Best plants under trees: 10 lovely varieties that will thrive

On the lookout for the best plants under trees? Give these a try and add tons of texture, color, and scent to your space

best plants under trees: rosemary coldstream garden design woodland planting
(Image credit: Rosemary Coldstream Garden Design)

Are you looking for the best plants under trees? From stunning flowers to lush foliage, we're here to help with our top suggestions.

Perhaps you've recently added one or two of the best trees for small gardens to your plot. Or, maybe you've got a few well-established species along the back of your borders or dotted across your lawn. Whatever the case, the ground beneath these leafy beauties can often look dull, shaded, and bare. This is because the conditions make it tricky for some plants to thrive.

However, there are plenty of plants that will grow quite happily beneath a canopy of branches. From sweet-scented shrubs and woodland-style bulbs to carpets of lush foliage, we've picked out some of our very favorites (with help from the experts) for you to peruse. So, if you're looking to pep up your space with the best plants under trees, just keep scrolling.

The best plants under trees: 10 of our favorite picks

1. Japanese spurge

landscaping around trees: urban trees in small courtyard

Japanese spurge makes a wonderful ground cover in this urban garden designed and built by Bowles & Wyer

(Image credit: Paul Upward/Bowles & Wyer)

Pachysandra terminalis, otherwise known as Japanese spurge, is a tough little plant that will positively thrive beneath trees. As Rhoda Maw, Garden Designer of Rhoda Maw Garden Design says, it hugs the ground, is evergreen, and the variegated variety – Pachysandra terminalis 'Variegata' – will brighten up dark, shady areas with its lighter edged-leaves.

It will gently grow to form a lush green carpet which will help to suppress weeds as well as provide a soothing vista of foliage. What's more, in late spring, it's adorned with tiny white flowers. Growing to a mere height of 25cm, it's a good pick for covering up bare patches with ease.

If you're looking for the best plants under trees that also work for low maintenance garden ideas, then this is a great choice.

2. Lesser periwinkle

best plants under trees: lesser periwinkle

Lesser periwinkle provides pretty purple blooms

(Image credit: Federica Grassi/Moment/Getty Images)

Although small (reaching a height of around 25cm), this purple bloomer still makes an impact without being as invasive as the 'greater' version.

Otherwise known as Vinca minor, it's 'a pretty plant and brilliant for ground cover beneath trees' says Garden designer Raine Clarke-Wills of Raine Garden Design. It will do just fine in partial shade beneath leafy canopies, and will grow to form a dense mat relatively quickly. It flowers from mid spring to early autumn, but its leaves are evergreen, offering visual interest and color all year round. You can also find varieties with white flowers.

Love a purple hue as part of your garden color scheme? Raine also suggests Liriope muscari to try, which has spikes of eye-catching flowers and strappy, evergreen leaves.

3. Ferns

best plants under trees: ferns in woodland

These leafy features create a jungle-like vibe beneath trees

(Image credit: Ottaiano Pasquale/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Ferns are a popular choice for the best plants under trees. Once their fronds unfurl, they create a verdant, jungle-like vibe with their vibrant green tones and textural forms.

For the best ferns for the spot beneath your trees, opt for ones which will cope in dry shade. Garden Designer Rhoda Maw suggests Asplenium scolopendrium, otherwise known as the hart's tongue fern. It has leathery, evergreen leaves and doesn't grow too tall – up to around 50cm – so is good for small garden ideas. Although it will grow in the dry, shady conditions beneath a tree, do remember to give it a good mulch annually.

Rhoda also says that you can opt for ferns that have 'dry' in their name, such as Dryopteris erythrosora, also known as the Japanese shield fern. Showcasing coppery, deciduous leaves which darken to a lush green as it grows, this is a lovely choice for bringing warm tones to your plot. Keep it watered and mulch well. It'll grow up to 1m in height.

Garden Designer Raine Clarke-Wills also suggests Dryopteris filix-mas – the 'male fern' – as a good choice for planting beneath trees. Again, it grows to around 1m in height, is deciduous, and will be grateful for frequent watering and a good mulch. Its robust, green leaves turn copper-colored in autumn. 

Take a look at our guide on how to grow ferns for more info. And, if you're looking for something else to partner up with your fern, Raine suggests Tellima grandiflora (common name being fringe cups). The combination of structures and green tones makes a gorgeous vista beneath the canopy of a tree.

4. Wood anemones

best plants under trees: white wood anemone

If you're looking to create a woodland feel with your best plants under trees, try wood anemones

(Image credit: iBulb)

There are a few spring bulbs that make wonderful choices when it comes to picking the best plants under trees. One of these is Anemone blanda 'White Splendour' (a white wood anemone), as suggested by Garden Designer Rhoda Maw. 

They add a lovely woodland feel to a garden with their delicate flowers in spring, and will cope in dappled shade and well-drained soil just fine. Another low-growing, mat-forming perennial, wood anemones will naturalize over time to produce even more plants.

'These look really great when planted under deciduous trees such as Amelanchier – as their white, daisy flowers echo the blossom of the trees,' Rhoda says. Love the idea of blossom in your garden? Take a look at our best flowering trees for more ideas.

5. Alchemilla mollis

best plants under trees: Alchemilla mollis

Otherwise known as lady's mantle, this pretty plant looks stunning adorned in droplets of rain

(Image credit: Jacky Parker Photography/Moment/Getty Images)

'Alchemilla mollis is an absolutely invaluable, long-flowering herbaceous perennial,' says Garden Designer Raine Clarke-Wills. The team at Suttons agree, recommending it as one of the best plants under trees due to its visual appeal and ability to survive in shaded, dry conditions.

It's a fabulous choice if you're a fan of our cottage garden ideas (it can be grown in sunny borders as well as beneath trees), and grows quickly, up to 1m wide and tall. The sight of water droplets caught on the scalloped leaves after rainfall is a delight. And, in summer through to early autumn, a frothy display of tiny flowers in a vivid lime-yellow tone can be enjoyed. Keep on top of deadheading to encourage a second flush of blooms. 

For a variety of textures, plant alongside Hakonechloa macra (Japanese forest grass). The two make perfect partners, says Raine.

6. Mahonia

best plants under trees: mahonia

Bright yellow flowers will pep up a shady spot beneath a tree

(Image credit: Aitor Diago/Moment/Getty Images)

For a flower that will shine out at you from the dark shade, opt for Mahonia aguifolium, suggests Garden Designer Rhoda Maw. She recommends the 'Apollo' variety, with its bright yellow flowers and dark, glossy, evergreen leaves. This is a smaller variety in comparison to some of the larger mahonias, as it grows up to a height of 1m and a width of 1.5m.

It blooms in the spring, before bearing blue-black berries loved by birds. We agree that it makes a good, hardy shrub when it comes to the best plants under trees, just be sure to add plenty of mulch annually around the base (well-rotted manure is good here), and water regularly in dry conditions.

7. Snowdrops

best plants under trees: snowdrops

Galanthus, otherwise known as the snowdrop, is an elegant choice

(Image credit: iBulb)

Snowdrops are one of our favorite early-flowering bulbs, offering the first hopeful promise of spring when there's not much else in bloom. They will grow happily in partial shade, and look lovely around the base of a tree in gentle drifts. Plant bulbs in autumn, or 'in the green' plants in spring (when they have leaves, roots, and sometimes flowers).

Keep the soil moist to encourage naturalizing over time – as the RHS says, it is important not to let the bulbs dry out over summer. Divide the resulting clumps of plants up every three years or so. Many varieties reach a height of around 20cm, although the 'Giant' variety grows up to 30cm, and is honey-scented, too.

They're not only good for the best plants under trees – snowdrops also look spectacular in containers. Take a look at our best plants for winter pots for other brilliant options to brighten up the coldest season.

8. Sarcococca

best plants under trees: Sarcococca confusa

Sweet box with its intoxicating scent is a good contender for the best plants under trees

(Image credit: Jacky Parker Photography/Moment/Getty Images)

If you want to include an amazingly fragranced, winter-flowering shrub in your pick of the best plants under trees, then the team at Suttons recommends Sarcococca confusa.

Also known as sweet box or Christmas box, its elegant spikes of creamy-colored flowers make a striking contrast against its deep green and glossy leaves. Long-lasting berries follow the flowers, generally in purple or black hues. 

The evergreen grows up to a height of 2.5m and width of 1.5m. It does well in the shade of a larger tree, and providing the soil is moist yet well-drained and ideally humus-rich, requires very little maintenance. 

Looking for more cold-season showstoppers? Take a look at our feature on how to fill your garden with scent – 5 ways to add winter fragrance.

9. Siberian bugloss

best plants under trees: Brunnera

Brunneras are similar in appearance to forget-me-nots

(Image credit: Bernhard Flack/500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images)

Another recommendation from the team at Suttons, Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) is a lovely plant. It looks like a larger, more robust forget-me-not, with pretty blue flowers in spring and a hardy nature. Some types, such as 'Jack Frost' and 'Sea Heart' have silvery foliage which only adds to the visual appeal.

They can grow well in dry, shady spots beneath trees (although will do even better if the soil is kept moist but is well-drained), and are very low maintenance as well as pest-resistant. 

Growing to a height of around 45cm (and eventually spreading to around 60cm), this plant makes a good addition to a woodland-themed plot.

10. Hostas

best plants under trees: small border with hostas and foxgloves

Variegated hostas work well in this small raised bed beneath an olive tree

(Image credit: David Giles/Future)

The best plants under trees often work well for shade garden ideas too, and the hosta is a great example. These striking perennial plants are well-loved for their foliage which can come in many shades, including blue-green ('Fragrant Blue'), lime-green ('Guacamole'), and variegated tones (try 'Patriot'). Many types will shoot up structural, silvery-mauve flowers in summer. Sizes vary widely – you can even find miniature hostas suitable for pots.

They generally prefer fertile soils. But, if the spot beneath your tree is dry, opt for varieties with thicker, waxier leaves – they are more-tolerant for these conditions, says the RHS. Wherever you plant them, mulch annually, and keep them watered during spells of dry weather. Watch out for slugs who love to devour the leaves – our guide on how to get rid of slugs in the garden will give you a helping hand should you need it.

We love this pretty scene above – the variegated hosta leaves tie in beautifully with white foxgloves and hydrangeas nearby, all beneath the dappled shade of an elegant olive tree. It just goes to show that you don't need a huge border (or tree) to create a gorgeous scene.

How do you plant under a tree?

shade garden ideas: plants beneath tree

(Image credit: Rosemary Coldstream Garden Design)

There are a few things to bear in mind when planting beneath a tree:

  1. When digging the holes for your plants, try to avoid damaging the tree's roots, especially the thicker ones. Instead, try to find gaps between them to nestle your plants and use a small trowel.
  2. Some trees tolerate more disturbance than others – do your research beforehand to check what your tree is likely to cope with. Maples, for instance, can be tricky to plant beneath due to their dense, shallow root structure.
  3. Start small. Avoid trying to install large, fully-grown shrubs and other plants beneath established trees. Instead go for smaller plug plants and bulbs. For trees which are less tolerant to disturbance, you may want to spread your planting out over a longer period to give it time to recover.
  4. Keep your new plants well-watered, especially as they establish. As they are competing with the tree's roots, and may not get as much rain due to the canopy of leaves above, they will be grateful for the extra help.
  5. Remember to mulch your plants annually, but avoid piling it up high up around the tree's trunk as this can cause it to rot. Instead, pull it slightly away from the base of the tree. Avoid piling mulch up over roots too, which can smother them. Need more advice? Take a look at our ultimate guide to mulching.
Holly Crossley
Acting Deputy Editor

The garden was always a big part of Holly's life growing up, as was the surrounding New Forest where she lived. Her appreciation for the great outdoors has only grown since then. She's been an allotment keeper, a professional gardener, and a botanical illustrator – plants are her passion.