m (4ft)
Rubus tricolor: spreading, arching shoots covered in red bristles.White flowers followed by raspberry-like edible fruits. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread indefinite.
Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis: (Christmas box) (e) forming a neat clump of glossy, dark green 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).
Taxus baccata 'Repandens' (f) AGM: semi-prostrate with long spreading branches and dark green leaves. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread to 3m (10ft)
Vinca minor 'Atropurpurea' AGM: (lesser periwinkle) (e) dark glossy green leaves on trailing shoots and violet-blue flowers from mid-spring to autumn. Height 10-20cm (4-8in). Spread indefinite.

Herbaceous perennials

Alchemilla mollis AGM: clumps of hairy, pale green leaves and sprays of tiny yellowish-green flowers early summer to autumn
Bergenia 'Silberlicht' AGM: (e) clumps of leathery, oval leaves, with red-tinged stems bearing clusters of white flowers often ageing to light pink. Height 20-45cm (8-18in). Spread 45-63cm (18-25in).
Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' (PBR) AGM: large, heart-shaped silver leaves edged and veined with green, and sprays of small blue flowers in spring. Height 45cm (18in). Spread 60cm (2ft).
Darmera peltata AGM: (w) slowly spreading with large rounded deep green leaves to 60cm across, turning red in autumn. Clusters of pink flowers on long stalks, in late spring. Height to 2m (6ft). Spread 1.2m (4ft)
Disporopsis pernyi: glossy, dark green leaves and lemon-scented white flowers in early summer. Height and spread 40cm (16in)
Epimedium rubrum AGM: bright green leaves, red-tinted when young and colours in autumn. Crimson flowers with creamy-yellow spurs. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 50cm (20in).
Farfugium japonicum: (w) kidney-shaped, long-stalked shiny dark green leaves and stems carrying yellow flowerheads late summer and into autumn and winter. Height and spread 75cm (30in)
Galium odoratum: (sweet woodruff) wide mats bright green leaves, hay-scented when dry, with terminal clusters of small white, starry flowers from late spring. Height 50cm (20in). Spread 1.5m (5ft) or more in moist soil.
Geranium nodosum: glossy 3-lobed leaves and loose clusters of dark-veined, mauvish-pink flowers from late spring to early autumn. Seeds about and grows well in wet or dry soils. Height 30-50cm (1ft-20in). Spread 50cm (20in).
Iris foetidissima AGM: (stinking iris) (e) glossy rich green leaves and small, yellow-tinged, purple flowers followed by large pods opening to show bright orange-red seeds, persisting into winter. Height and spread 40cm (16in).
Lamium maculatum ‘Beacon Silver’: (spotted dead nettle) (e) (w) broad silvery leaves edged with dark green and purple flowers in summer. Water well until established. Height 20cm (8in), spread 1m (3¼ft).
Liriope muscari AGM: (e) dense clumps of narrow, leathery, dark green leaves, with small violet-purple flowers in dense, erect spikes to 30cm in height in autumn, followed by black berries. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
Maianthemum racemosum AGM: 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.
Paris polyphylla: spreading mid-green leaves and yellowish-green spider-like flowers in summer. Spherical green capsules open to reveal shiny red seeds when ripe. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 30cm (1ft)
Primula japonica 'Millers Crimson' (Pf) AGM: (Japanese primrose) (*) (w) rosettes of pale green leaves and stout stems bearing crimson flowers in late spring/early summer. Height and spread 45cm (18in)
Pulmonaria 'Blue Ensign' AGM: clumps of dark green leaves and in spring large blue-violet flowers. Height 30cm (12in). Spread 45cm (30in)
Tellima grandiflora: (se) (w) hairy kidney-shaped leaves and greenish white flowers from spring to mid-summer. Self-seeds freely, especially in moist soils. Height 40cm (16in). Spread 25cm (10in).
Trachystemon orientalis: vigorous groundcover plant, useful in larger areas. Oval leaves on stalks and clusters of small blue star flowers in spring. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread indefinite in dry or wet soils.


Ferns for shade

Asplenium scolopendrium AGM: (Hart's tongue fern) (e) rosettes of arching, rich green, strap-shaped fronds. Tolerant of dry soils once established. Height 45-70cm (18-28in). Spread 60cm (2ft)
Blechnum spicant AGM: (Hard fern) (e) tufts of narrow dark green, simply pinnate fronds. Height and spread 50cm (20in) or more
Cyrtomium falcatum: (Japanese holly fern) (e) glossy dark green fronds. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 1m (3¼ft).
Dryopteris felix-mas: (Male fern) shuttlecock-like tufts of lance-shaped fronds. Height 1.2m (4ft). Spread 90cm (3ft)
Matteuccia struthiopteris AGM: (Ostrich fern) (*) (w) shuttlecocks of pale and dark green fronds emerge in early summer. Height to 1.7m (5¼ft). Forms large colonies, spread by horizontal rhizomes to 90cm (3ft) or more
Polystichum setiferum 'Pulcherrimum Bevis' AGM: (soft shield fern) (e) rosettes of graceful, soft textured, lance-shaped mid-green fronds. Height and spread 80cm (32in).
Polypodium vulgare: (common polypody) (e) native to the UK, spreads, but not invasive. Height 30cm (1ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).

Grasses for shade

Calamagrostis × acutifolia 'Karl Foerster': clumps of 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: (e) (w) (Palm branch sedge) loosely tufted spreading grass with bright green leaves and golden-brown flower spikes in midsummer. Height 60cm (2ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
Chasmanthium latifolium: (Spangle grass) loosely tufted ribbon-like bright green leaves and in late summer bears open panicles of green spikelets. Height 90cm (3ft). Spread 60cm (2ft)
Deschampsia cespitosa: (Tufted hair grass) (e) (*) forms a neat tussock of narrow, leathery, dark green leaves with feathery panicles of silvery-purple flowers on arching stems in summer. Height 1.5 (5ft). Spread 1.2m (4ft).
Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' AGM: mounds of arching bright-yellow leaves with green stripes, red flushed in autumn. Bears needle-like pale green spikelets in open panicles to 18cm (7in) long in late summer. Height 35cm (14in). Spread 40cm (16in)
Luzula sylvatica: (wood rush) (e) (w) dense tufts of glossy dark green linear leaves, with open panicles of brown flowers in early summer. Height to 80cm (32in). Spread 45cm (18in)
Melica uniflorum f. albida: (wood melic) linear bright green leaves on a gradually spreading rootstock and spikelets of white flowers in summer. Height and spread 60cm (2ft)
Millium effusum 'Aureum' AGM: (wood millet) (se) loose clumps of arching, golden-yellow leaves, with nodding panicles of yellow flowers in early summer. Height and spread 60cm (2ft)

Bulbous or tuberous plants

Anemone nemorosa 'Vestal' AGM: deeply cut leaves and double white flowers from spring to early summer. Height 7.5-15cm (3-6in). Spread more than 30cm (1ft).
Colchicum autumnale: (meadow saffron) 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: 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) 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).
Fritillaria meleagris AGM: (snakes head fritillary) with linear grey-green leaves and in spring, broadly bell-shaped pendent pinkish-purple flowers with distinctive markings on the petals. Height  30cm (1ft). Spread 7.5cm (3in)Hyacinthoides non-scripta: (English bluebell) linear leaves and erect stems bearing arching racemes of fragrant, narrowly tubular, violet-blue, occasionally white or pink, flowers in spring.Height 20-40cm (8-16in). Spread 7.5cm (3in).

Climbers for climbing into 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. See also Climbers and wall shrubs for shade and
Roses: choosing the best

Clematis montana var. grandiflora AGM: Single pure white flowers from late spring to early summer with occasional later flowers. Height to 10m (33ft)
Lonicera periclymenum 'Graham Thomas' AGM: (woodbine or common honeysuckle) dark green leaves, whitish beneath and terminal clusters of fragrant white flowers which age to buff-yellow over a long flowering season during summer and autumn. Red berries follow. Height 7m (23ft)
Pathenocissus henryana AGM: (Chinese Virginia creeper) palmate dark green leaves composed of leaflets, veined white and bright red in autumn. Height 10m (33ft)
Stauntonia hexaphylla: (e) dark green leaves composed of leathery leaflets and racemes of fragrant cup-shaped violet-tinged white flowers in spring. If pollinated, female plants produce purplish edible fruits. Height 10m (33ft) or more
Vitis coignetiae AGM: large, heart-shaped dark green leaves to 30cm long have bright autumn tints. Height 10m (33ft) or more
Wisteria floribunda 'Multijuga' AGM: (Japanese wisteria) lilac-blue flowers in racemes  to 90cm (3ft) long in early summer. Height to 10m (33ft)

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