Best conifers for shade

Nothing gives a landscape a sense of character quite like conifers. They provide a background for colorful spring- and summer-flowering plants. In winter, evergreen varieties provide much-needed structure when most everything else in the garden is dormant and bare.

If you have a sunny landscape, you’ll find no shortage of suitable conifers. But for a shady garden? That’s a greater challenge. It can also be difficult to find medium-sized conifers that will fit into the average suburban lot. Many conifers grow to be very large trees. But because they also (generally speaking) grow slowly, they can be enjoyed in the landscape for years before they outgrow their space. Alternatively, gentle pruning can keep plants in bounds.

Shade gardeners might begin their plant search with the plum yews (Cephalotaxus sp.) Looking like long-needled versions of their botanical cousins the common yews (Taxus sp.), plum yews are reliable performers and are distasteful to deer.

Paul Jones, curator of the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham, recommends gardeners avoid named cultivars of plum yews and stick to the straight species: C. harringtonia, C. sinensis, and C. fortunei. The species grows slowly from 5 to 15-feet tall and wide, and tolerates drought once established. If you want a low-grower, Jason Holmes, curator of the Doris Duke Gardens at Sarah P. Duke Gardens, recommends gardeners seek out cultivars ‘Fritz Huber’ and ‘Prostrata’.

If you have space, Jones notes that Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) is beautiful in light shade. It grows slowly to 25 to 30-feet tall and half as wide. It has no serious pest or disease problems. Its common name comes from the long, elegant needles, which are arranged in a whorled pattern at the ends of branches and resemble the spokes of an umbrella. It prefers slightly moist soil, so water diligently as it becomes established, mulch with 2 to 3-inches of bark or compost, and tend it in dry periods once established.

Another conifer that prefers a slightly moist soil, the Hinoki falsecypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) species and cultivars “can be among the best for shade if one takes the time to establish them well,” says Jones. He recommends cultivars ‘Gracilis’, ‘Gracilis Nana’, and ‘Graciosa’, or “whichever cultivar in the size you want that’s available.” Establish it carefully with regular water and a healthy mulch.

Mark Weathington, director of the JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University in Raleigh, heartily endorses Podocarpus macrophyllus. “My favorite is one called ‘Akame’ which is a Japanese term for the “red-eye” effect you get in photographs,” he says. “The new growth emerges dark red before turning the deep green typical of the species. It is a beautiful plant.”

Podocarpus macrophyllus can ultimately grow 20 to 40-feet tall and half as wide, but it is easy to manage through pruning. Weathington notes that with ‘Akame’, most of the show is with the new growth, so pruning or hedging the plant will only increase the showy display. It’s also much more tolerant of dry soils than some other conifers. “My love affair with this species really started during the 2007 drought when the podocarps sailed through without any damage,” says Weathington.

Amy Hill is a Durham County Master Gardener and blogs about gardening at


Recently at a holiday party a friend commented to me that one doesn’t hear much about evergreen gardens. I have thought about this and wondered why when there are so many great plants that offer evergreen foliage year around including varieties for sun and shade. Garden designer David McMullin put it well when he said that December is the time when conifers “emerge out of the dead brown stuff.” Yet, they are not usually the first choice for gardeners when it comes to selecting evergreens that appreciate shade. By integrating some of these conifers into your landscape and combining them with broad leaf evergreens as well as deciduous trees, shrubs and perennials you can create a landscape that offers beauty and interest throughout the year.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden boasts a good variety of conifers for both sun and shade . Jamie Blackburn, a curator of horticulture at the garden, shared some of his thoughts about conifers that are well suited for the shade. One that may be familiar to some is Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata,’ the prostrate Japanese plum yew, an effective groundcover. (It is also reported to be deer resistant but experience tells us that results may vary depending on how hungry the deer are.) If you want a more upright plum yew, like a Christmas tree, look for seedlings that have a central leader, as these are more likely to form a pyramidal shape as they mature. The upright fastigiate cultivar of this species is typically much more narrow than it is tall.

Some shade tolerant conifers on display at ABG, although not widely available, are worth seeking out. These include Torreya grandis, Taxus chinensis, Chinese yew, and Tsuga chinensis, Chinese hemlock, which is resistant to the wooly adelgid, a devastating insect that attacks our eastern native hemlock Tsuga canadensis. There are cultivars of Tsuga canadensis that appear resistant to the adelgid like ‘Gentsch White,’ a rounded compact plant whose branches have silvery tips; it grows 4’ tall and wide, perfect for smaller shade gardens or containers.

Below is a list of additional conifers that tolerate shade.

Podocarpus lawrencii- Mountian plum pine as it has been called grows only 12 to 18 inches tall.

Thuja koriensis ‘Glauca Prostrata’- Korean arborvitae is low growing with silvery blue foliage.

Thujopsis dolobrata ‘Nana’- Hiba dwarf arborvitae has a shrubby rounded habit and shiny foliage. It grows 3 to 4’ tall and wide.

Torreya nucifera- Japanese Torreya grows 20 to 30’ tall and 8 to 12’ wide.

Tsuga yunnanensis-Yunnan hemlock grows 30 to 40’ tall and 18 to 25’wide, forming a graceful pyramidal shape.



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Erica Glasener is a horticulturist and host of “A Gardener’s Diary” which is currently on hiatus. Fridays on HGTV. For questions, visit .

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Shade Loving Conifers – Selecting Conifers For Shade Gardens

If you want a year-round ornamental tree in a shady corner of your garden, a conifer could be your answer. You’ll find more than a few shade loving conifers, and even more shade tolerant conifers to select between. Before you plant conifers in the shade, you’ll want to get a short list of trees that might work. Read on for a description of a few you should consider.

Conifers in the Shade

Conifers are evergreen trees that have needle-like leaves and bear seeds in cones. Like other types of trees, conifers don’t all have the same cultural requirements. Some grow best if planted in sun, but you can also find conifers for shade.

Conifers have a reputation of requiring a sunny location to thrive. This may stem from a few, prominent sun-loving members of the conifer family like pine trees. But if you look around a little, you’ll find confers for shade.

Dense Shade Loving Conifers

Shade comes in many different intensities, from filtered sun to full shade sites. For dense shade areas, you’ll definitely want to consider yews (Taxus spp.) as shade loving conifers. You can find lots of variety in yew heights and growth habits, but most have very dark green needles. Female yews grow red, fleshy aril fruits. Select a species that fits your needs, from groundcover to full-size tree. Be sure you provide excellent drainage and protect yews from deer.

The second tree on our list of shade loving conifers is called plum yew (Cephalotaxus spp.), and despite its common name, it’s a completely different plant. Plum yew’s foliage is rougher and coarser, and a softer green than the yew. These conifers for shade are not as picky about soil as the yew.

Light Shade Tolerant Conifers

Not every type of shade tolerant conifers can thrive in full shade. Here are some options for shade tolerant conifers that can grow in light shade or filtered sun.

Canada hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) words as a conifer for shade as long as the shade is fairly light. You can find weeping varieties or opt for the graceful pyramid shaped trees.

American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and western red cedar (Thuja plicata) are both Native American trees that can thrive in sun or in high shade.

If you want conifers for shade with mounded shapes and a loose growth habit, consider variegated elkhorn cedar (Thujopsis dolabrata ‘Nana Variegata’). It grows slightly taller than an average gardener and offers cheerful green and white foliage. This conifer also needs good drainage and deer protection.

Yew hedges (Taxus x cuspidata ‘Hicksii’) create an intimate corner in this semi-shady garden. Source:

Gardeners often wrongly believe that conifers are for sunny spots only and won’t grow in the shade, but in fact there are some species that are perfectly at ease in part to even full shade. Here are some examples:

Taxus cuspidata ‘Emerald Spreader’. Source:

Yews (Taxus spp.) are probably the conifers best suited to shade. There is a wide range of cultivars, large or small, with upright, spreading or creeping habits. Some are even variegated! Also, yews are one of the rare conifers that can be pruned harshly, yet regenerate completely, making them invaluable for hedging.

However, winter hardiness of many yews makes them a marginal choice in very cold regions. Cold climate gardeners could try the Canada yew (Taxus canadensis, zone 2), a creeping variety, or the Japanese yew (T. cuspidata, zone 4), which comes in all shapes and sizes. The anglojap yew (Taxus x media), which also comes in a wide range of forms, is almost as hardy: zone 5. In cold climates, plant even hardy yews in a spot protected from the wind.

Yews are slow-growing in any climate: you may want to buy a larger plant for faster results.

Cephalotaxus harringtonia. Source: Fernando Lopez Anido, Wikipedia Commons

In more temperate regions (zones 7 to 9), plum yews (Cephalotaxus spp.) can replace yews. They look much like yews, but are faster growing.

Tsuga canadensis ‘Bennett’, a popular dwarf variety of eastern hemlock. Source:

Hemlocks (Tsuga spp.) grow naturally in deep forests and tolerate partial shade and shade particularly well. The species most commonly offered is the eastern hemlock (T. canadensis, zone 4). It comes in a wide range of forms (upright, creeping, weeping, etc.) and sizes (from miniature to tree-size) and some varieties are variegated (green with white stem tips). Like yews, though, hemlocks like protection from drying winter winds, so place them with care.

Microbiota decussata makes a great groundcover. Source:

The Russian Cypress (Microbiota decussata, zone 3), with its distinctly creeping habit, looks a lot like the popular but sun-loving creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis and its cultivars) and can easily replace it in shade to partial shade.

In Partial Shade

Your choice of conifers improves significantly in partial shade and you can dare to try spruces (Picea spp.), false cypresses (Chamaecyparis spp.), arborvitaes (Thuja spp.) and firs (Abies spp.), among others. Be forewarned, though, their growth in partial shade is often less dense than it would have been in full sun.

The winter effect of conifers is magical. Source:

Use these conifers in shady spots where you want greenery 12 months a year, as the great advantage of conifers is, of course, that they look beautiful in all seasons.

I just returned from another great “Addicted Confer Syndrome” conference. In reality, ACS stands for the American Conifer Society. The meeting I attended was the Central Region chapter of the ACS held in Green Bay, Wisconsin. You might be thinking that only white spruce and tamarack are the only conifers that can be grown this far north, but you would be wrong. There are many outstanding conifers that can grow up here and throughout the U.S. Not all conifers are evergreen as there are deciduous conifers, like larch and baldcypress, but most dwarf conifers are evergreen.

Dwarf conifer garden near Green Bay, WI

According to the American Conifer Society (, dwarf conifers are those that grow between 1-6” per year with an approximate size after 10 years between 1-6’. In contrast, large evergreens grow over a foot a year and are 15’ tall or more after 10 years. Size can vary due to climatic, environmental and cultural conditions. These smaller than usual evergreens are a fraction of the size of their species and fit nicely into the landscape often requiring very little pruning or shaping. Dwarf conifers can provide food and shelter for birds and other small mammals as well as year round interest due to their bright colors and interesting form and texture. An otherwise bleak, winter landscape can be accented with dwarf conifers that come in a variety of colors besides green such as blue, blue-green, silvery-blue, yellow, and purplish.

Below are a few of my favorite dwarf conifers that are available at many garden centers and nurseries.

‘Silberlocke’ Korean firFoliage of ‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir

‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir (Abies koreana ‘Silberlocke’, a.k.a. ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’) is a unique dwarf conifer that looks spectacular all year round. The soft needles are different than most conifers as they curve upwards, revealing the bright, silvery-white, frosty undersides. The silvery-gray twigs also add to the plant’s interest. ‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir grows slowly up to 5-7’ in height with a 4-5’ spread eventually growing into a small, compact, conical tree. Firs, in general, require a sandy-loam, moist, well-drained soil and are intolerant to heavy, poorly-drained, clay soils. This cultivar prefers morning sun, but some afternoon shade. ‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir is hardy to zone 4b.

‘Blue Shag’ white pine

‘Blue Shag’ eastern white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Blue Shag’) is a dwarf conifer shrub with a compact, rounded form that reaches 3-6’ tall with a 6’ spread. The bluish-green, finely textured needles are very soft and pliable. ‘Blue Shag’ has a slow growth rate and a dense, mounded form making it a great choice for use as a foundation plant instead of the all-too-common yews (Taxus spp.). Like all cultivars of eastern white pine, it grows best in a sandy-loam, slightly acidic to neutral soil. It is sensitive to drought, heavy-clay, poorly drained soil, and road salt. ‘Blue Shag’ eastern white pine is hardy to zone 3a.

‘Bergman’ Japanese white pineFoliage of ‘Bergman’ Japanese white pine

‘Bergman’ Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora ‘Bergman’) is an outstanding, dwarf conifer that forms a dense, compact, wide, rounded to upright shrub. ‘Bergman’ Japanese white pine is a slow grower eventually forming a 4-6’ tall with a 6’+ spread shrub. The blue-green needles are soft, long and twisted. In spring, the immature cones are bright carmine-red contrasting dramatically with the blue-green needles. It is hardy to zone 5a and is adaptable to most, well-drained soils and pH. Unlike many other five-needled pines, Japanese white pine is road salt tolerant.

‘Gold Drop’ arborvitae

‘Gold Drop’ eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Gold Drop’) adds bright color to the landscape. This dwarf conifer shrub grows 4-5’ tall and 3-4’ wide and is shaped like a teardrop; narrow at the top, wider at the base. The soft, aromatic foliage is bright golden yellow when grown in full sun turning a deeper yellow during winter. ‘Gold Drop’ arborvitae is hardy to zone 3b and is adaptable to most soils and pH, but grows best in moist, well-drained, loamy soil. If grown in shade, the golden colored foliage will turn green.

Even though dwarf conifers are often more expensive than other deciduous shrubs, they are well worth it. They have a slow growth rate, require little maintenance and provide year-round color and texture in the landscape.

Laura Jull

Japanese Yew

Most conifers are not shade tolerant, but yews are a major exception. Their dark green needles add a bit of color to the otherwise barren shade garden from fall through early spring.

Description of Japanese yew: In its original form, the Japanese yew is a single-trunked tree reaching 50 feet in height. The species is rarely grown in cultivation, having been replaced by the numerous dense, slow-growing varieties that may be globular, vase-shaped, pyramidal, or spreading, depending on the selection. Although they are labeled dwarf plants, most eventually become quite high: 20 feet or more. The dark green needles have rounded tips and are not “scratchy” like most other conifers. Female plants bear bright red berries. Ease of care of Japanese Yew: Easy.


Growing Japanese yew: Yews are perfectly tolerant of moderate shade, and even deep shade, as long as they get some spring sunlight. In dense shade, the shrubs need harsher pruning to help fill in the gaps formed by a more open growth pattern. Yews need fertile soil and ample moisture. They will not tolerate root competition from shallow-rooted trees. Protect them from strong, drying winds.

Propagating Japanese yew: By cuttings, usually carried out by professionals, or seed.

Uses of Japanese yew: The Japanese yew is widely used as a foundation plant, especially on the north or east sides of the home. It makes an excellent formal or natural hedge, and dwarf varieties — of which there are many in different sizes, shapes, and colors — are popularly used in rock gardens.

Related species of Japanese Yew: English yew (Taxus baccata) and the hybrid yew (T. x media) are similar to the Japanese yew, although the English yew is less hardy (USDA zone 6).

Scientific name of Japanese yew: Taxus cuspidata

If you love the Japanese yew’s berries but don’t have an outdoor garden, consider growing it as a house plant. We’ll show you how in the next section.

Want more information on gardening and great plants you can grow? Try:

  • Shade Gardens: You don’t need loads of direct sunlight to create a lush retreat in your yard, garden, or patio space. Learn how to plant a vital shade garden.
  • Shade Garden Plants: Find out about stunning options for planting that will make your shade garden unique and lovely.
  • Garden Types: There are many ways to cultivate a lush oasis around your home. Read about all the different types of gardens you can create.
  • Gardening: Get great tips on how to keep your garden healthy and thriving.

Gardening FAQ

For full shade, yews and plum-yews (Cephalotaxus harringtonia) and hemlock are best, although hemlocks should generally be avoided as they are susceptible to the woolly adelgid pest. Nevertheless, the NYBG’s Benenson Ornamental Conifer Collection (BOC) has a nice specimen of Tsuga canadensis ”Jervis’ which is growing well. Also, a variety called ‘Gentsch White” is relatively resistant to the insect. If you decide to plant a hemlock, talk to the nursery you buy your specimen from about ways to protect it from the woolly adelgid in your area.

For partial shade, the BOC has an American arborvitae with blue foliage (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Split Rock’), a bright gold arborvitae (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Tsatsumi Gold’), a dwarf Serbian spruce (Picea omorika ‘Nana’) and a spreading Greek fir (Abies cephalonica ‘Meyer’s Dwarf’).

Also, the following website has a nice list of conifers suitable for growing in the shade, and it lists the final height of the trees, which is useful:

You have a little time to Google images of all these trees and make your choice, as most conifers should be planted in the late winter or early spring.

Hope this helps.

Shade-Tolerant Vs. Shade-Intolerant Conifer Trees

Jupiterimages/ Images

Conifers, also known as evergreens, keep most or all of their foliage through the cold winter months. Called conifers because they produce cone-shaped seed pods, conifers can be categorized as narrow-leafed, broad-leafed or deciduous based on type of foliage. Most evergreen trees prefer full to partial sun, but some tolerate shady conditions.

Shade-Intolerant Conifers

Full-sun conditions means at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day. Though many conifers prefer full sun, a few absolutely cannot tolerate shade. These include pitch (Pinus rigida), red (Pinus resinosa) and Scots (Pinus sylvestris) pines; many cedars, including Atlantic white (Chamaecyparis thyoides), deodar (Cedrus deodora), Eastern red (Juniperus virginiana) and Japanese (Cryptomeria japonica); and other conifers including Black Hills spruce (Picea glauca), Colorado spruce (Picea pungens), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), laurel oak (Quercus hemisphaerica), live oak (Quercus virginiana), loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), Norway spruce (Picea abies), Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), Serbian spruce (Picea omorika) and white fir (Abies concolor).

Light-Shade-Tolerant Conifers

Many conifers thrive in light shade, or 4 to 6 hours of sunlight per day. These include American arborvitae (Thujus occidentalis), Carolina cherrylaurel (Prunus caroliniana), giant arborvitae (Thuja plicata), loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), Norway spruce (Picea abies), Prince of Wales juniper (Juniperus horizontalis Prince of Wales), wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), white pine (Pinus strobus) and Winton Carpet juniper (Juniperus horizontalis Winton Carpet).

Partial-Shade-Tolerant Conifers

Partial-shade locations receive 2 to 4 hours of sun per day. Conifers suitable for partial-shade conditions include balsam fir (Abies balsamea), Pfitzer juniper (Juniper chinensis Pfitzeriana), Savin juniper (Juniperus sabina), Sargent juniper (Juniperus chinensis Sargentii) and Swiss mountain pine (Pinus mugo).

Shade-Tolerant Conifers

Shade locations are those that receive less than 2 hours of sun per day. Shade-tolerant evergreens include Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana), Eastern hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis), Emerald arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis Smaragd), Globe arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis Globosa), Japanese dwarf yew (Taxus cuspidata Nana), Japanese spreading yew (Taxus cuspidate), Taunton spreading yew (Taxus x media Tauntoni) and Techny arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis Techny).

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