Shade Tolerant Trees, Shrubs, and Groundcovers

Most plants grow best in full sunlight and all plants need some light to survive.
Shade Tolerant Trees, Shrubs, and Groundcovers - Articles

Updated: August 14, 2017

Shade Tolerant Trees, Shrubs, and Groundcovers

Plants and Shade

The amount of shade a plant is growing under will directly affect the density of the foliage, as well as the flowering and fruiting characteristics. In choosing plants, the level of light the plant will receive should be taken into consideration. To properly select plants suitable to your site, defining the level of shade or sun the plant will receive is helpful. For instance, heavy shade can be characterized as a site where no direct sunlight reaches the site such as that found at the base of a north-facing wall or below dense evergreens (e.g., under hemlocks). Conversely a full sun site would receive full direct sunlight for at least six hours per day. Light shade sites are those exposed to partially filtered sun such as that found under open canopied trees (e.g., honey locust, ash, and birch). Moderate shade sites could be defined as those receiving mostly reflected light found at the floor of a typical hardwood forest. Planters should understand that generally, plants grown in shade will not be as dense as the same plants under full sunlight. Usually fewer flowers develop on plants in the shade. Frequently, fall color or unique foliage colors (e.g., maroon foliage of 'wine and roses' Weigela and red leafed Japanese maples) will not be as intense or maybe greener in color under shade conditions. Moisture availability is a secondary factor in choosing shade adaptable plants--some plants may survive under shade conditions but require supplemental water to assure complete survival. Comparing your plant choices with a list of dry site tolerant plants will assure that you are making the most informed decision when choosing plants to fit the site.

Trees

Few trees require shade to thrive, however, some will adapt to these conditions rather well. The deeper the shade, the more difficult it will be for any tree to develop properly. In deep shade, many of the flowering trees will not set flowers or fruit as will similar plants given more sunlight.

Common and Scientific NameLight
Shade
Moderate
Shade
Heavy
Shade
USDA Hardiness Zone
Concolor fir, Abies concolorX4-7
Hedge maple, Acer campestreX5-8
Japanese maple, A. palmatumXX5-8
Red maple, A. rubrumXX3-9
Sugar maple, A. saccharumXX4-8
Freeman maple, A. x freemaniiXX4-7
Red buckeye, Aesculus paviaXX5-9
Black alder, Alnus glutinosaXX4-7
Juneberry, serviceberry, Amelanchier arobrea
and A. canadensis
XX4-9
Allegheny serviceberry, A. laevisX4-8
Pawpaw, Asimina trilobaXXX5-8
European hornbeam, Carpinus betulusXX5-7
American hornbeam, Carpinus carolinaXXX3-9
Eastern redbud, Cercis canadensisX4-9
White fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicusX4-9
Pagoda dogwood, Cornus alternifoliaX3-7
Flowering dogwood, Cornus floridaX5-8
Kousa dogwood, Cornus kousa and C. kousa x C. florida hybridsXX5-8
Redvein enkianthus, Enkianthus campanulatusX5-7
European beech, Fagus sylvaticaXX4-7
Carolina silverbell, Halesia tetrapteraXX4-8
American holly, Ilex opacaX5-9
Sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginianaXX5-9
Black gum, Nyssa sylvaticaXX4-9
Ironwood, American hophornbeam,
Ostrya virginiana
X3-9
Sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreumX5-9
White spruce, Picea glaucaX2-6
Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhinaXX4-8
Japanese snowbell, Styrax japonicusX5-7
Western arborvitae, Thuja plicataX2-7
Amercan basswood, Tilia americanaX3-8
Canadian hemlock, Tsuga canadensisXX3-7
American elm, Ulmus americana (specifically new hybrid elms e.g., 'Valley Forge, New Harmony')XX3-9
Lacebark elm, U. parvifoliaXX5-9

Shrubs

The following shrubs will tolerate shade conditions better than most. Some shrubs require some protection from direct sunlight to avoid leaf burn during the day for example mid morning to late afternoon.

Common and Scientific NameLight
Shade
Moderate
Shade
Heavy
Shade
USDA Hardiness Zone
Glossy abelia, Abelia x grandifloraXX6-9
Red chokeberry, Aronia arbutifoliaXX4-9
*Wintergreen barberry, Berberis julianaeX6-8
Mentor barberry, Berberis x mentorensisXX5-8
Japanese barberry, Berberis thunbergiiX4-8
*Boxwood (Buxus microphylla and B. sempervirens)XX6-8
Common sweetshrub, Calycanthus floridusXX4-9
Summersweet, Clethra alnifoliaX4-9
Sweetfern, Comptonia peregrinaXX2-5
Corneliancherry dogwood, Cornus masX4-7
Gray dogwood, Cornus racemosaXXX3-8
Buttercup winter hazel, Corylopsis paucifloraXX6-8
Hazelnut, Corylus speciesX4-8
*+Daphne, Daphne speciesXX4-7
Dwarf fothergilla, Fothergilla gardeniiX5-8
Witchhazel, Hamamelis speciesXX4-8
Oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifoliaXX5-9
Aaronsbeard St. Johnswort, Hypericum calycinumX5-8
*Holly, Ilex speciesXX5-8
Virginia sweetspire, Itea virginicaXX5-9
*Laurel, Kalmia speciesXXX4-9
Japanese kerria, Kerria japonicaXXX4-9
*+Leuocothoe, Leucothoe speciesXX5-8
Privet, Ligustrum speciesXX4-7
*Oregon hollygrape, Mahonia aquifoliumXX5-7
Northern bayberry, Myrica pensylvanicaXX3-6
*Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domesticaXX6-9
*Paxistima, Canby, Paxistima canbyiXX3-7
Mock orange, Philadelphus coronariusX4-8
*Pieris, Pieris japonica and cultivarsXX4-7
*Scarlet firethorn, Pyracantha coccineaXX6-9
*+Rhododendron, Rhododendron speciesXX4-8
Black jetbead, Rhodotypos scandensXXX4-8
Fragrant sumac, Rhus aromaticaXX3-9
Coralberry and Snowberry, Symphoricarpos speciesXXX4-7
*Yew, Taxus speciesXXX4-7
Viburnum, Mapleleaf, Viburnum acerifoliumXXX4-8
Viburnum, Arrowwood, Viburnum dentatumXX3-8
Blackhaw, Viburnum prunifoliumXX3-9

Ground covers

Common and Scientific NameLight
Shade
Moderate
Shade
Heavy
Shade
USDA Hardiness Zone
Bishop's weed, Aegopodium podagrariaX4-9
*Bugle-weed, Ajuga reptansX3-9
Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursiX5-8
Wild Ginger, Asarum canadenseXXX4-8
Astilbe, Astilbe species and cultivarsX3-8
Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum'X5-8
Plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoidesX6-9
Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalisX4-9
Barrenwort, Epimedium speciesX5-9
*Wintercreeper, Euonymus fortuneiX5-9
Sweet woodruff, Galium odoratumXX4-7
*Creeping wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbensXX3-5
*Box huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachyceraXX5-7
*English Ivy, Hedera helixX5-11
Lenten rose, Helleborus orientalisX4-9
Coral bells, Heuchera species and hybridsX3-8
Foam bells, Heucherella hybridsX3-8
Plantain-lily, Hosta species and cultivarsX4-9
St Johnswort, Hypericum calycinumX5-9
Crested iris, Iris cristataXXX3-8
*Yellow archangel, Lamiastrum galeobdolonX4-8
*Deadnettle, Lamium maculatumX4-8
Lily-turf, Liriope spicata, L. muscariX6-11
Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummulariaX4-8
*Russian arborvitae, Microbiota decussataX3-8
Mondo grass, Ophiopogon japonicusX6-11
*Allegheny spruge, Pachysandra procumbensXX5-9
*Japanese Spurge, Pachysandra terminalisXX4-8
*+Sweet box, Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilisXX6-8
Stonecrop, Sedum species
Foam flower, Tiarella cordifoliaXXX3-7
*Periwinkle, Vinca minorXXX4-9

* Indicates Evergreen.
*+ Indicates plants that require shade during a portion of the day (midmorning to late afternoon) or season to prevent desiccation injury or sunscald.

Prepared by N. Robert Nuss, retired professor of horticulture.
Reviewed and revised by Scott Guiser, retired extension educator and Jim Sellmer, professor of ornamental horticulture.