Best Trees for Shade

Best Trees for Shade

Choosing one or more new trees for your yard can be a daunting task. There are many things to take into consideration. Trust me, I get it. Here’s a Tree Planting Checklist for you.

In case you’re unfamiliar with our story…

A few years ago, my husband and I, along with our 4 young children, bought an “adventure” of a property. We went from living on just under an acre, to now owning just over 20! Over these first 2 years we have encountered my projects for both the house (a renovated 1920’s home) and the yard, with one of the most significant being the yard.

Like many properties in our area, we have had to remove many (dozens) ash trees that have died due to the ash borer beetle, as well as huge areas of invasive buckthorn (What is Buckthorn and Why Should I Get Rid of It). Now, we are in about phase 3 or so of trying to replant the property. Sounds easy, right? Well, easier said than done!

We’ve planted approximately 40-50 trees so far, but today we are going to focus on our favorite shade trees.


Redbud leaves in summer


Redbud in spring

10. Redbud Tree

Redbud Packer Tree

Not a traditional shade tree, per se, due to it’s size (max height and width are about 30-35ft), it is referred to more commonly as an ornamental tree. When this beauty really spreads it branches and puts out those big, beautiful heart-shaped leaves though, the filtered shade is glorious! If you have a smaller yard, even a partially shaded area (redbuds do well in full sun to part shade), this may be the perfect tree for you.

Wisconsin bonus: every fall the redbud by our front door looks like a Packer Tree with it’s leaves slowly turning from green to yellow!



Ginkgo Tree in fall
Ginkgo leaves and berries


9. Ginkgo Tree

The gingko is widely known as one of the most distinctly beautiful deciduous trees around. With it’s beautiful green fan-like leaves which turn a stunning shade of gold in the fall, it is both showy and a living fossil (dates back 270 million years). It is also incredible hardy! The average predicted lifespan of a typical urban tree is approx 10 years (according to the U.S. Forest Service), while the gingko in an urban setting can live hundreds of years, growing over 100ft tall. In 19th century London, the coal pollution in the air was so thick, causing many respiratory illnesses with so much smog, that almost no tree survived long. The gingko, however, thrived and became very well known in industrial Europe.

So what’s the downside you ask??  In the fall, when the female ginkgo trees shed their leaves and berries, the berries rot and emit a stench often likened to dirty gym socks or rotten eggs. Sooooooo, if you can get past that, plant a Gingko!!!


Kentucky Coffee Tree
Kentucky Coffee Tree pods

8. Kentucky Coffee Tree

I’m sorry, did you say coffee tree?!? Yes ma’am! But it’s not exactly what you’re thinking. Apparently early settlers used to grind the beans from the large seed pods as a coffee substitute, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

If you happen to come across some of these trees at your local nursery, they may look a bit odd at first (especially in the winter/spring when they don’t have leaves yet- they look very twisty and kind of spooky, haha). But don’t let that deter you. Hardy from zones 3-8, the Kentucky coffee tree grows to a height of 60–75′ and a spread of 40–50′ at maturity. It is a hardy shade tree that is insect and disease-resistant. It has pyramidal greenish-white flowers in late spring and large green pods that turn a brown coffee color in the fall. My kids love “collecting” these when they drop over the winter (and even into spring).



Our Largest (and oldest) Hawthorn
Smaller Hawthorn Tree

7. Hawthorn

The Hawthorne tree is a beautiful native tree here in Wisconsin. You may spot their beautiful clusters of white blooms in late spring throughout the landscape. Be aware that there are both thorn (long scary thorns!) and thornless varieties. The hawthorn grows approx 25-30ft high and 20-35ft wide in zones 3-7. Although a bit slow-growing, when mature, these are some of my favorite trees. We have a large old one in our backyard and it reminds me of a smaller version of a living oak tree. It’s the type of tree I’d hang a chandelier from and host a dinner party under. 🙂

So if you can be patient, you’ll be rewarded with white flowers in spring, shade, fall color and winter berries for the birds!



Tulip Tree in fall
Tulip Tree flowers


6. Tulip Tree aka “Tulip Poplar”

Between the “tulip flowers” it produces and the cup-shaped leaves, along with a beautiful golden color in the fall, this is one showy tree. Given it’s name by early settlers, the tulip tree is actually the state tree of Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee. It is the tallest of the eastern hardwoods—and a rapid grower when conditions are right.

If you’re looking for a stunning tree that grows quickly and doesn’t suffer from many pest problems, your search is over. In zones 4-9 in full sun, this tree can reach heights of 70-90ft, with a spread of about 40ft. Bonus- hummingbirds love the nectar of the tulip flowers. The only downside I can find is that it can take up to 15yrs for the trees to actually produce their beautiful tulip flowers, so if you are buying one, try to chose a larger (older) one.



Hackberry Tree


5. Hackberry

This is our “jack of all trades” tree. Meaning that is the descendant of many different types of trees, so it can survive in all sorts of climates. This tree is considered both a shade tree and an ornamental tree. It features a beautiful, rounded, spreading canopy (reminds me of a rounded maple) capable of blocking sunlight and adds visual interest and beauty to landscaping. In zones 3-9 it can be expected to grow 40-60ft high and wide. 

Hackberry trees produce small purplish berries that have a sweet skin and a tiny hard “nut” on the inside. They are edible but I prefer to leave them for the birds to enjoy. Bonus- this tree has been known to attract butterflies- how cool!



Beech Tree
European Beech
American Beech


4. Beech, American or European

The Beech tree is an iconic specimen of a tree. It’s large rounded crown and large sturdy branches provide excellent shade and just scream “climb me!” In zones 4-9, this tree can be expected to grow to 50-70ft high and about 40ft wide. It has interesting silvery bark and even offers beautiful fall color. The downside to this iconic tree? It takes FOREVER to grow! If you already have a large beech in your yard- you are lucky. If you’re just planting one now, it should be large enough for your kids and grandkids to enjoy (which is why it is sometimes called a legacy tree). Don’t let that deter you though. Honestly, even the smaller beeches are beautiful.



Chestnut Tree
Small Chestnut Tree With Pink Flowers

3. Chestnut

If you’re looking for a shade tree that also flowers in the spring, this might be a good choice for you. Chestnut trees are typically either white flowering or pink flowering. We are actually planting about 5 pink flowering chestnuts this year. The Chestnut tree is a large deciduous tree in the Beech family of trees (but grow faster than beech trees). In zones 4-9, they can be expected to grow up to about 50-75ft high, although it can reach heights of 100ft tall. Each fall the large chestnuts fall from the tree and can be eaten (think chestnuts roasting on a open fire…)

*Note- chestnut trees need to cross pollinate, so you should plant 2 within about 50ft of each other if you want them to produce nuts. Also, remember that they drop large nuts (sometimes still in their spikey shells), so keep that in mind when planting near a driveway/walkway.


Oak Tree
Living Oak Tree
Old Burr Oak Tree
Northern Red Oak in Fall


2. Oak

There are so many great reason to have a big old sturdy oak tree in your yard. FIrst of all, Congress declared the oak America’s national tree in 2004, so, hello? Do you even need more reasons?! Just kidding.

Anyway, with more than 60 species native to the United States, there is an oak to suit any region of the country you live in. Here are some of the most popular:

  • Bur oak– Size: 70-80 feet tall, 80 feet wide Zones: 3-8 Why grow it: Bur oak is long-lived and thrives even in very cold climates.
  • Live oak–  Size: 40-80 feet tall, 80 feet wide Zones: 7-10 Why grow it: Southern icons, these shade trees grow quickly when young. Spanish moss accumulates on their massive branches.
  • Northern red oak–  Size: 60-75 feet tall and wide Zones: 3-8 Why grow it: Northern red oak makes a good street tree. This Midwest native tolerates pollution and compacted soil, and displays gorgeous red fall color.
  • Pin oak– Size: 60-70 feet tall, 25-45 feet wide Zones: 4-8 Why grow it: Pin oak grows fast while keeping a pyramidal shape.
  • Sawtooth oak–  Size: 40-60 feet tall and wide Zones: 5-9 Why grow it: One of the fastest-growing shade trees, sawtooth oak’s fall color is clear yellow to golden brown.
  • Scarlet oak–  Size: 60-80 feet tall, 40-50 feet wide Zones: 4-9 Why grow it: Tolerates many soil types, and as its name suggests, displays dark red fall color.
  • Swamp white oak–  Size: 50-60 feet tall and wide Zones: 4-8 Why grow it: Swamp white oak tolerates both drought and wet conditions and displays orange-gold to yellow fall color.
  • White oak–  Size: 50-80 feet tall and wide Zones: 3-9 Why grow it: White oak’s beautiful rounded form turns to a red fall color. This versatile shade tree works well for cold or warm climates.


Sugar Maple
Autumn Blaze Maple
Bloodgood Japanese Maple
Crimson King Maple


1. Maple

Why did these beat out the mighty oak for 1st place? Because you absolutely cannot beat the maple’s fall colors! There are many many varieties, but here are some of my favorites:

  • Sugar maple-  Wisconsin’s State Tree is absolutely spectacular in the fall when its leaves turn to shades of red, orange, and yellow. It makes an excellent shade trees for large backyards, while preferring full-sun exposure. It grows from 50–75 feet tall, and 30–45 feet wide in zones 4–8. Green Mountain is one of the most popular of the Sugar Maples due to its drought resistance.
  • Autumn Blaze- The Autumn Blaze Maple is a cross between the Silver Maple and Red Maple, therefore their best qualities are combined to create a tough, fast growing maple that’s full of benefits. They grow 40-50ft high and 30-40ft wide in zones 3-8, and they can tolerate both dry and wet soils. Not only is is insect and disease resistant, but it grows approx 3-5 ft per year, which it makes it the fastest growing maple! We have these planted along both sides of our driveway and they are gorgeous!
  • Red Maple- An American native, the red maple has an oval crown of bright green leaves that turn fiery red in autumn. Growing at a moderate rate, these varieties of maple trees are a sturdy and reliable shade tree. Plant red maple in full sun or partial shade. They grow 40-60ft high and 30-40ft wide in zones 3-9. Look for top varieties such as ‘Red Sunset,’ ‘October Glory,’ ‘Red Supersonic,’ ‘Ruby Frost,’ and ‘Columnar.’ Wrap the bark of newly-planted red maples in the winter to prevent sunscald.
  • Crimson King Maple- a form of Norway maple that has big beautiful purple leaves. In fall, the foliage of ‘Crimson King’ maple turns a deep maroon. This variety makes a beautiful shade tree, while preferring full-sun exposure. It will grow 35-45 ft high and 25-30ft wide in zones 3-7. When mature, ‘Crimson King’ maple trees form a spectacular mountain of dark foliage. We have a huge one in our backyard and it is not only gorgeous, but a nice contrast in color to summer’s mostly green landscape.
  • Japanese Maple– (small tree) the maples have been treasured for centuries. They typically remain pretty compact at about 10-15ft high and wide in zones 5-8. They should be planted in full sun to part shade. With hundreds of varieties to chose from, ranging in colors from lime green to deep burgundy and purple, these can really be a beautiful addition to your yard.
  • Korean Maple- (small tree) another of the smaller maples, these rugged trees can tolerate colder temperatures. They have small purple flowers in the spring and dark green leaves in summer that turn crimson in the fall. This type of maple tree loves full sun and partial shade and will grow 15-25ft tall and 15ft wide in zones 4-8. Since they like a bit of shade, they may be a good tree to plant as a partial “understory” tree to add some variety to your landscape.
  • Morton Miyabe Maple– this award-winning Morton miyabe maple has proved itself as a durable, easy-care maple tree with amazing fall color. This type of maple tree’s dense branches make it a terrific shade tree, but it prefers to grow in full sun. It will grow 40-50ft high and 30-35ft wide in zones 4-6. It is adaptable and hardy and is tolerant to heat, cold, soil type, and urban pollution. It is not invasive and would be a good substitute for ash trees where ash borer problems exist. Two excellent selections are ‘State Street’ and ‘Rugged Ridge’ varieties.


Woohoo! Well that wraps up my top 10 list of shade trees. There are many wonderful trees out there that I have not mentioned, so check with your local nurseries also, but I think you’d be happy with any one of these. Enjoy your tree planting!