Horticulture Magazine

12 Plants That Grow Well Under Trees

lily of the valley growing under the shade of a tree

Beneath the boughs of a tree may be one of the most challenging places to cultivate growth in your garden, but there are plenty of plants that will oblige.

Trees offer many benefits for a garden. Their height and canopy can provide shade from the sun and shelter from the rain, alongside the obvious aesthetic advantages they bring.

However, those two practical selling points can become drawbacks when it comes to planting in their vicinity, since the lack of sunlight and moisture can inhibit the growth of many species.

Fortunately, there are still an abundance of options that will do well in such a situation.

The first factor which will influence your choice is whether the tree in question is coniferous or deciduous. The former will pose particular problems for planting beneath it, since the year-round coverage of the foliage means that the ground directly below is likely to suffer from very little sunlight exposure and excessively dry soil conditions.

What’s more, the proliferation of needles and other debris which often accumulates can make satisfactory growth of any plant – including grasses – a difficult endeavour.

But while it might be difficult, it’s certainly not impossible. In that type of situation, it’s advisable to trim back the lower branches of the tree to ensure that some sun can filter through.

You should also mulch the area beneath the tree with organic matter, leaving a buffer of around three feet between the trunk and your plants to ensure that its root system doesn’t interfere with their growth and vice versa.

These precautions are sensible for any tree, regardless of whether it loses its leaves in winter or not.

Having said all that, there’s no reason to approach the cultivation of plants underneath trees with trepidation, since there is a wide array of varieties that can survive and even thrive in such conditions.

The following list is largely suitable for growing under any kind of tree coverage, but it’s always best to consult the specific care instructions associated with your plant of choice should any doubt remain.

1. Bergenia

bergenia cordifolia growing from under a rock
This elephant is all ears.

With their large, glossy leaves and sprouting clumps of colourful flowers, Bergenia are among the most loved flowers in any garden.

They can handle shade particularly well, while some strains can even benefit from poor quality soil by giving their leaves a reddish hue in autumn and winter.

What’s more, the fact that waterlogged soil and strong winds can harm their growth make sheltered planting ideal for Bergenia.

The rock provides that succour for the Elephant’s Ears variety pictured above, but a tree would do the job equally well.

2. Bleeding Heart

pink bleeding heart flowers
Horticulturally handsome heartache.

The delicately pendulous blooms of bleeding heart (or dicentra, if you want to be more formal) make them an instant showstopper to any environment they adorn.

Although their heart-shaped blossoms are undoubtedly the main attraction, they’ll even provide intrigue when not in bloom through the intricately divided nature of their foliage.

While most species will do just fine under the boughs of a tree, some hybrids do demand more sunny locations, so check before planting.

3. Daphne

Daphne odora in full bloom
It is a good shrubbery.

Available in both deciduous and evergreen forms, daphne is a large genus of just under 100 shrubs that are characterised by fragrant floral blooms and bright berries.

While almost all of them are easy to cultivate in your garden regardless of the conditions they’re placed in, some can grow up to one metre or more in height, which could interfere with the lower branches of the tree above them.

Since they often don’t take kindly to pruning, it’s advisable to opt for a smaller specimen when choosing a daphne for your garden.

4. Fuchsia

pink Fuchsia magellanica
Not just an eye-catching font colour on Microsoft Word.

Originally hailing from Central and South America, fuchsia plants have brightly coloured petals to attract the interest of hummingbirds in their native setting.

Cross-breeding has produced a wide variety of different hues and combinations today, while their propensity to bloom right through summer makes them a firm favourite with UK homeowners.

They don’t like too much sun, making them an ideal candidate for a display beneath a tree, but they do demand moist soil at all times – so be sure to prevent their feet from drying out.

5. Hosta

Woodland Hosta and Astilbe growing under the shade of a tree
Variegated vibrancy for your garden.

Not all plants are favoured for their flowering splendour.

Although some varieties of hosta do have blossoms, it’s certainly their foliage which is guaranteed to catch the eye.

With hundreds of different species available, you can plump for hostas with wide, variegated leaves or small, dainty alternatives, while their colours can range from lush deep greens to sullen greyish blues to even bright whites.

They can tolerate drought but will do best when given a hearty drink, so prevent them from drying out to achieve optimum results.

6. Lily of the Valley

lily of the valley growing in a sunny forest
Sweet and seductive to the eyes and nostrils.

Despite its name, Lily of the Valley is perhaps more commonly found in woodland than valleys.

Given its capacity to grow in even the darkest recesses of a forest, it should have no problem handling a shady spot in your back garden.

The dainty blossoms look like they could serve as umbrellas for a fairy goddess, while the intoxicating fragrance they produce might suggest a fragile creature – but Lily of the Valley is hardy and fast-spreading, so it will provide adequate ground cover beneath your trees year after year.

7. Lungwort

tiny purple flowers of Pulmonaria officinalis growing under a tree
And breathe.

Also known as pulmonaria, lungwort is so named for the shape of its leaves.

Nonetheless, don’t let its slightly distasteful moniker blind you to its charms.

Offering a colourful range of bee-friendly flowers atop silver-flecked foliage, this British native requires very little in the way of maintenance from you.

As you can see in the image above, it’s perfectly capable of flourishing when nestled in the base of trees, too.

8. Pachysandra

forest clearing with pachysandra bushes
Right at home in a forested setting.

Pachysandra comes in all shapes and sizes, from low but dense ground cover to clumped shrubs as pictured above.

What almost all varieties share in common, however, is the attractiveness of their foliage. Flowers will appear during the warmer months on most specimens, but it’s the thick patina on its leaves that make it stand out from the crowd.

Pretty much all types of pachysandra will thrive in shaded conditions, though low-lying varieties may become invasive if not kept under control.

9. Periwinkle

periwinkle flowers in crimson, purple and pink
Persistent to be the point of being a pest, at times.

Periwinkle is another plant whose progress must be closely monitored to avoid it spiralling out of control, since it just loves to spread out and invade the personal space of its neighbours.

Having said that, it’s the perfect choice for a shaded spot beneath a tree where the soil is so eroded that nothing else will grow. Plus, the pretty flowers that it produces (in a range of colours, depending on the variety selected) will add intrigue come springtime

10. Primrose

tiny yellow primrose flowers growing from the base of a tree
From the roots of mighty oaks do tiny primrose grow.

The above shot of a single primrose flower pluckily shooting forth from the immediate vicinity of an aged and mossy tree is the ideal illustration of their determination and staying power in even the most adverse of conditions.

Indeed, it’s most at home in such situations, given that its natural habitat is the forest floor.

Some varieties will begin to bloom before almost anything else in your garden and provide months of aesthetic value.

11. Solomon’s Seal

Polygonatum odoratum growing in shade
Bringing wisdom and whimsy to your garden display.

Solomon’s seal, or polygonatum x hybridum to give it its Latin name, is a favourite among English cottage gardens and wild woodlands.

It favours darker and cooler climes, meaning the nether reaches of a tree are the ideal spot for it, while the aesthetic attributes it brings are a huge draw for any horticulturist.

The foliage is impressive enough itself, with paired oval leaves lining its graceful, drooping stems.

However, the bell-shaped blooms, white in colour with a green tip, are what really sets it off – especially when paired with others on this list, such as Lily of the Valley or bleeding heart.

12. Viburnum

purple Viburnum Davidii berries
With excellent foliage, flowerheads and fruits, viburnum tick all the boxes.

There is an incredibly diverse array of viburnums to choose from, with large deciduous shrubs and smaller evergreen perennials all on offer.

The pictured variety above is viburnum davidii, which provides the holy trinity of blossoms, berries and interesting foliage all in one.

Dark leathery leaves provide the backdrop to tiny white flowers, while female species will supplement those twin advantages with metallic-looking berries when pollinated.

Best of all, they’ll grow under your tree with the minimum of encouragement.

You might also want to check out our best ferns for dry shade – many of which will grow well under the shade of a tree.

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