Shrubs and Small Trees for Shade

For many homeowners, working with shady areas of the landscape poses a difficult challenge. Actually there are many understory trees, shrubs and perennials that grow well in a range of shaded locations. Here are a few shrub and small tree suggestions. Give one a try in your landscape.

Downy serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea, is a large multi-stemmed shrub or small tree that is also know as Juneberry, Shadbush or Servicetree. This plant has alternate oval-shaped leaves that are medium to dark green, and when young may be covered with small hairs on the undersides. It forms a large, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree that, when unpruned, will reach a height of 15-25 feet. Drooping spikes of white flowers are produced in spring and followed by a berry-like fruit. The fruit changes from green to red, and finally ripening to black in June. The fruits are edible and said to be better than blueberries, however, birds love them too and if you plan to harvest you will have to beat them to it. Down serviceberry is hardy to zone 4 and should be grown in well-drained soil with partial shade. This plant blends in well at the edges of wooded areas, along ponds or stream banks, or in shrub borders.

Mahonia aquifolium, or Oregon Grapeholly is another good shrub for shade. This shrub is a broadleaf evergreen, with dark green summer foliage that changes to purplish bronze in winter. The leaves are compound, with 5-9 leaflets per leaf, and resemble those of true holly. Clusters of yellow flowers are produced in spring, followed by blue-black berries in late summer. Mahonia is best grown in moist, well-drained, acidic soil with at least partial afternoon shade. Avoid hot, dry sites or areas exposed to winds. It can be used a part of a foundation planting, shrub border, or in shaded areas. Mature height is 2-3 feet, although this plant is a slow grower, and is hardy to zone 5.

Shrubby St. Johnswort, Hypericum prolificum, is a good smaller shrub for dry, shady areas. Growing 1-4 feet tall, this plant has dark green foliage and produces clusters of bright yellow, 1" flowers from late June, through July and August. Forming a small, dense shrub with upright branches it does well in dry soils from full sun to partial shade.

A related plant H. 'Hidcote' has 2 ½-3 inch wide golden yellow flowers produced in late spring, and dark blue-green foliage. 'Hidcote' usually dies to the ground in winter, but grows back readily each spring with another crop of beautiful flowers. Best grown in well-drained soil, in full sun to partial shade. May grow to 4 feet in warm climates, but usually only reaches 2 feet tall in Nebraska.

Bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora, is a large, wide-spreading, multi-stemmed shrub in the buckeye family. It grows 8-12 feet tall and 8-15 feet wide. This plant's most outstanding feature is its long stalks of white flowers that appear in summer, giving the plant its common name of 'bottlebrush.' Even without flowers, its dark green leaves, composed of 5-7 oblong, pointed leaflets, give the plant an elegant look. Bottlebrush buckeye requires moist, well-drained soil, high in organic matter, and preferably slightly acidic. It can be grown in full sun but also performs well in partially shaded location. Hardy to Zone 4.

Smooth hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens, is a fast growing, medium sized shrub, 3-5 feet tall and wide. It has large, dark green, coarse textured leaves that contrast nicely with groupings of finer textured plants. The cultivar 'Annabelle' has large, snowball flower heads made up of many small white sterile flowers. The flowers can be up to one foot across, and so large that bend under their own weight. 'Eco Pink Puff' is a cultivar with light pink flowers. These plants are best treated as herbaceous perennials in Nebraska; meaning the stems should be cut down each fall and allowed to regrow the following year. Smooth hydrangea is very adaptable but grows best in well-drained, moist soil. It prefers partial shade and the leaves can become burned at the edges if placed in too much sun without sufficient water available. Hardy to Zone 4.

Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is a deciduous holly with dark green foliage that is shed each fall. However, its most striking feature are the bright red, holly-berries it displays in winter. This holly is dioecious, having separate male and female plants. Both are needed to produce berries, although usually one male plant can pollinate several female plants. Cultivars recommended for Nebraska include 'Winter Red', 'Berry Nice' and 'Sparkleberry' (all females) and 'Apollo' or 'Southern Gentleman' (males). Winterberry grows well in partially shaded, wet areas, so is a great choice for areas that do not drain well or have standing water for parts of the year. However, it will also grow in drier areas. Its beautiful red berries really liven up the winter landscape!