Growers with shady yards often struggle to find plants that will thrive in their landscapes. It can be especially difficult to find shade-tolerant trees, but the good news is that it is not impossible!
The two pine tree species that grow well in shade are Easter White Pine and Mugo Pine. Many others can be acclimated to a partial shade environment. There are also several other evergreen trees outside of the pine family that grows well in shade, too.
Pine Trees That Tolerate Shade
As a general rule, pine trees prefer full sun. They will almost always grow more vigorously when they have access to direct sunlight.
However, many species of pine trees can acclimate to partial shade and grow quite well. Trees often struggle when they are forced to acclimate too quickly, so patience is key.
For example, a tree purchased from a sunny nursery should not be immediately planted in a shady corner of the yard. Instead, you should gradually reduce the tree’s access to sunlight to prevent shock. Once it has acclimated, the tree should grow fairly well, even if it is not naturally shade-tolerant.
That said, the following pine species have some natural tolerance of shade:
- Eastern white pine
- Mugo pine
Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)
Eastern white pines are one of the most popular pine tree species in home landscapes. It is considered to be one of the most attractive ornamental pines because of its long needles which create a soft, graceful impression.
The needles of the eastern white pine are about four inches long and blue-green. Even though it is an evergreen, the needles of the eastern white pine turn yellowish in the fall.
The growth habit of the eastern white pine is pyramidal, which means the branches are longest near the ground and shortest at the top. A standard-sized eastern white pine can be huge–50 to 80 feet tall and 20 to 40 feet wide (source).
Care and Maintenance
Although eastern white pines will tolerate shade, they tolerate very little else. They cannot thrive in soils that are alkaline, clayey, compacted, dry, heavy, infertile, or soggy. Instead, their soil should be slightly acidic, fertile, and well-drained.
Eastern white pines can also be damaged from wind, heavy snow, and ice, so choose a planting location away from cars or structures that could be at risk from breaking limbs. Avoid planting too close to the street, as well. Salt applied to the roads in winter can damage eastern white pines when it’s flung up off the road.
Eastern white pines are winter hardy up to zone 3.
There are at least 30 different eastern white pine cultivars, all of which can tolerate some shade or dappled sunlight. Notable ones include the following:
- “Fastigata,” a smaller, narrower variety that grows to approximately 25 feet high and 12 feet wide. “Fastigata” has branches that grow upward, so it maintains a more columnar shape.
- “Nana,” a dwarf cultivar that is more shrub-like than other eastern white pines. At full maturity, it will be roughly seven feet tall and ten feet wide. “Nana” has needles that vary in color from bright green to blue-green to dark green.
- “Pendula,” a semi-dwarf with weeping branches. “Pendula” must be trained to grow upright, otherwise it will become more of a mounded ground cover. Upright, it can grow up to 16 feet tall and 20 feet wide; mounding, it can reach six feet tall and ten feet wide (source).
Mugo pine (Pinus mugo)
Also known as Swiss mountain pine, mugo pine trees are a great choice for growers who do not have space for a huge tree or who would prefer a more shrub-like plant.
Mugo pines have very short needles, only about an inch or two long. Depending on the cultivar, the needles are bright green or blue-green.
Some mugo pines can be trained to grow upright, but most are rather broad and spreading. They rarely grow beyond eight feet tall, and they are often much wider than they are tall. Because of their bushy form and width, they are a great evergreen selection for small yards, borders, or landscape accents.
Furthermore, mugo pines do not grow central taproots, which makes transplanting them quite easy.
Care and Maintenance
Mugo pines thrive in moist soils that drain well. They prefer slightly acidic loam, but they can adapt to soils that are alkaline, clayey, dry, sandy, or otherwise poor. Planting sites with partial shade or full sun are best.
There is good news for urban and coastal growers, as well: mugo pines are tolerant of both urban air conditions and salt spray, which is not the case for many other pine species.
Long, hot, humid summers are one of the few things mugo pines do not tolerate. They will grow best in regions where summers are cool, but can still thrive as far south as zone 7 (source).
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Mugo pine cultivars vary in size, shape, and color. In addition to dwarf cultivars, there are also a wide variety of miniature mugo pines that grow extremely well in containers. Notable varieties include the following:
- “Compacta,” a shrub that eventually reaches a height and width of four feet. “Compacta” is a low-maintenance evergreen that adds texture and visual interest to your yard without the work that comes with caring for a full-sized tree.
- “Sunshine,” another dwarf cultivar that will grow to three feet tall and wide after about ten years. “Sunshine’s” needles are what make it unique: they are variegated, with stripes of creamy yellow highlighted by dark green mature foliage.
- Dwarf Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo var. pumilio), a very dense pine that grows low to the ground. Its growth is cushion-shaped, and its width will be almost twice its height, reaching a maximum of about five feet high and ten feet wide.
Other Shade-Tolerant Evergreens
It is easy to label every evergreen tree as a pine, so it may be disappointing to see that so few pine species have a natural tolerance of shade. However, not every evergreen tree is in the pine family. If you are willing to consider other varieties of evergreen trees, you will expand your shade-tolerant options.
Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
Also known as eastern hemlock and hemlock spruce, this tree does not merely tolerate shade, it actually thrives best in partial or deep shade.
Do not be fooled by the name–this tree is not poisonous! In fact, the needles are high in vitamin C and are sometimes used to make tea.
Canadian hemlock trees can be extremely tall, up to 80 feet high and 30 feet wide. The needles are short and the branches extend downward slightly, which gives the tree a lacy appearance overall.
Care and Maintenance
Canadian hemlocks prefer acidic, well-drained soils, although they will tolerate clay or sand.
As you might expect from a tree that prefers shade, Canadian hemlocks are not tolerant of long, hot summers or high humidity. They also do not do well with drought. They are winter-hardy from zones 3 through 7, but may not be compatible with summers throughout those regions.
If a standard-sized Canadian hemlock is too large, you may be interested in one of the following dwarf cultivars:
- “Jeddeloh,” a slow-growing shrub that will be approximately three feet tall and four feet wide at full maturity. “Jeddeloh” has bright green needles and a slight depression near its center that makes it look like a large bird’s nest. It grows best in deep shade.
- “Everitt’s Golden,” a pyramidal-shaped dwarf tree that is about four feet tall and two feet wide after ten years. Its foliage is light green that brightens to golden yellow.
- “Curly,” a very small, slow-growing dwarf that will be just over two feet tall and wide after ten years. “Curly” gets its name from its needles that curl slightly. Its size makes it a good choice for containers or other small gardens.
Norway Spruce (Picea abies)
Norway spruce trees are easily recognizable for being a species commonly grown as Christmas trees. They have a pyramidal growth habit and can grow to heights of 75 feet and widths of 30 feet.
Norway spruces have dense, glossy green needles and branches that angle slightly upward.
Care and Maintenance
Norway spruces need partial shade. In fact, they do not tolerate heat and prolonged sun exposure very well.
They also need well-drained, acidic soils. While Norway spruces are not drought-tolerant, they also don’t tolerate soggy, heavy soils (source).
There are a wide variety of Norway spruces that also tolerate or prefer shade, including the following:
- “Maxwellii,” a blue-green Norway spruce that needs much less space. “Maxwellii” reaches heights of about four feet and widths of 10 feet.
- “Nidiformis,” a slow-growing dwarf that is also known as Birdsnest Spruce. Like the “Jeddeloh” Canadian hemlock, “Nidiformis” is shaped roughly like a bird’s nest and will be only two feet tall and four feet wide after ten years.
- “Pumila,” an irregular-shaped shrub approximately four feet high and five feet wide at full maturity. “Pumila” is known for its attractive, bright-green, soft foliage.
See our list of 19 Shade-Tolerant or Shade-Loving Evergreens for more great options!
While there are very few pine trees that are shade-tolerant by nature, it is possible for many pine species to become acclimated to shade. Furthermore, if white pines or mugo pines are not a good fit for you, there are other shade-tolerant evergreens like Canadian hemlocks and Norway spruces that may work quite well in your landscape.