15 Best Perennials to Plant Around Trees (Top Picks)

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Plants around tree
There may not be much light around the base of a tree, but there are many specialized plants that actually thrive in such shaded conditions! W.carter, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just as woodland forests have multiple levels of plant life (forest floor, understory, and canopy, to name a few), a garden can have many zones of vertical interest. Of course, the presence of trees can create pockets of space with unique physical conditions. Gardeners need not feel hindered by the limiting factors associated with the shade of a tree canopy. Instead, they may welcome the chance to grow an even higher diversity of perennials.

Understories are usually thriving with all manner of plant life. Though sunlight may be scarce, especially right around the base of a tree trunk, you’ll find that many specialized plants actually grow best in shade. These tend to have root systems that become well-established in shallow, potentially acidic substrates. Moreover, they won’t require large holes to be dug up around the tree prior to being planted.

Trailing herbs for ground cover, shade-loving ferns, and flowering plants that require protection from harsh elements can effectively brighten up the base of a tree. These should provide ample color and texture for enhancing the visual interest of tree-filled gardens at ground level. You’ll find yourself marveling at just how well they flourish in cool shade!

1) Plantain lilies (Hosta spp.)

Hosta 'Fortunei Albomarginata'
Plantain lily cultivars with white- or gold-streaked leaves are particularly popular as they can brighten up any garden! Marc Ryckaert (MJJR), CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to East Asia

Plantain lilies are some of the most widely cultivated shade-loving perennials. These plants are beloved by many horticulturists for their minimal light requirements, low-maintenance root systems, fleshy leaves, summer blooms, and wealth of variegation patterns. As they emerge from rhizomes, which may be capable of spreading on their own, they may slowly create highly textured, winter-hardy colonies in USDA zones 3 – 8.

Dense plantings of plantain lilies tend to become focal points in shade gardens. Though they are generally low-growing, with the largest cultivars measuring about a meter (3 feet) tall, their seemingly energetic leaves pack a visual punch. Cultivars with white and gold streaks tend to be the most prized as they brighten up dim spaces. A dazzling display of hosta leaves and their emergent, pastel-colored inflorescences would be perfectly situated beneath a towering tree!

2) Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)

Blue cohosh with berries
The blue cohosh is a member of the barberry family and is known for producing blue-colored berries. Joshua Mayer from Madison, WI, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to eastern North America

In the wild, blue cohosh is found in hardwood forests, where its root system thrives best in moist and rich substrates. Its stands are usually restricted to shaded areas, such as around the base of medium to large trees. A member of the Berberidaceae or barberry family, this flowering perennial grows to an easily manageable height of just 2 feet (61 cm). Neutral to slightly acidic substrates, kept consistently moist through most of the year, should help sustain its slow spread.

As suggested by its common name, this charming shade plant has bluish-green leaves and produces sets of blue-colored berries. These develop from inconspicuous, yellow-green flowers that first appear in spring. Once used as a medicinal herb by Native American tribes sharing its native range, it has a fascinating set of alkaloids and saponins with pharmacological importance.

3) California barberry (Berberis pinnata)

California barberry
The California barberry starts to produce bright yellow blooms in early to mid-spring. Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to western North America

The California barberry is frequently cultivated as an ornamental shrub. This evergreen species is known for its year-round interest due to its ever-changing features. Its holly-like leaves, which are tough and have margins with semi-deep serrations, initially appear to be coppery-green in spring. As ambient temperatures gradually increase, their color deepens to a rich, dark green. The leathery foliage looks and thrives best under partial to full shade, such as beneath the canopy of a tree.

Eye-catching clusters of yellow blooms dot the tips of mature stems in early to mid-spring. These attract a wealth of pollinators. Once the flowers are fertilized, they develop into lovely throes of deep-blue berries. Though these are sour and densely packed with tiny seeds, they serve as food for many native birds.

4) Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

Cherry laurel fruits
Cherry laurel gets its name from the fruits it produces, which are purplish-black in color and similar to cherries. H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to western Asia and southeastern Europe

Cherry laurel, also known as English laurel, is often mistaken for a more popular shrub – the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis). Unlike the latter, its phytochemical-rich leaves should not be ingested as they can cause a string of unpleasant symptoms. This plant’s leaves are best left in the shade garden, where they can provide lovely texture and contrast to other woody shrubs and trees.

Named for its purplish-black, cherry-like fruits, this flowering perennial is able to grow to several meters tall. Of course, if you intend to situate it beneath a tree, it would be prudent to regularly prune its tough stems. They respond quite well to being pruned, bouncing back with new growth, leaves, and racemes of sweetly-scented blooms in the succeeding growth period. Able to tolerate challenging conditions, keep in mind that this species readily competes with other native shade plants for space.

5) Box-leaved honeysuckle (Lonicera pileata)

Box-leaved honeysuckle
Box-leaved honeysuckle is a tough shrub that is perfect as a ground cover plant in partially shaded conditions. Maja Dumat / CC BY 2.0

Native to China

If you reside close to the coast, consider growing shade plants that have a measure of salt tolerance. The box-leaved honeysuckle is perfect for the base of trees that are located close to shorelines. This tough perennial shrub is distinguished by its horizontal branches, from which stems with small, bright, and densely-packed leaves arise. Over time, this species can spread to form low-growing colonies. Fairly straightforward to prune, it is ideal as a ground cover plant in partial shade.

In spring to summer, box-leaved honeysuckle produces small, fragrant pairs of tube-shaped, yellowish-white blooms. These may not be immediately visible as their clusters may appear to be tucked away beneath terminal sets of new leaves. Once they are pollinated, they develop into mildly toxic, deep-violet berries.

6) Siberian “Jack Frost” bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla)

Siberian bugloss flowers
To successfully grow Siberian bugloss, it should be planted in soil that is frequently moistened and not dry. Kor!An (Андрей Корзун), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the Caucasus region

A member of the Boraginaceae or forget-me-not family, Siberian bugloss is a hardy, perennial herb with a strong preference for partial to full shade. It is perfectly suited for frequently moistened substrates around the base of medium-sized tree trunks. Dry soils and intensely hot temperatures are detrimental to its survival, so the protection provided by an overhead canopy would be well-appreciated.

Low-maintenance and able to form colonies on its own, this resilient herb can gradually spread to have lush, readily flowering mounds. One of its horticulturally popular cultivars, ‘Jack Frost’, is set apart by its heart-shaped, silvery leaves. These accentuate the delicate appearance of its spring, pale blue inflorescences. This recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit is one of the finest options for underplanting around larger perennials in USDA hardiness zones 3 – 8.

7) Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)

Christmas rose
The Christmas rose is unlikely to thrive in soils that quickly dry out because of its root system which is sensitive to pH levels. H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Europe

As suggested by its common name, the Christmas rose produces its lovely white blooms during the winter holidays. If your garden frequently receives guests at around this time, this would be a wise choice for adding cool-season interest to zones with partial sun. Dappled shade is preferred as just a hint of low-intensity sunlight should increase its rate of bloom and leaf production.

Occasionally, Christmas rose may fail to proliferate in shady conditions because the substrate may be too acidic. Keep in mind that its root system is fairly sensitive to pH levels and is unlikely to become well-established in poor soils that are prone to drying out. If the substrates around your trees tend to have low pH levels, consider adding lime to increase their compatibility with perennials like H. niger.

8) Crevice alumroot (Heuchera micrantha)

Crevice alumroot inflorescence
Crevice alumroot produces delicate white, bell-shaped flowers that can be several feet above the plant’s foliage. Mount Rainier National Park from Ashford, WA, United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to western North America

For texture and color in a shaded part of your backyard, you simply can’t go wrong with members of the Heuchera genus. Crevice alumroot, in particular, is favored for its evergreen mounds of ornamental leaves. As these are scallop-edged, rounded, and reddish brown, they’ll contrast the foliage of many other shrubs and trees. In optimal conditions, they can quickly fill out borders and gaps.

Crevice alumroot is especially eye-catching in spring to summer, when its mature stands send out emergent floral stalks. On the tips of these are spritely panicles of bell-shaped, whitish flowers. These may be situated several feet above the foliage, significantly adding vertical interest to the entire plant. To take full advantage of this species’ growth preferences, situate it in drier sections of the substrate around well-established trees.

9) Dwarf scouring rush (Equisetum scirpoides)

Dwarf scouring rush
Planting dwarf scouring rush is a great choice if your garden is prone to flooding. Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the Northern Hemisphere

In terms of size, the dwarf scouring rush is the smallest member of the Equisetaceae or horsetail family. It is often grown as an ornamental grass because of its compact nature of growth, its capacity to spread, and its versatile, bright green stems. Unlike your typical grasses, this rush does not actually have conspicuous foliage. Its “leaves” have become markedly reduced to dark-colored sheaths around the nodes of their stems.

The dwarf scouring rush is perfect for naturalizing the base of trees that are situated close to water features. It favors partial shade conditions and rich, moist soils. Its well-established stands can also thrive in a few inches of water, where they may persist as emergent plants. If your shade garden is frequently flooded, this would be an appropriate choice! Just keep in mind that, in the absence of barriers, it may spread indefinitely.

10) Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)

Sweet woodruff in bloom
Sweet woodruff requires regular irrigation and full shade to thrive. Stefan.lefnaer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Europe, West and East Asia, and Siberia

For a uniquely sweet scent around the base of a tree, try planting a few clumps of sweet woodruff. When its leaves wilt and eventually become dry, they continue to release an intensely strong aroma. This is largely due to the presence of coumarin, a chemical compound that naturally exudes a sweet scent. For this reason, the preserved leaves are often added to potpourris or used as a natural insect deterrent.

Sweet woodruff is set apart by its whorls of simple leaflets. These are borne on thin shoots that grow to about 20 inches (51 cm) long. Occasionally, the shoots may lie close to the ground. If they are situated right next to a tree’s trunk, they should be able to remain upright with the added support. Full shade and regular irrigation are crucial as it requires consistent moisture. Try growing this species in acidic areas where other shade plants may fail to thrive.

11) Stinking iris (Iris foetidissima)

Stinking iris flower
The stinking iris produces stunning, elaborate flowers that last only a day, even when it’s thriving! CorentinD, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to western Europe

Unlike sweet woodruff, the stinking iris possesses leaves that may be muskily unappealing to many people. When these are mechanically damaged or scratched, they emit a smell that is comparable to that of meat. Don’t be dissuaded by the unusual scent, however, as the plant itself makes for a wonderful ornamental around trees and large shrubs.

Like other irises, this species is often grown for its stunning, complex blooms. These consist of multiple petals with elaborately patterned purple veins. The early summer blooms last for just a day, even in optimal conditions. Their fleeting nature is largely what makes them quite special. Fret not as the blooms are followed by long-lasting clusters of orange winterberries. A recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit, the stinking iris can tolerate partial to full shade and favors moist yet well-draining substrates.

12) Japanese primrose (Primula japonica)

Japanese primrose flowers
Japanese primrose flowers are arranged in whorls, which can add vertical texture to your garden. Alpsdake, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Japan

Japanese primrose, also known as ‘valley red’ or Japanese cowslip, naturally grows in wetland regions throughout its native range. It favors partial shade conditions, especially in areas where its roots can access generous amounts of water. The edges of ponds, bogs, marshes, and swamps can be quite enchanting when they are dotted with clumps of this species. Its rosettes of leaves can also survive under full sun, but only if they are provided with ample moisture.

In spring, lengthy floral stalks emerge through this primrose’s rosettes of bright green leaves. These bear the most charming clusters of vivid pink, purple, white, or red blooms. One of the most interesting features of this species’ candelabra-type inflorescences is the whorled arrangement of their flowers. This creates patches of vertical texture that should gracefully contrast the appearance of tree bark.

13) Hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

Hart's tongue fern
Hart’s tongue fern leaves are arranged in rosettes that grow to be 18 inches tall on average. H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the Northern Hemisphere

Named for the resemblance of its leaves to the shape and form of a male hart’s tongue (i.e. that of a red deer), this woodland species is frequently grown as an ornamental fern. Unlike the fronds of other ferns, its leaves remain undivided and maintain a fairly simple morphology for the duration of their development. These naturally arise in rosettes that grow to about 18 inches (46 cm) tall.

Due to the undivided form of its fronds, this fern is often mistaken for one with tropical origins. Don’t be fooled by its seemingly balmy leaves as they are well-equipped to withstand winter conditions in USDA zones 5 – 9. The luscious leaves look best beneath the shade and protection of a hardwood tree canopy. In the wild, they may naturally emerge from damp soils between the large roots of trees and from damp crevices in tree trunks. In some states of the US, Hart’s tongue fern is now unfortunately listed as endangered.

14) Snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)

Snake's head fritillary flowers
Snake’s head fritillary’s visually appealing flowers make this plant a must-have at the front of your shaded borders! Michael Apel, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Eurasia

Another species with a namesake based on its resemblance to an animal’s features, the snake’s head fritillary is set apart by its blooms’ reptilian appearance. Also called chess flower, leper lily, and dropping tulip, this bulbous perennial has garnered favor from many plant enthusiasts due to the checkered pattern on its drooping flowers.

Naturally found in damp grasslands and floodplains, snake’s head fritillary can be planted beneath a canopy with pocket-sized openings for a few rays of sunshine. Dappled sun should help its leaves remain productive while preventing them and any blooms from becoming scorched. As the blooms are interesting enough to serve as conversation starters, you’ll want to situate this low-growing plant at the forefront of your shaded borders. Note, however, that it does enter a dormant period in early summer.

15) Common honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)

Common honeysuckle in bloom
Common honeysuckle comes in a range of cultivars and colors, including yellow, pink, and cream. Joan Simon from Barcelona, España, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Europe, Southwest Asia, and northern Africa

The common honeysuckle comes in a range of visually stunning cultivars, such as ‘Peaches and Cream’, ‘Scentsation’, ‘Serotina’, and ‘Belgica’. Its spritely inflorescences, which take on the form of whorled terminal spikes, are irresistible to many gardeners. They come in the most delectable shades of pink, cream, and yellow. Bees and moths pollinate the sculptural blooms, allowing these to develop into red berries – a favorite treat for throes of wild birds in fall.

This fragrant, perennial vine grows to a full height of about 6 feet (1.8 meters). When provided with enough space and protection from full sun, it can boast a spread of about 3 feet (91 cm). Ample support is necessary to encourage its trailing stems to elongate in an upright manner. A trellis or arbor situated in the shade of a taller tree should work beautifully! In the absence of vertical structure, it should slowly spread as groundcover.

Angeline L
About the author

Angeline L

I'm a passionate researcher and scuba diver with a keen interest in garden plants, marine life, and freshwater ecology. I think there’s nothing better than a day spent writing in nature. I have an academic and professional background in sustainable aquaculture, so I advocate for the responsible production of commercial fish, macroinvertebrates, and aquatic plants.

Read more about Pond Informer.

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