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7 Easy Trees That Don't Need Sunlight

Low light doesn't have to mean low impact, plant experts say.

The art of landscaping is unique in that you don't begin the process with a blank canvas. Whatever trees you decide to plant will be determined not only by your personal preferences but also by what the natural environment will allow. In particular, many plants have light requirements, which can create a challenge in low-light corners of the yard. The good news? Experts say many trees don't need sunlight. In fact, several of these trees grow best in shade or partial shade, rather than in direct sun.

"In my experience, finding the right tree for a shady backyard can be a bit of a puzzle, but it's totally doable," says Bryan Clayton, CEO of GreenPal and a 22-year veteran of the landscaping business. "There's a whole world of trees out there, each with their own unique benefits and beauty."

Read on to learn which seven trees don't need much sunlight to survive, and how each can uniquely enhance your space.

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7 Trees That Don't Need Sunlight

1. Japanese Maple

Beautiful red and yellow Japanese Maple trees in afternoon sun.

If you're looking for a beautiful tree that doesn't need much sunlight, Ben McInerney, a certified arborist and founder of the website GoTreeQuotes, recommends the Japanese Maple.

"Known for their vibrant colors, Japanese Maples can tolerate partial shade, making them an excellent choice for backyards with limited sunlight," he tells Best Life, adding that the tree's size makes it ideal for small spaces.

Japanese Maples prefer sun-dappled locations and are actually prone to leaf scorch when they're planted in direct sunlight.

"Planting in full sun is only an option if the soil can be kept evenly moist throughout the heat of summer," note experts from the University of New Hampshire.

2. Eastern Hemlock

Small pinecones on branches of a Hemlock pine tree (tsuga)

Eastern Hemlocks, which are similar to the common Christmas tree, also need little sunlight, says McInerney.

"An evergreen, Eastern Hemlocks are notorious for being able to thrive in shaded areas and retain moisture, which means they're perfect for backyards in colder environments," he explains.

Clayton points out another benefit of the Eastern Hemlock: "The tree retains its lower branches, creating a sort of natural fence, a point that many homeowners appreciate for the added privacy."

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3. American Holly

A closeup of the leaves and flowers of an American Holly tree in bloom. The floweers will become red berries in winter.

Another low-light tree that evokes the holiday spirit is American Holly.

"This tree doesn't mind a bit of shade," says Clayton. "Plus, it has these vibrant red berries that really brighten things up in the winter. It's a natural holiday decoration!"

At full maturity, the American Holly can grow up to 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide, so be sure to budget enough space and plant it far from your home.

4. Serviceberry

Cedar waxwing bird in serviceberry tree eating serviceberries with blue clear sky in the background on a warm spring day.

Next, McInerney recommends serviceberry trees, small deciduous trees that bloom with striking white flowers in the spring.

"These are certainly versatile trees since they can tolerate both sun and partial shade," he says. "Their versatility is also due to their adaptability, specifically their ability to thrive in all kinds of soils, which makes them great for backyards."

Elle Meager, founder and CEO of Outdoor Happens, says the serviceberry's fragrant flowers are also famous for attracting colorful viceroy butterflies and beneficial pollinators—an added benefit to planting them in your backyard.

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5. Dogwood

Field of dogwood trees in blossom during spring

A beautiful ornamental tree that sprouts white or pink flowers in the spring, dogwoods tend to do well in sun-dappled areas with little to no direct sunlight in the afternoons.

"These are understory trees, meaning in nature they grow under the canopy of larger trees, so they're used to less sunlight," explains Clayton. "And when springtime rolls around, their blossoms are just stunning."

Once you've found a low-light area to plant your dogwood, experts say it's important to carefully consider water access.

"Dogwoods have shallow roots, and even with dappled shade, these root systems will dry quickly," explains The Tree Center, a plant supply company. "Water the tree to a depth of three feet and observe the leaves for signs of over or under-watering. If the leaves are light-green, prickly, or crispy, the tree needs more water. If the leaves are droopy, green-gray, or enlarged, the tree needs less water," they note.

6. Pawpaw

Fruit of the common pawpaw (asimina triloba) growing on a tree

Another tree Meager recommends is the Pawpaw tree, a deciduous understory tree that she describes as "low-fuss."

"Pawpaws happily thrive with partial morning sunlight and afternoon shade. They tolerate various light conditions, including low-light spaces and deep shade where many other fruit trees wouldn't stand a chance," she tells Best Life. "That said, sunlight exposure will improve Pawpaw's foliage and fruit."

Meager offers one caveat for home landscapers to consider: Pawpaws are known to attract a wide variety of wildlife, drawn toward the tree to eat its fallen fruit. This may include chipmunks, squirrels, black bears, raccoons, and flocks of songbirds.

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7. American Elm

Alley with old American elm trees - the Oval at Colorado State University campus in autumn colors

American Elm is another of Meager's favorite deciduous landscape trees for light to moderate shade. She says they offer year-round interest, including small, red-tinged flowers in the early spring, deep green leaves, and splendid yellow fall foliage.

"American Elm trees are surprisingly massive—and extend upwards of 80 feet tall. They don't mind developing in partial shade. But since they can grow so tall, they likely won't remain shaded for their entire life," the permaculture expert says. "American Elms can also grow in various soils, including dry or moist locations."

However, Meager notes that there's another special consideration for planting the American Elm in your backyard, besides its size: Its susceptibility to Dutch Elm Disease, "a nasty beetle fungus that famously and mercilessly kills the tree."

She recommends choosing a disease-resistant American Elm cultivar, such as Valley Forge, New Harmony, Princeton, and Triumph to avoid such a calamity.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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