Seven Shade Loving Trees for a Low Light Yard
I am fortunate enough to have a variety of landscapes on my farm. One of my favorites is a spot in my yard where we have five mature shade trees. These trees add privacy and a powerful beauty to the space near my home. When the weather is hot and I am down at the nursery where my trees are young, I long for the relief these trees provide me. They shade me, they shade my home, and I love them for it.
For some, the lack of direct sunlight that accompanies all shade can seem like a landscaping curse as much as it is a boon. I commonly hear complaints from people who live near the woods in Indiana, or off Southern Parkway in Louisville surrounded by one hundred year old oak trees. They love their trees, but they are sick and tired of decorating their landscape with nothing but hostas.
Sometimes I jokingly say, “Have you considered coral bells?” As a true tree lover though, I often find myself saying, “Have you considered planting another tree?” And I am completely serious. I love trees. I love the privacy they offer, their complexity, the multistory habitat that they provide, and their longevity.
This is why I want to offer you another tree. In fact, I want to offer you more than one. How about seven? The internet loves lists after all. I even promise that after you plant a few of these in your yard, you will still have room for more hostas and coral bells.
Caring for a Shade Lover
I definitely want to start my list, but it just occurred to me that I should tell you a little bit about shade-loving trees in general. If you remember nothing else, just remember, “Woodland borders.” That is because these type of trees evolved to thrive in the borders of woodlands where meadow or clearing meets forest. These places get 3-4 hours of direct sunlight and then dappled light for the remainder of the day. If you can find a location with this type of lighting, odds are your shade-loving tree will do well. The other thing to remember about this type of area is that humus (think debris not chickpea) covers a soil that is rich in organic matter. So most of these trees are going to do better in a soil that you mulch with leaves, hardwood or other organic goodness year after year.
Seven Shade Loving Trees
White Flowering and Pink/Red Flowering Dogwood
cornus florida | cornus florida ‘var rubra’
The white and pink flowering dogwood go in my number one spot because of tradition. They are beautiful and historic native trees that have evolved in the semi-shade regions of our American forests, and as a result, they are a great choice for a shady spot in your yard. The best spot for these trees is a spot that gets 3-4 hours of morning sun with the remainder of the day in dappled light. They can also thrive on the side of a building where they get indirect light through the day. Many people plant dogwoods in full sun, and they can do well in full sun with proper care, but they are much hardier in shade. You should take care when pruning these trees as it is easy to compromise their natural shape with overzealous pruning, but trimming problem branches is recommended. Maples get all the love in the fall, but the dogwood is my favorite fall tree. The kaleidoscopic shades of purple, red, orange and yellow are spectacular to behold. Dogwoods are particularly fussy about having moist soil that is not wet, so make sure you plant them in a location that drains well. To keep the soil moist continuously apply 3-4 inches of mulch and you will maintain moisture while adding organic matter. One concern about these trees is that they are susceptible to dogwood anthracnose, which is a fungus that causes cankers on the branches of dogwoods and ultimately death. The best way to avoid this disease is to keep your dogwood healthy or to purchase a cultivar that is resistant to the disease.
The dogwoods we stock were selected for their color or hardiness to disease.
The Redbud Tree
Cercis canadensis and Cercis Texensis
The redbud comes in second. This iconic tree is a great choice for those who want a hardy tree with minimal work. Redbuds do well in a variety of soils, and just like a dogwood they thrive in the border regions of a forest. In the early spring, the eastern redbud becomes loaded with small pink/purple blooms that cover the branching areas of the tree. The blooms are edible, and it is becoming more common to find them in spring salads, so bon appétit. The leaves are large, deep green and heart-shaped. They cascade from the branches with beautiful symmetry and keep you interested all year. If that is not enough for you, there are even more spectacular varieties of redbud with purple, chartreuse, variegated or rainbow leaves. Just take care to research them because some cultivars require more light than the native variety. Redbuds are not known for gorgeous fall color, but they do produce a consistent yellow that blends well with other colors. The recent additions of weeping redbuds have given the gardener even more options with this incredible tree.
Carolina Silverbell Tree
My third tree is the Carolina silver bell, which requires about 4-6 hours of light per day, slightly more light than the dogwood or the redbud. This hardy native tree is drastically underappreciated. In the spring, the silverbell loads up with hanging bell shaped blooms. The appearance of these blooms is so striking with the green leaves on the branches that I have a hard time understanding why I see this tree infrequently in landscapes. Like the dogwood and the redbud, It is native to eastern North American, so it won’t suddenly turn invasive and take over your woodlands. If you can emulate its natural border habitat in your yard then it will grow quickly. It has a lovely yellow color in the fall, and a branch structure that is quite a bit more erratic than the dogwood. This gives it the appearance of a witches broom in the winter, not everyone likes this, but I find quite striking.
There are quite a few different cultivars of serviceberry, which grows in clumps as a sort of shrub/tree. The Shadblow serviceberry is both easily found and a beautiful under-story element for a shaded area. My favorite thing about serviceberry is its elegant branch structure. When pruned properly, the bare branches on the bottom look striking supporting the bush on top. In the spring serviceberry, trees bloom with small very delicate white blooms, while in the summer, it maintains interest with its bark in branches. In the fall, the leaves of the serviceberry are a yellow/orange/red tint that is underappreciated for the beautiful smooth bright colors.
Japanese Maple Tree
The Japanese maple has become an iconic tree in the American landscape. You may think the natural habitat of these trees is a subdivision full of McMansions, but in truth Acer palmatum is at home in the shade alongside a quite mountain stream and can thrive with as little 2-3 hours of direct sunlight a day. There are many cultivars of Japanese maple and growing conditions do vary, so read up. I don't see a reason to tell you how beautiful they all are - I'll just post some photos of my favorites below. Depending on the cultivar, a Japanese maple can be very picky about its growing conditions and also very expensive. If you don't have the desire to pay a few hundred dollars for a small tree, one alternative is to buy seed grown Japanese Maples. These maples are not always true to form, but they are typically similar to the parent plants and you can find them for under $50 for a 3-4 foot tree.
I am going to finish my list off with two different varieties of dogwood. The Kousa Dogwoods are the Asian cousin of the North American dogwood. These trees are similar to the native dogwoods, but have some significant differences, so if you like dogwoods you should consider one. They have resistance to anthracnose, so if you live in an area where dogwoods are susceptible they are a good choice. The first thing you will notice about cornus kousa compared to cornus florida is that they bloom later. Kousa dogwoods bloom in late May/early June, which means they will bloom after they have leaves. This feature creates a markedly different and more summer-like bloom that the bare branch spring blooms of the North American dogwood. These blooms are pointed on the end rather than rounded giving them a sharper more geometrical appearance. I prefer the bark of a Kousa, as it grow old it gains a dappled look that reminds me a bit of a sycamore tree. In the fall, a Kousa has beautiful colors, with mixes of green, orange, red and purple that are absolutely stunning and like their North American counterpart rival my maple trees. Finally, the Kousa has larger berries than the north American dogwood. These berries are about the size of a nickel and attract birds and wildlife. It is said that in Asian, the berries are used to make wine, but I’ve never had it and can’t comment on the taste, but If you decide to brew some Kousa wine keep me in the loop! Just be mindful of the interstate liquor laws.
Hybrid Kousa x Florida Dogwood
This is a recent artificial addition to the dogwood family. Due to the anthracnose scare, horticulturalists at Rutgers university created and trademarked a hybrid Kousa and North American Dogwood that is resistant to disease and has some of the features of both dogwoods. Personally, I believe it has more of the physical characteristics of the kousa dogwood. So, if you started with a kousa, rounded the petals and made the leaves more textured you end up with a Cornus 'Rutdan'. These trees are beautiful just like all dogwoods, and are sterile, so they are a good option for those not interested in berries. If you love dogwoods, but have had problems with disease or hardiness, this species maybe a good option for a shaded area of your yard.