Shade Tolerant Small Trees

Updated April 17, 2017

Finding small trees that do well in the often-shady conditions of small modern yards can be a challenge. Large, shade-loving shrubs can be conscripted -- and sometimes shaped -- to stand in for trees. Possibilities include gardenia, camellia, oakleaf hydrangea, common serviceberry, witchhazel and various currants and viburnums. But there are a few exceptional trees that grow well in light or medium shade, and one that thrives even in deep shade.

Japanese Maple

One of the most striking maples, the Japanese maple, or Acer palmatum, can grow to 20 feet tall, but many cultivars are smaller. Graceful form and finely cut, often colourful serrated leaves are notable characteristics. Japanese maple cultivars with burgundy coloured leaves are striking understory trees any time of year. Those with vivid fall colouration put on a memorable autumn show. Japanese maples require well-drained soil -- never let their feet stay wet -- and prefer it slightly on the acidic side.


These striking native trees and their hybrid kin are harbingers of spring in the backyard as well as in nature when their cream-white or pink bracts "flower." Red fruits follow in summer or fall, when leaf colours also turn to bronze-orange or red. The graceful form of tree dogwoods and their airy leaf arrangements add lightness to dark, tight spaces. Dogwoods prefer moist, well-drained soil. Select flowering dogwood, Cornus Florida, from hardy regional stock. Other possibilities include the pagoda dogwood, C. alternifolia, with its intriguing layered branches, and kousa dogwood, C. kousa.


Commonly called sourwood throughout the south, Oxydendrum arboreum is the largest North American tree in the azalea family yet small enough to be grown in tiny yards with light to medium shade. Sourwood gets its name from its bitter tasting leaves and branches, due to oxalic acid; leaves were brewed into traditional herbal cures. It's also known as lily of the valley tree, after hanging mid-spring panicles of white urn-shaped flowers, a favourite of bees. Sourwood honey, in fact, is a prized commodity. Trees grow to 20 or 30 feet in landscapes, dramatic in the understory. The 6-inch azalea-type leaves are glossy and green in summer, but mature trees add flaming fall colour.

American Hornbeam

Also known as blue beech and ironwood, Carpinus caroliniana is one of very few small trees that thrive even in full shade, where its shape is more open and appealing. This 20-foot tree does well in light or medium shade too and is also hardy in every part of the United States -- adaptable to a wide variety of conditions. It prefers moist shade but will tolerate drier growing conditions. The one thing absolutely essential for American hornbeam is well-drained soil. Along with all that adaptability, it also offers fall colour in yellow to orange-red shades.

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