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Can roses grow under trees? 8 Options For Shady Areas

Can roses grow under trees? 8 Options For Shady Areas

Do you have a rose in your yard that is struggling to grow underneath a tree? 

Roses are full-sun shrubs, and they need six to eight hours of sunlight a day, meaning that for the most part, they aren’t suitable for planting under trees. However, there are measures you can take to support a rose in the shade, as well as several suitable replacement shrubs that are more shade-tolerant and still have beautiful flowers.

What happens to a rose that gets more shade than sun?

A rose bush growing in a shady place instead of a sunny one will experience some problems that really affect its performance as a landscape specimen. Some of these problems are:

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  • Long, leggy stems
  • Defoliation (dropping leaves)
  • Less abundant flowering
  • Powdery mildew
  • Fungal leaf spot

All of these problems keep a rose from achieving its full potential. If you have a rose growing in the shade that is experiencing one or more of these, consider transplanting your rose bush this fall and replacing it with a shade-loving flowering shrub.

If transplanting your rose isn’t an option for you, there are still a few things you can do to make it healthier and hopefully flower better:

  • Treat every six weeks during the growing season with a 3-in-1 fertilizer-pesticide-fungicide. This will help prevent or mitigate the diseases that roses are so prone to, especially in the shade.
  • Reduce the frequency of your watering. Water your rose deeply every two or three days, and allow the soil to dry out in between. This will help prevent the growth of fungus or bacteria in the soil.
  • Selectively prune the tree canopy above the rose to let more sunlight reach down to it. Remember to sanitize your tools in between each tree or shrub that you cut, and don’t let the blades touch the soil, where they may pick up bacteria.

Flowering Shrubs for Partial Shade

So, if we rule out roses, what are the best flowering shrubs that grow in the shade? There are quite a few good options! 

However, when it comes to any flowering shrub, even the ones that like the shade will flower best if they receive some morning sun or filtered sunlight throughout the day, so take that into consideration as you plot out where to plant your new shrub. Placing it towards the edge of the tree canopy, or on the eastern side of it where it can receive morning sun and afternoon shade, will give you the best bloom results.

(For more great ideas, see 19 Shade-Tolerant or Shade-Loving Evergreens)

California Sweetshrub (Calycanthus occidentalis)

This unusual and underutilized shrub produces large, deep red flowers in summertime that loosely resemble those of magnolias, and have a pleasant fragrance reminiscent of red wine. Its leaves are large, glossy, and deep green. It’s extremely low-maintenance, deer-resistant, and loves wet soils.

Hardiness: Zones 5-8

Size: 6-12 ft. tall and wide

Bloom time: June-August

Weigela (Weigela florida)

This member of the honeysuckle family blooms in early summer with groups of deep pink, red, or white tubular flowers that are loved by hummingbirds and butterflies. The foliage of this bush is also quite attractive, and you can find cultivars with purple, variegated, or chartreuse leaves. Weigela in the “Sonic Bloom” series (link to Nature Hills Nursery) bloom twice a season: once in the early summer and once in late summer.

Hardiness: Zones 4–8

Size: 6–10 ft. tall, 9–12 wide; smaller in colder climates

Bloom time: Spring and early summer

Japanese Rose (Kerria japonica)

This shrub can get quite large, with upright, arching stems that are covered in cheerful yellow blossoms in spring, with smaller bloom periods throughout the season. In wintertime, its bright-green to green-yellow canes will still brighten up the shade.

Hardiness: Zones 4-9

Size: 5–10 feet tall, 6–10 feet wide

Bloom time: Spring

Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)

Named after British botanist John Fothergill, this excellent shade shrub is notable for its unique flowers and fall color. In its natural habitat it likes to grow in shady, wet areas, but it is still somewhat drought tolerant.

The spring-blooming white flowers of this shrub are deeply fringed, giving them an almost fluffy appearance. They are also honey-scented and beloved by pollinators. The serrated, textured leaves are two-tone, with a dark green upper and blue-green underside, and also feature vivid orange and red fall color. 

If possible, position the dwarf fothergilla so that it gets morning sun and afternoon shade, which will help its flowering and fall color be at its best. 

Hardiness: Zones 5-8

Size: 3-6 ft tall and wide

Bloom period: Spring

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

This shrub has some of the most striking flowers around, and it loves the shade! Mountain laurel is a natural understory shrub with a dense, rounded growing habit. It is native to eastern North America, where it grows wild in woodland habitats shaded by trees. Its glossy evergreen leaves are reminiscent of rhododendrons.

Its flowers, meanwhile, unfold from spiky buds into origami-like flowers that can be pale pink, red, white, or a combination of these colors. It blooms from late spring to early summer, and regular deadheading will encourage blooming.

Click here to check pricing on Mountain Laurel (link to Nature Hills Nursery)

Mountain laurel likes moist, acidic soils, so make sure to keep your watering schedule consistent and to fertilize with an acidic fertilizer like those meant for rhododendrons and azaleas.

Hardiness: Zones 5-9

Size: Grows slowly to 6-10 ft tall and wide

Bloom time: Late spring to early summer

Daphne (Daphne spp., Daphne x hybrids)

These slow-growing, small-shade shrubs are valuable in the garden for several reasons. First and foremost, their small, pink, spring-blooming flowers have a wonderful fragrance. These flowers are followed by red berries, or drupes, in the fall, and the finely-textured leaves are evergreen in all but the coldest climates. Some varieties like ‘Carol Mackie’ have variegated foliage; others, like ‘Eternal Fragrance,’ will bloom two or more times in one season.

Although daphnes can take up to ten years to reach their ultimately rather small mature size, and can be tricky to get established, they also have a naturally neat and rounded form that requires almost zero pruning to maintain.

Hardiness: Zones 4-9

Size: 1-2 ft. tall, 2-3 ft. wide

Bloom time: Spring

Azalea and Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.)

These two types of shrubs belong to the same genus. The main difference is both the size and appearance of the flower: azaleas are smaller in size and have smaller flower clusters.

There are deciduous and evergreen varieties of both these shrubs, and their large, glossy, oval leaves have an aesthetic appeal that offsets the bright color and tissue-paper texture of their flowers. Rhododendrons and azaleas bloom in spring on old wood, so if you ever need to prune, make sure you do so right after they bloom before next year’s buds form.

They also do better in areas that are protected from wind and have slightly acidic soil with consistent moisture. This makes them especially well-suited for planting under or near conifer trees, which also like acidic soil.

Hardiness: Zones 4-9

Size: 4-15 ft. tall, 4-15 ft. wide

Bloom time: Spring

Chinese Fringe Flower (Loropetalum chinense)

This showy shade-tolerant shrub has not only fragrant, fascinating spring flowers, but also offers season-long interest thanks to its evergreen foliage, which transitions from deep green in spring and summer to red in fall and winter.

The Chinese Fringe Flower shrub gets its name from the many-petalled, fringe-like flowers that emerge after the leaves in mid-spring. These flowers can be red, white, pink, or yellow-white, depending on the variety, and occasionally they bloom more than once in a season. 

Hardiness: Zones 7-10

Size: 10-15 ft. tall, 10-15 ft. wide

Bloom time: Spring

Encouraging more flowers

Deadheading

Removing spent blooms–flowers that have bloomed, peaked, and wilted back to brown–will trigger the plant to push out more buds and blooms. (See Does Pruning Stimulate Growth? You Need To Understand This!)

If you use pruners or garden shears to deadhead, sanitize the blades in between different plants to prevent bacterial spread.

Fertilization

Use a fertilizer that is high in phosphorus and potassium on your flowering shrubs, as opposed to one that is all-purpose or high in nitrogen. These macronutrients are what the plant uses to make new buds, so it helps to provide a consistent surplus in the soil.

Watering shrubs in the shade

There are two things that often infect and inhibit the growth and beauty of shade shrubs: fungus and bacteria. Shady areas are more susceptible to them because they are usually cooler and wetter than areas that get more sun.

However, you can make this less of an issue:

  • Water deeply one or two times a week, up to one hour at a time. This will saturate the lower levels of soil, keeping the roots hydrated, while also allowing the top layer of soil, where bacteria and fungus thrive, to dry out between waterings.
  • Keep the mulch layer thin, and pull it back at least a foot away from the trunk of the shrub.
  • If at all possible, reposition sprinkler heads in nearby lawns so that they do not spray the leaves of the shrub.

Conclusion

Roses, though they flourish in many other settings, don’t perform very well in the shade beneath a tree. When you have a rose in this situation, your options include pruning back the tree to allow in more light, treating the rose with a 3-in-1 fertilizer-pesticide-fungicide, or removing the rose and replacing it with a shade-loving flowering shrub. 

It can be hard to give up on a rose, but sometimes it’s the best thing to do!

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