Deciduous Shade Tolerant Trees

Deciduous shade tolerant trees can be combined with shade tolerant evergreens to provide structure and year round interest in even the shadiest gardens.

Whilst both deciduous and evergreen trees can delight with their flowers and fruit, think of them as serving different functions in the garden.

Whilst the evergreens provide a backdrop of year-round foliage and form, the deciduous trees lend a greater seasonal variation to your garden landscape.

Think of the changes as the fresh new foliage first unfurls in the gentle warmth of spring, grows to leafy maturity in the long days of summer, and gives a final, and often spectacular, flourish in the cooler days of autumn.

Chosen carefully, your deciduous shade tolerant trees will continue to reward you through the depths of winter with their beautiful tracery of branches and attractive bark.

But which deciduous trees are suitable? The answer is: probably more than you might think!

The list below includes some of my own favourite deciduous shade tolerant trees... I hope you enjoy!

Deciduous Shade Tolerant Trees: Full Shade

Aralia elata 'Variegata' (Japanese Angelica Tree)

Deciduous Shade Tolerant Trees, Aralia elata Variegata,
  • Form: small tree or large shrub
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - fully hardy; USDA zones 4 to 9
  • Soil: neutral to acid, humus rich, well drained but moist soil
  • Situation: full to partial shade
  • Height: 6m (20ft)
  • Spread: 6m (20ft)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: This shade tolerant tree needs a bit of room to accommodate its spreading habit but its dramatic architectural form provides ample reward if you have the space.

The bold leaves are divided into many mid green leaflets with creamy white margins, and profuse panicles (up to 60cm/24in long) of tiny white flowers are borne in late summer and autumn, followed by small black fruits.

Good purple or orange fall colour.

Also consider: A. elata 'Aureovariegata' is similar but with golden yellow variegation. It is not quite as shade tolerant preferring light to partial shade.

Caution: The stems are very sharp and spiny so do not position where passersby or children can brush against them.

Stewartia malacodendron (Silky Camellia)

Stewartia malacodendron, Silky Camellia
  • Form: small tree or large shrub
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - frost hardy; USDA zones 7 to 9
  • Soil: neutral to acid, well drained but preferably moist soil
  • Situation: full to partial shade - the roots must be shaded from the hot sun
  • Height: 4m (13ft)
  • Width: 3m (10ft)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: This relative of the Camellia has deep green ovate leaves which act as a perfect foil for the showy white flowers (8cm/3in across) with deep purple stamens that appear in summer. Further interest is provided by the attractive peeling bark and good autumn colour.

Deciduous Shade Tolerant Trees: Light to Partial Shade

Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku' (Japanese Coral Bark Maple)

Acer palmatum Sango-kaku, Japanese Coral Bark Maple
  • Form: small tree or large shrub
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - fully hardy; USDA zones 6 to 8
  • Soil: neutral to acid, humus rich, well drained but moist soil
  • Situation: tolerates full sun but prefers partial shade and a sheltered position
  • Height: 6m (20ft)
  • Spread: 5m (16ft)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: A graceful and elegant small spreading tree with fabulous coral red young branches. The delicate five lobed leaves open yellow tinged with pink, turn green in summer and gold in autumn. Plants grown in partial shade give the best leaf colour.

Also consider: Any of the wide range of Japanese Maples: A. palmatum 'Bloodgood' (H4m/13ft, W4m/13ft) is one of the best dark leaved forms with rich purple foliage turning red in autumn; A. palmatum var. dissectum 'Seiryu' (H4m/13ft, W4m/13ft) has deeply incised light green leaves turning a fiery mix of yellow, orange and red in fall.

Betula pendula (Silver Birch)

Betula pendula, Silver Birch
  • Form: medium tree
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - fully hardy; USDA zones 2 to 7
  • Soil: any well drained but moist soil
  • Situation: full sun or partial shade, tolerates exposure
  • Height: 25m (80ft)
  • Spread: 10m (33ft)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: A graceful shade tolerant tree with thin drooping branches, delicate, lightly toothed, oval leaves turning yellow in autumn, and catkins in spring.

It is particularly effective planted in small groups or as a multi-stemmed specimen when its fine form and papery white bark are displayed to advantage. Another good choice for winter interest.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii 'Silver Shadow' (Himalayan Birch)

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, Silver Shadow, Himalayan Birch
  • Form: medium tree
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - fully hardy; USDA zones 5 to 7
  • Soil: any well drained but moist soil
  • Situation: full sun or partial shade, tolerates exposure
  • Height: 18m (60ft)
  • Spread: 10m (33ft)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: Male catkins (15cm/6in long) appear in early spring whilst the 15cm (6in) dark green leaves turn butter yellow in autumn. But it is the pure white bark that is the real star of the show here - there is nothing to beat the appearance of the trunk and larger branches glowing ghostly white in the depths of winter.

An excellent shade tolerant tree to use as a focal point in the garden.

Cornus kousa var. chinensis (Chinese Dogwood)

Cornus kousa var chinensis, Chinese Dogwood
  • Form: small tree or large shrub
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - fully hardy; USDA zones 5 to 8
  • Soil: any well drained, or moist but well drained soil
  • Situation: full sun to partial shade
  • Height: 7m (23ft)
  • Spread: 5m (16ft)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: A very free flowering shade tolerant tree with good red and orange autumn colour. In spring, each flowerhead is surrounded by four showy cream coloured bracts. These are followed by unusual knobbly, deep pink fruits.

Also consider: C. kousa 'Katomi' for its deep pink bracts and red and purple fall colour .

Davidia involucrata (Dove Tree, Ghost Tree, Handkerchief Tree)

Davidia involucrata, Dove Tree, Ghost Tree, Handkerchief Tree
  • Form: medium tree
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - fully hardy; USDA zones 6 to 8
  • Soil: any well drained, or moist but well drained soil
  • Situation: full sun to partial shade, sheltered from strong winds
  • Height: 15m (50ft)
  • Spread: 10m (33ft)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: This is a fabulous specimen tree to grow if you can afford to wait for up to ten years for it to flower - although the show is definitely worth waiting for!

The 15cm (6in) long, red-stalked leaves are an elongated heart shape, light green above and downy white beneath, and in spring hanging heads of flowers appear, each surrounded by a pair of showy white bracts up to 30cm (12in) long. It is these bracts that give the tree its common name as they look like ghosts, doves or handkerchiefs (take your pick!) fluttering in the breeze.

Hanging fruits, about the size of golf balls, are borne in the autumn and persist well after the leaves have fallen. Winter interest is supplied by the attractive, smooth, grey bark.

Also consider: D. involucrata var. vilmoriniana is very similar but without the soft downy hairs on the undersides of the leaves. It is slightly tougher and so a better choice for colder areas.

Sorbus aucuparia (Rowan, Mountain Ash)

Sorbus aucuparia, Rowan, Mountain Ash
  • Form: medium tree
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - fully hardy; USDA zones 3 to 7
  • Soil: preferably neutral to acid, well drained soil
  • Situation: full sun to partial shade
  • Height: 10m (33ft)
  • Spread: 7m (23ft)

Reasons to grow: This upright tree makes a good shade tolerant tree for a smaller garden. The foliage is very attractive with each leaf composed of many pairs of narrow leaflets giving a feathery effect. Frothy flat clusters of white flowers appear in spring and are followed in autumn by abundant orangey red berries. The leaves turn a buttery yellow in fall.

Although it looks delicate this is a tough little tree, and its tolerance of atmospheric pollution makes it particular useful in an urban garden. The only downside is its susceptibility to fire blight (a bacterial disease) and it should be avoided in areas where this is known to occur.

Also consider: Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' is similar but has crimson autumn foliage and yellow berries.

Related Pages

Evergreen shade tolerant trees.

Perennials and ferns for partial shade.

Perennials and ferns for deep shade.

Perennials and ferns for dry shade.

Gardening in the shade gives an overview of the subject and an explanation of how to identify the different degrees of shade.

Links to other 'plants for places' pages can be found at plant guides.





New look!

"Enjoy Your Garden is getting a long overdue new look. The change over is going to take me a few days and I hope you do not experience any problems during this period. If you do notice anything amiss, or just want to make a comment, please feel free to get in touch with me via the contact us form."

Many thanks


Deirdre