Understory trees zone 5


Understory Planting Tips: Information On Using Understory Plants In The Garden

You create a woodland garden by planting layers of vegetation, in the same way it grows in the wild. Trees are the tallest specimens. Underneath grows the understory level of smaller trees and shrubs. The ground level is the place for herbaceous perennials or annuals. You probably already have a few tall trees in your backyard that form the skeleton of the shade garden. Read on for understory planting tips.

Using Understory Plants

The trees in your backyard create the framework for understory planting. Tips about which understory trees and shrubs to use will depend on the size of the large trees already in your yard and the density of their canopies. You must choose types of understory plants that can grow in the amount of light allowed in by the canopy of taller trees.

Inspect your backyard to determine how much light will be available for understory trees and shrubs when all the trees presently growing there mature fully. Pockets of light may allow for planting of a few understory specimens that can’t grow in shade. Consider thinning out some younger trees to create more light.

Types of Understory Plants

What is an understory plant? Quite simply, it is a shrub or tree that is small enough and sufficiently shade tolerant to thrive under the canopies of other, taller trees. The types of understory plants that will work in your woodland garden depend on the sun that reaches the floor.

If your taller trees allow ample sunlight to reach the ground, as is generally the case with oak, your understory plants can be varied and lush. You might try smaller trees like black cherry or trembling aspen. Alternatively, opt for shrubs like American hazelnut, potentilla for its yellow flowers, or mountain laurel that grow in sun or light shade.

Understory trees and shrubs will be more limited if the tall trees already in the garden offer deep shade, like most maple trees. Use types of understory plants that grow in low light. These include small trees like basswood, yellow birch and Kentucky coffee tree.

You might also try using shrubbier understory plants that tolerate shade. Flowering dogwood, serviceberry, viburnum and hydrangea can all grow in full shade. Azaleas and rhododendrons are good choices too.

Native plants for Michigan landscapes: Part 2 – Shrubs

This is Part 2 in a two-part series on Native Trees and Shrubs for the Michigan Landscape. Read Part 1 – Trees.

Planting native trees and shrubs in home landscapes is rapidly increasing in popularity. Native plants can be easily incorporated into a new or existing landscape to provide natural beauty and enhanced habitat for wildlife. When properly selected and placed, native plants also benefit our environment through reduced water use and less need for pesticides and fertilizers. To top it off, native plants can result in lower, long-term maintenance costs, increased plant hardiness and less work.

Below are several native shrubs to incorporate into smaller spaces in the home landscapes. These shrubs are available through your local nurseries and garden centers or online sources, including the Michigan Native Plant Producers Association.

Large shrubs

Common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) – 15 feet. Multi-stemmed, vase-shaped large shrub that can be pruned to a small understory tree. Tolerates diverse site conditions, excluding wet sites. Bears yellow, ribbon-like flowers in late fall when no other plants are blooming. Leaves are clear lemon-yellow in fall. Best in moist, shady locations.

Common witchhazel pruned into a small tree. Photo credit: Mary A. Wilson, MSUE.

Witchhazel flowers in late October. Photo credit: Paul Wray, Bugwood.org.

Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) – 12 to 15 feet. One of several native viburnums that add landscape beauty throughout the growing season. Offers creamy-white flower clusters in May and pinkish-rose and edible black fruit in early fall. Fall color is purplish to shining red. Plants develop into a large shrub or can be trained into a small, informal tree. Best in full sun to moderate shade.

Native blackhaw viburnum provides multiple season of interest. Photo credit: Richard Webb, Bugwood.org.

Close up of blackhaw viburnum flowers. Photo credit: Mary A. Wilson, MSUE.

Medium shrubs

Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) – 6 to 8 feet. Tough, reliable shrubs with abundant white, spring flowers followed by clusters of red fruit in fall. Lustrous green foliage turning brilliant red in fall. Excellent for border or massing, creating a sea of red in fall and winter. Cultivar selections are available.

Brilliant fall color and fruit of red chokeberry. Photo credit: Mary A. Wilson, MSUE.

Michigan holly (Ilex verticillata) – 6 to 10 feet. Multi-stemmed deciduous holly with bright red persistent fruits, unless eaten by the birds. Easy to cultivate and flourishes in both wet and dry sites. Excellent for mass effect, shrub borders, water’s edge and wet soils. Both male and female plants needed for fruit display. Sun or partial shade.

Persistent red fruit of Michigan holly in November. Photo credit: Mary A. Wilson, MSUE.

Common ninebark (Physocarpos opulifolius) – 6 to 9 feet. Rugged plant that flourishes in the toughest conditions. Grows well in sun or shade and varying soil conditions. Pink-white flowers in May and June followed by rose-red fruit that are enjoyed by birds in September and October. Bark exfoliates on older stems, adding to winter interest. Several cultivars are available.

Common ninebark with abundant flowers. Photo credit: The Dow Gardens, Bugwood.org.

Arrowwood vibrunum (Viburnum dentatum) – 8 to 10 feet. Easy to grow multi-stemmed shrub with landscape interest throughout the growing season. Glossy, dark green foliage compliments creamy-white flower clusters in May and dark blue berries in September. Fall color can be an attractive yellow-red-burgundy. Grows in full sun to partial shade. Cultivars available with improved fall color, leaf color and superior fruiting characteristics.

Form and spring flowers of arrowwood viburnum. Photo credit: Mary A. Wilson, MSUE.

Dark blue fruit of arrowwood viburnum attract several bird species. Photo credit: The Dow Gardens, Bugwood.org.

Small shrubs

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) – 3 feet x 3 feet. Low-growing, spreading, durable shrub for mixed borders or foundation plantings. Bears showy, fragrant, white flowers in mid-summer when not many plants are in bloom. Grows best in sandy loams or rocky soils with good drainage. Full sun to light shade. Flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies and birds eat the seeds.

Fragrant early summer flowers of New Jersey Tea. Photo credit: Mary A. Wilson, MSUE.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) – 5 to 6 feet. Glossy foliage that emerges in shades of red and green, changing to dark green in summer and then yellow-green in autumn. Creamy-white, spherical flower clusters in mid-July attract small butterflies. Thrives in wet soil and full sun. Will not do well in dry soils. Tolerates high pH soils.

Unique summer flowers of buttonbush. Photo credit: John D. Byrde, Bugwood, org.

Bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) – 2-4 feet x 4-5 feet. Under-utilized, mound-shaped, spreading plant with excellent cold hardiness. Excellent for mass plantings and slopes. New foliage is bronze-green. Fall color is reddish-bronze. Small, yellow trumpet-shaped flowers in June and July. Does well in sandy and dry soils. Sun or partial shade. Cultivars selections available.

Bush honeysuckle in the summer garden. Photo credit: Mary A. Wilson. MSUE.

Yellow flowers of bush honeysuckle. Photo credit: Nelson Debarros, USDA.

Shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) – 3 feet. Small landscape shrub that prospers under many conditions. Leaves unfold in shades of green-gray, changing to bright or dark green in summer and yellow-brown in fall. One of the few plants that flowers all summer with bright yellow blooms, making it a good choice for foundation plantings in sunny locations. Tolerates drought and salt.

Form and summer flowers of shrubby cinquefoil. Photo credit: Richard Old, Bugwood.org.

Suggestions of several native tree species for larger areas in your landscape can be found in Part 1 of this series.

Related resources on water use or drought

  • Excess drying leads to poor mulch performance, Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension.
  • Gardening tips for wise use of your water resources, Mary Wilson, MSU Extension
  • Impacts of summer weather on landscape plants, Stephen Fouch, MSU Extension
  • Silence of the soaker hoses, Gretchen Voyle, MSU Extension
  • Tough plants for tough places: Grasses, Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension
  • Water saving perennials: Carefree and beautiful without the fuss, Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

I recently received the following question about how to choose a smaller understory tree.

I have a small backyard, and I’d like to add a two or three small deciduous trees or shrubs that will form distinct trunks…There are some good native understory trees, like redbuds, witch hazels, hornbeam, etc. These all come in standard varieties and dwarf varieties.

The redbuds, for example, have dwarf varieties like Rising Sun and Hearts of Gold, which supposedly reach a height of 10 to 12 feet. The standard variety gets at least twice that big. I’d like a plant in that spot that stays 10 feet or less…

Is it better to choose a dwarf variety or to plant the standard variety and prune it?

Great question. There can be many different goals to pruning. However for the majority of the pruning I do, one goals as I have written about before is keeping your plants smaller.

Minimize Pruning Needs

Most people do not have the time or skill required to make their tree look it’s best, especially when trying to limit it’s size. Even if you can, you might not want to have to do it.

I am all for trees that look great and stay small enough to fit their spot without a lot of pruning.

In fact in my own yard, I have resisted doing size control on my ornamental trees. I prefer to buy trees that will mature to an appropriate height for their spot. I have talked about some of my favorites in past posts, including:

  • Fox Valley River Birch which grows about 12 feet in 15 years instead of a Heritage River Birch which can get 40-70 feet tall.
  • Vanderwolf Limber Pine which grows 40-50′ tall and only 20′ wide instead of a white pine which could grow to 60-80′ tall and 40′ wide.
  • Threeflower maple and Paperbark maple, two outstanding trees which won’t get much taller than about 25 feet.

Heck, I have even written an entire post about why we should consider planting smaller shade trees for our landscapes.

Most trees Can Be Kept Much Smaller

That said, most trees can be kept quite a bit smaller than their normal height with consistent pruning. The under story trees I listed below can be kept to around two thirds of their normal height with an annual pruning regimen. I also included one shrub that can also provide some distinct trunks with pruning.

Dwarfs will do it on their own

A dwarf cultivar of these trees could meet your size requirement needs and require less (or no) pruning. If you want to find a dwarf version I would look it up in Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants* which you might be able to find at a local library. You could also just Google “dwarf” + the plants name.

How to Choose

Which to choose is probably more of a question of what you can find. Depending upon what you find, you will have one of three choices:

  1. If the dwarf version of the tree you want is available in a size large enough you would be happy with today. Buy it.
  2. If not, get a smaller sized dwarf version of the tree and curse me for suggesting you buy a dwarf because it is taking forever to grow!
  3. Buy the regular version of the plant and commit to learning how to prune it annually.

Some Good Understory Trees

Paw Paw (Asimina triloba)

  • Shade tolerance of light to full
  • Size: 15 to 20′ high and wide
  • Growth rate: Medium

I started with this tree with big tropical like leaves because if you like how it looks, it meets the needs of a small understory tree with distinct trunks. It can be difficult to transplant and should be planted as a small tree (3-6′) to have better luck with it. It is a great native tree for gold to yellow fall color.

It will be more open growing in deep shade. If you only plant one, you will not get fruit as you need two different cultivars for fruit to be produced. I have never pruned these. But their form looks fairly simple to prune back with simple heading cuts on 1st year wood.

Paw Paw tree (Asimina triloba) in early spring without leaves

American hornbeam, Ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana)

  • Shade tolerance of light to full
  • Size: 20 to 30′ tall and wide (6 – 9 meters)
  • Growth rate: Slow. Averages 8-10 feet in 10 years.

Does best in moist soils, but tolerates drier sites. Can be difficult to transplant and is best planted small. Moderately slow grower. It has a good yellow to orangish fall color. Seems to tolerate pruning fine, but does not look it’s best with heavy pruning. Light and frequent pruning is better then one heavy pruning session every few years.

Common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

  • Shade tolerance of light to full
  • Size: 20 to 25′ tall, 15 to 20 feet wide
  • Growth rate: Medium

Yellow, fragrant, strap like flowers in fall. They are often at the same time the leaves have colored yellow and are still on the tree. Does best in shade and moist soils. I personally struggle with getting these trees to look natural. They can be pruned heavy but their alternate branching with severe angles make them a challenge (at least for me!)

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

  • Shade tolerance of light to medium
  • Size: 20 to 30′ tall and 25 to 35′ wide
  • Growth rate: Medium (1 to 2′ per year)

Rosy pink purple flowers open on bare branches in early spring. Pale yellow fall color. Enjoys moist well drained soil. Does not tolerate water stress well especially drought. Can bounce back from a severe pruning and grow four feet in a year. You have to anticipate that and prune it quite a bit smaller than you want it to be the next year.

The Appalachian Red Redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Appalachian red’) has a different color flower that sets it apart. If I was buying another redbud (I have two small ones), I think I would have to get this cultivar even though it is kind of gaudy in flower.

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

  • Shade tolerance of light to medium
  • Size: 15 to 25′ tall and wide
  • Growth rate: Slow(<1′ per year) until well established, then medium (1-2′ per year)

Interesting horizontal layered branching. White flowers in late spring not as showy as flowering dogwood, but still attractive. Fruit turns from red to dark blue in late summer. Does best with cool shaded moist sites.

Light pruning is best as these trees have an architectural effect with their layered branches already. May not be the best candidate for heavy size control pruning. It is better to use light pruning to enhance the plants natural branching patterns through thinning out small branches, etc.

Serviceberry, Juneberry (A. x grandiflora)

  • Shade tolerance of light to medium
  • Size: 15 to 25′ tall, 10 to 20′ wide
  • Growth rate: Medium

White flowers appear in early spring and are followed by very tasty edible blue berries in early summer (June). You will have to beat the birds to them if you want to indulge. Does best in moist soils, but tolerates dry sites. Yellow to red fall color can be excellent.

Service berry are best kept smaller through annual less severe pruning. Try to avoid making large pruning cuts if possible on service berry as it can effect its health as well as ruin the natural aesthetics of the tree in my opinion.

Serviceberry that is 10-12′ tall and showing it’s fall colors

Highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum )

  • Shade tolerance of light to medium
  • Size: 8 to 12′ tall and wide
  • Growth rate: Medium

White clusters of flowers in spring, followed by bright red fruits in the fall that often last well into winter. Fall foliage color ranges from yellow (more in shade) to red (more in full sun). This is a shrub that can tolerate heavy pruning and develop a nice branching structure.

These are my favorite shrubs to prune, as they can be developed over a few years into a near sculptural form. That is unless it is attacked by viburnum borer and half of the plant dies. If you are near a natural area this is more likely to happen. You can control borer with insecticides.

This is one of my favorite shrubs to prune every year. This viburnum trilobum would not look this way without annual pruning.

Fast-Growing Small Shade Trees

It can be hard to find the right tree for the right place when you have a small space to work with. But that shouldn’t stop you from planting trees. There are plenty of small trees that are meant for small spaces. But before you plant, decide what purpose you want your tree to serve: are you planting for beauty? Shade? Privacy? Windbreak? Determining what you want your tree to do will help you narrow down your tree selection.

These fast-growing small shade trees and bushes are great for small spaces. Best of all, they’re nice to look at and will provide great shade.

Fruit Trees

Early Harvest Apple

Malus domestica ‘Early Harvest’

As its name suggests, this high-yielding apple tree is of the first to be ready for harvest. The golden apples are ready to be picked as early as July in some locations, with the latest harvest in September. The creamy white flesh is juicy and tart when ripe.

Zones 3-8

10-25 ft high

Red Delicious Apple

Malus domestica ‘Red Delicious’

Of the more than 2,500 different cultivated varieties of apple trees in North America today, the most famous and widely planted is the red delicious. Perhaps because of its mild, sweet flavor. Possibly because of the long storage life. Or maybe because the name is so appealing.

Legend states that the red delicious apple was named when its discoverer in Iowa sent samples to a commercial nursery in 1892. The nursery owner tasted one of the apples and exclaimed, “Delicious!”

Zones 5-8

10-25 ft high

Yellow Delicious Apple

Malus domestica ‘Yellow Delicious’

The large, golden fruit of the yellow delicious apple tree ripens late, developing a fine, sweet flavor. While they are best known as fresh eating apples, yellow delicious also work well for pies, applesauce and preserves. They also store well, keeping 3–6 months if refrigerated.

When planting these trees, be sure to include other apple varieties such as red delicious, red Jonathan or early harvest to ensure pollination.

Zones 5-8

10-25 ft high

12 Fast-Growing Shade Trees

Early Golden Apricot

Prunus armeniaca

The early golden apricot grows large, flavorful, golden fruit. Harvest time varies from early July to early August, depending on location. The fruit is great for fresh eating, baking, canning or drying. This fast-growing fruit tree is self-fertile but planting two varieties is recommended for a better crop.

Beyond bearing fruit, the tree is also considered an attractive landscape specimen, given its attractive leaves and spring bloom of pink or white flowers.

Zones 5-8

15-20 ft high

Moorpark Apricot

Prunus armeniaca

This fruit tree is known for its juicy, sweet-tasting apricots that are good for fresh eating, canning or drying. Harvest time spans from early July to early August, but the fruit does not ripen all at once. The fast-growing Moorpark apricot tree is self-fertile but planting two varieties is recommended for a better crop.

Beyond bearing fruit, the tree is also considered an attractive landscape tree, with its spring bloom of whitish-pink flowers.

Zones 4-8

15-20 ft high

Belle of Georgia Peach

Prunus persica ‘Belle of Georgia’

The Belle of Georgia peach is an old-time favorite that produces brilliant red flowers each spring and large fruit in late August. The peaches are very firm and highly flavored, with creamy white freestone flesh tinged with red. While excellent for fresh eating, the fruit is widely used for desserts and canning.

Zones 5-8

8-25 ft high

Elberta Peach

Prunus persica ‘Elberta’

The Elberta peach holds its own as one of the most popular peach trees. Notorious for its sweet, succulent fruit with the tell-tale blush covering its skin when perfectly ripe, this tree is a commercial success in markets and roadside stands across much of the United States.

It is known to thrive in at least 28 states and is favored by growers due to its vigorous growth, steady production of fruit, self-fertile nature and compact size. The Elberta peach is also available in dwarf size for urban and suburban locations.

Zones 5-9

8-25 ft high

Bartlett Pear

Pyrus communis ‘Bartlett’

Known as America’s favorite pear, the Bartlett variety actually came from Europe. It functions as the standard by which all other pears are measured and is a favorite for fresh eating, canning and preserves.

The Bartlett pear is easy to grow and will reward its owner with beautiful blossoms in the spring, large and luscious fruit in late summer and a continuous crop for as much as 100 years.

Zones 5-7

12-20 ft high

Orient Pear

Pyrus communis ‘Orient’

This hybrid European pear cultivar is known for its intense beauty and heavy annual crops. The yellow fruit has juicy, melting, creamy flesh with a mild flavor—excellent for canning, desserts, salads and fresh eating. The tree typically produces ripe fruit in mid-August or mid-September.

Zones 5-8

12-30 ft high

Which Small Trees will Work for your Yard?



Lagerstroemia indica

The crapemyrtle is often referred to as the “lilac of the South.” With its striking flowers, handsome bark and attractive foliage, this species is a favorite for landscapes. It can be grown as either a shrub or small tree and is often used in groupings, containers, hedges and screens. You can even find the common crapemyrtle used as small street trees in urban settings.

Zones 7-10

15-25 ft high

American Elder

Sambucus canadensis

This fast-growing shrub is known for its large clusters of yellowish-white, star-shaped flowers. Grown as a border, it provides an incredible summer floral display.

But its lovely flowers aren’t the American elder’s only claim to fame. The dark purple elderberries are used to make jellies, pies, juice and wine and to draw in a variety of different bird species. To ensure a good crop, plant more than one shrub.

Zones 4-9

5-12 ft high

Magnolia (Sweetbay and star)


Magnolia virginiana

While it may not produce as many blooms as other magnolias, the sweetbay magnolia should not be counted out of your landscape plans. This tree flowers late in the spring, avoiding much of the frost that can spoil a blooming tree’s beauty. It also attracts a wide variety of songbirds with its fall fruit.

This elegantly shaped flowering tree is a great choice for a specimen or patio tree.

Zones 5-9

10-20 ft high

Star Magnolia

Magnolia stellata

With showy, fragrant flowers, dark green leaves and striking gray bark, this hardy magnolia is a real standout. It thrives in nearly every location in the U.S. and works well as a single specimen or foundation planting.

The star magnolia could be the landscape solution for backyard gardeners looking to add lovely spring interest to their spaces.

Zones 4-9

15-20 ft high

Purpleleaf sand cherry

Prunus x cisterna

This is a very hardy flowering landscape specimen with reddish-purple foliage that keeps its unique color all summer. Because of this, the purpleleaf sand cherry makes an excellent contrast tree. It can be planted close to paved surfaces and near utility lines and can also be used as a deciduous hedge.

While there will never be a large cherry crop, the fruit is commonly used for making jams, jellies and pie.

Zones 3-7

7-10 ft high

Pee Gee Hydrangea

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’

This is the most common H. paniculata form. It can be grown either as a large shrub or small tree, and it is known for its large panicles of white flowers. In fact, with some good pruning, this shrub can produce flower clusters measuring up to 12-18″ in length!

Zones 3-8

10-20 ft high


Hamamelis virginiana

The native witchhazel can be grown as a large shrub or small tree and offers fantastic fall attributes. Fragrant, yellow flowers bloom from October through December. The foliage, attractive in all growing seasons, also turns yellow to yellowish-orange in fall.

This is a great specimen to plant as an understory or for a shrub border in large areas.

Zones 3-8

15-30 ft high

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *