11 Best Plants To Plant Under Your Maple Tree

Japanese maple tree with red leafs close-up, focus on left red leafs

Planting anything under a maple tree can present unique challenges. Many people who have tried their hand at landscaping under the thick, dry, dark canopy of big maple trees have only thrown their hands up in resignation. Maple trees have expansive roots that greedily seek any moisture and nutrients in the soil, leaving you wondering what you can under them.

You need smaller plants with shallow roots, are drought tolerant, and love shade when planting under maple trees. The best companion plants to pair with maple trees include hellebore, vinca minor, sedum, ferns, daffodils, lilly of the valley, daylilies, tulips, crocus, and Canadian wild ginger.

The list is relatively small when it comes to plants that can survive underneath a maple tree because of their roots and the thick canopy that keeps the ground shaded. Some plants can thrive under a maple tree and below are 11 of the best plants you can plant under your maple trees – let’s get to it!

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Why Most Plants Fail Under Maple Trees

Grass is difficult to grow underneath maple trees because of the dry, shady conditions. Most turf grass requires plenty of sunlight and moisture, but under the canopy of maple trees, these commodities are rare.

Some grasses can grow in shade, but then you could end up with a lawn that’s not uniform in color and texture. Not to mention the difficulty in mowing around the exposed roots of maple trees because they are so shallow and often stick up above the ground.

The maple trees themselves need quite a bit of sun to thrive, which is why shade-tolerant plants are important for the ground cover below them.

Maple Tree Roots Steal Most Of The Nutrients

There are a lot of plants, shrubs, and flowers that grow quite well in shady conditions, the problems come when you disturb a maple tree’s roots or you start to water the plants. The roots of maple trees are greedy feeders that can choke out other plants when they are introduced into the area.

When you plant something, you have to dig a hole, of course. However, when you plant under a maple tree, no matter how careful you are, you will end up cutting through some roots. The next step is to water and possibly fertilize the new plant. That’s when the maple tree sends its roots out to collect all the water and nutrients.

When maple tree roots are disturbed or cut, they will regrow feeder roots. These can grow fast and thick, and they often will become so thick they choke out the roots of any other plants to absorb as much water as possible.

One way that can circumvent this problem is to lay a few inches of soil over the shallow maple roots, but there are risks associated with this too. If you drop too much soil over the roots, the tree could decline, or you’ll shorten its lifespan.

Too Many Plants And Soil Can Cut Off Tree Root Circulation

Tree roots need some air circulation, that’s why they pop up at the surface. When the soil is too compact, or they are covered in a thick layer of mulch or soil, then the roots can suffocate. You may not notice it at first, but this will eventually reduce the years left on the tree and weaken it.

When covering tree roots with soil or mulch, the fresh nutrients will cause the maple to send roots into this area to feed. This behavior can lead to the new plants getting choked out.

Maple varieties like the fast-growing silver maple and the invasive Norway maple species are the most difficult maples to grow anything under. Many owners report any plants positioned under these species end up being taken over in a year or two because of the aggressive root system.

Look For Native Plants To Thrive Under Maples

Native plants in your area are more able to withstand the summers and winters and will need less care than hybrids and species from other climates.

According to BoulderColorado.gov, native plants have evolved to grow well in their local environment. They can easily bounce back from early frost, drought, and spring snow and, once established, need very little care.

What’s A Maple Tree Owner To Do?

Colorful autumn maple tree

While it may seem like there’s nothing to do but just accept that the area underneath a maple tree is going to look sparse and dry, there are things that can make this area look better.

Search For Plants In Containers No Bigger Than A Gallon

The larger the container, the larger the hole that needs to be dug, and the more roots you’ll end up disturbing.

So, just stick to smaller containers and you’ll be much better off. If you have a proper garden cover, it’ll help cover the holes.

Water The Entire Area Around Your Plants

When watering your new plants, if you only water the plants, this will invite more maple roots to move in and start crowding out the new plant.

To avoid this problem, you’ll have to water the entire area around the tree. When the whole tree gets watered, it will be happy and it won’t need to invade the wet “pockets.”

The same goes for fertilizer. Just adding fertilizer to your landscaped plants will tell the maple tree to send out feeders to snatch up the new nutrients. Either use a broadcast spreader to fertilize a larger area, or forego the supplement altogether.

There are certain fertilizers maple trees enjoy most, especially those high in nitrogen. You can learn more about that in our full list of the best maple tree fertilizers.

Be Careful Around The Maple Tree’s Roots

While it’s inevitable that you will end up cutting through some maple tree roots when you’re planting under it, be careful around the woody roots. These are the thicker roots that have a bark-like coating around them.

When these are damaged, the tree can suffer because they store additional sugars and nutrients for the tree.

When you come across these roots while digging, cover the hole back up and move a few inches over. The softer, feeder roots won’t damage the tree as much when they are cut or broken.

Of course, you could always cut down your maple tree if you want your plants to take priority, but that’s a whole other study.

Best Plants For Underneath Your Maple Tree

Now that we have those caveats covered, here are the 11 best plants you can plant under maple trees. Get your glasses on, it’s a doozy!

Columbine Performs Well Under Maple Trees

USDA Hardiness Zone3 – 9
Flowering SeasonMid-spring to summer
Additional InfoProlific re-seeders

Columbines have distinctive five-petaled flowers that have points, or spurs, behind them. They also have pleasing foliage, and attract all matter of nectar feeders. They do well in shady areas and will look good for most of the growing season.

Columbines prefer moist, but not soggy soil. Though they are perennials, columbines are short-lived flowers that only live for about three to four years max before they stop coming back.

The good news is they reseed themselves easily, so once you get a few in your garden, you shouldn’t have to purchase them over and over.

With the easy reseeding habit, even if maple tree roots crowd out the columbines, they will continue to come back as long as you don’t have a thick bed of mulch to prevent the seeds from taking.

These flowers come in many shapes and colors, so you can have a garden area under your maple tree that has a variety of shapes and colors with these flowers alone.

Find a variety of columbine bulbs here—5 Sweet Caroline Columbine Perennial Flower Bulb Collection.

Hellebore Will Grow Under Your Maple Tree

USDA Hardiness Zone3 – 9
Flowering SeasonLate fall to early spring depending on the variety
Additional InfoEvergreen, winter flowers

One of the few plants that flower in late fall and into the winter, hellebores offer sprigs of bright color when most other plants are laying dormant, waiting for spring. Hellebores are also evergreen, so you will have color all year long.

They often look weak and spindly during hot summer days. Once the temperatures break and the season cools, hellebores come to life.

Since they like shade in the summer and plenty of sunlight in the winter, these flowers are perfect for areas under big maple trees.

Some varieties of these flowers bloom in November and stop in mid-winter around December and January, while others, like the Lenten Rose, bloom later in the season and last until spring when other flowers shine.

Once established, hellebores are not thirsty plants and can usually survive normal rains. Though in times of drought, they will require some supplemental watering. To keep them flowering, you’ll need to cut out any dead foliage and add a light layer of compost every other year.

You can propagate them by splitting them when they get crowded. They can reseed themselves, but they grow slowly, and may not flower for a year or two when they grow from seeds.

Here are a few live hellebore plants if these flowers have caught your interest—Lenten Rose Live Plants, 3 Hellebore Plants in 2 Inch Pots.

Vinca Minor Thrives Under Maple Trees

Vinca minor lesser periwinkle ornamental flowers in bloom, common periwinkle flowering plant, creeping ground flowers
USDA Hardiness Zone4 – 9
Flowering SeasonSpring to summer
Additional InfoEvergreen groundcover

This is a low-growing groundcover that has small, shallow roots that can withstand the delicate but aggressive maple roots. Vinca, also called periwinkle, sprouts small flowers either blue, purple, or white in the spring and keeps deep green evergreen foliage.

They spread by sending out thin vines that root when they touch the ground. Sometimes they will try to grow up the trees, but I have yet to see vinca that grows more than about a foot tall.

Periwinkle works great with bulbs such as daffodils, crocus, and tulips. These bulbs will poke through the vinca vines, bloom, and then recede while the vinca continues to spread out. This way you have a flourish of spring color when the flowers bloom, and a green carpet the rest of the year.

Once established, vinca minor needs very little care, it’s drought tolerant, does well without fertilizer, and will stay within a border with regular trimming. You can add a light layer of compost occasionally to keep it green and strong if the soil is lacking, otherwise, just let some of the maple leaves decompose to add nutrients to the soil.

Here are enough periwinkle plants to cover a large area—Greenwood Nursery / Live Ground Cover Plants – Vinca Minor.

Sedum Is Great Ground Cover For Under Maples

USDA Hardiness Zone4 – 9
Flowering SeasonSummer into fall
Additional InfoOver 400 different varieties

If you’re looking for a plant that virtually thrives on neglect, then creeping sedum, or stonecrop, is the “crop” for you. These plants seem to grow where all other plants fear to tread. They can grow in dry soil, between cracks in stones, and in soil that seems devoid of nutrition.

The only places some variety of sedum can’t thrive are wet, soggy lands. Sedum can take a drought like no one’s business, but too much water will have them vanishing like a magician’s assistant.

Creeping sedum is a ground cover that can coexist with even the most aggressive of maple tree roots. It will spread quickly, covering the ground with a succulent carpet of beauty that changes color in the fall.

While some varieties will shrivel up and come back next year, there are also evergreen varieties. In fact, there are over 400 varieties of sedum for you to choose from. Some grow tall and produce clusters of flowers, while others remain a colorful blanket of ground cover.

When looking for sedum, strike up a conversation with your local nursery expert to find out the best kind that will work for you and in your area. You might be able to plant several varieties in the same area for some striking visual impact.

If creeping sedum is your thing and you want to get started now, find them here—Sedum spurium Dragon’s Blood, Ground Cover.

Ferns Happily Grow Under Maple Trees

USDA Hardiness Zone3 – 10
Flowering SeasonFoliage plant
Additional InfoReproduce via spores instead of flowers

Ferns have been around since before dinosaurs and are still thriving today. Most ferns live in tropical areas, but there are still plenty of varieties that survive in North America. Ferns typically like shady, moist soil, so if you plant these under your maple trees, you’ll have to water the area regularly.

Two species of ferns that have found happiness growing underneath maple trees are the maidenhair fern, and Japanese painted fern. The maidenhair fern looks slightly different from typical ferns such as the Boston fern. It has small, fan-shaped leaflets that grow off the thin stems.

They are considered slow-growing ferns, taking up to three years to reach maturity. When fully grown, they reach about one to two feet tall and wide. These will need more water than most plants, so if you don’t want to water them constantly, you will do better getting something a little less thirsty.

Japanese painted ferns are visually stunning plants. They have bluish-silver fronds, with darker ribs for contrast and grow about 18 inches tall and wide.

These ferns naturalize relatively easily because they can spread through rhizomes. They also love the shade, as the strong, southern sun will scorch the delicate leaves. They are more tolerant of the dryer, poorer soil than maidenhair ferns, but they still need moist soil to keep them happy.

The gorgeous color of these ferns might make up for their tendency to be picky.

Daffodils Can Live Under Maple Trees

USDA Hardiness Zone3 – 9
Flowering SeasonSpring
Additional InfoMake great cut flowers

These bulbs are great for naturalizing and often seem to spring up in yards across America as if my magic. They are hardy bulbs that come up in early spring, produce a flourish of yellow, orange, or white flowers, then recede into the ground when it’s time to mow.

They are easy to grow under maple trees because they have a mounding, clumping habit, and will shrivel back when the tree’s canopy reaches full bloom. Since daffodils clump together and the bulbs propagate easily, you’ll have to separate clumps occasionally to keep them healthy.

Bulbs are great options to plant around maple trees because all you have to do is dig a small circular hole in the ground, drop the bulb in and cover it. When planting daffodils, put them in the ground in the fall, and they will flower in the spring. Use this Edward Tools Bulb Planter to make planting bulbs easy.

You can find plenty of daffodil bulbs here—Yellow Daffodils 25 Healthy Heirloom Bulbs.

Lily Of The Valley Flourishes Under Maple Trees

Blooming lilies of the valley in sunny pine forest
USDA Hardiness Zone3 – 8
Flowering SeasonSpring
Additional InfoConsidered invasive in some areas

These little plants with their bell-shaped delicate flowers and thick, rich, green foliage are next to the dictionary under “set it and forget it.” They grow well in shady areas, like under trees where most other plants dare to grow.

Lily of the valley spread through rhizomes that can be separated and replanted when they get too crowded. They will quickly spread out and cover an area where adequate shade protects them from too much sun. 

There aren’t many pests that will damage your lily of the valley plants. Occasionally aphids or spider mites can become a nuisance, but ladybugs will often keep them in check. When these lilies go dormant, the pests have no choice but to move on.

These little beauties with their fragrant flowers grow so well in some areas they are considered invasive species, so check your local nursery experts to find out if certain plants are invasive.

You can get a start on lily of the valley here—White Lily of the Valley 10 Pips.

Daylilies Prosper Under Maple Trees

USDA Hardiness Zone4 – 9
Flowering SeasonSpring to fall
Additional InfoEvery part is edible

Daylilies are prolific and all-purpose flowers that are used in landscapes all over. They grow in full sun to partial shade, can tolerate droughts, and attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

These plants spread through tubers and seeds and are easily separated and propagated. The flowers come in many colors, as well as styles. You can have double daylilies, ruffled edges, small flowers, or some nearly as large as dinner plates.

Their leaves show in early spring, then they put out thin, round stems where the flowers grow and last sometimes until the fall, but the mounding foliage sticks around until fall. All you have to do is cut them back when they are dried out and they will come back bigger and lusher.

For planting daylilies under maple trees, plant them closer to the outer edge as they need some sun to produce more flowers. A nice contrast would be to plant some ground cover plants in the inner area of the tree and use daylilies as a border at the outer edge.

When the daylilies are cut back, you still have some cover, and when everything is growing you have a nice, contained area of green under the tree.

There are many colors and varieties of daylilies. These are quite natural looking for areas under maple trees and are quite inexpensive—50 WILD DAY LILY BULBS.

Tulips Will Bloom Year After Year Under Maples

USDA Hardiness Zone3 – 8
Flowering SeasonEarly spring
Additional InfoPerennials, but some have annual habits

Tulips share a lot of similarities with daffodils. They are both harbingers of spring, but tulips can poke through the ground when there’s still a threat of snow and freezes. This is okay because they are cold tolerant plants.

Tulips are essentially perennial bulbs, but after centuries of hybridizing, some of these bulbs have lost their ability to return year after year. Unfortunately, some tulip bulbs may only come up one time, but you get to change them out and alter the colors every year.

If you want your tulips to come back every year, search out words like naturalizing, perennial, and certain species of tulips when you’re looking to purchase. Smaller tulips like dwarf varieties are also recurring bulbs that will come back each year.

The smaller versions rarely make great cut flowers because they are usually too small to put in vases, but they will make a return instead of being a once-and-done flower.

These tulips are perennials, so you won’t have to replant every year—Perennial Tulip Bulbs.

Crocus Spreads Under Maple Trees

USDA Hardiness Zone3 – 8
Flowering SeasonEarly spring
Additional InfoCrocus means cheerful

When it seems the groundhog was right and winter is sticking around longer than it needs to, the crocuses will poke through the ground to offer the dreary landscape some much-needed color. These little flowers can be naturalized for some early, sometimes needed brightness.

These dainty flowers grow from corms. In the late days of winter, you might see the thin leaves poking through the barren landscape, and soon the little colorful flowers will show you that spring is coming.

Most crocuses are quite small, but the Dutch giant varieties grow up to four inches tall. Yeah, not very big for a giant, but they are great for early bees who need a spring snack.

Crocuses will spread like most flowers that grow from bulbs, so once they clump together, you can spread them out to have more clumps of these early spring flowers. As long as you plant them in the fall, they will flower in spring. They need a period of cold weather to make them flower.

Once you have planted them, there’s nothing much you need to do to keep them healthy. As long as the dormant corms get a dose of water between dry spells, they will be fine. Just add them to the landscape with some later blooming flowers or ground covers for visual interest throughout most of the year.

Get an early start on spring with these—Perennial Crocus Bulbs.

Canadian Wild Ginger Sprouts Under Maple Trees

USDA Hardiness Zone3 – 7
Flowering SeasonSpring to summer
Additional InfoCan attract the endangered Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly

Canadian wild ginger is a low-growing ground cover that has spade, or heart-shaped leaves that grow about six inches tall. Their flowers are often found underneath the foliage and are mostly hidden, but they can attract the pipevine swallowtail butterfly. This butterfly is considered endangered in Maine.

Wild ginger can propagate from seeds or by splitting the rhizomes. Propagation by seeds is often difficult, so it’s easier to split groups of wild ginger through the rhizomes.

It’s a shade-loving ground cover that tolerates dry conditions. It may need some supplemental composting if the soil is lacking in nutrients.

Wild ginger is also evergreen, so if you plant this around your maple trees, it will keep a pleasing color all year long.  

Use Container Plants Under Your Maple If All Else Fails

Now you have several options for planting under your maple trees, but if none of these work, or they just aren’t what you’re looking for, you can always use containers. Adding a light layer of mulch—two to three inches max—and various containers can offer an acceptable alternative.

When it comes to container gardening you also don’t have to weed, till, or rake these plants. Much easier!

This way you can plant nearly an endless option of plants, shrubs, and flowers under your maple tree. As long as they are shade plants that do well in containers, plant away. Using varying types of containers in both height and width will lead to a more appealing contrast.

To keep from compacting the soil too much, use lighter containers and ones that aren’t too deep. Compacted soil can damage tree roots, so we try not to pack it down too much.

You can also fill the bottoms of containers with lightweight materials like used water bottles to keep them from getting too heavy.

Let’s Conclude This Session

While it can certainly be difficult to find plants that will tolerate the hungry, thirsty, and downright pushy maple roots, you now know you have a few options.

Whether you go with spring bulbs for a pop of early color, ground cover, or a mixture, you don’t have to suffer with a brown “dirt scape” under your maples.

It may be a bit of extra work in the beginning, but most of the plants in this article will grow with minimal care once they are established. Soon you will have a vibrant, lush landscape where once nothing would take.

If you’re interested in planting a new maple tree, take a look at our top picks for the best maple trees to plant here!

References:

Pregitzer, Kurt S., et al. “Variation in sugar maple root respiration with root diameter and soil depth.” Tree physiology 18.10 (1998): 665-670.

Xia, Mengxue, Alan F. Talhelm, and Kurt S. Pregitzer. “Fine roots are the dominant source of recalcitrant plant litter in sugar maple‐dominated northern hardwood forests.” New Phytologist 208.3 (2015): 715-726.

Martin, Patrick H. “Norway maple (Acer platanoides) invasion of a natural forest stand: understory consequence and regeneration pattern.” Biological invasions 1.2 (1999): 215-222.

Pegram, Kimberly V., et al. “Warning color changes in response to food deprivation in the pipevine swallowtail butterfly, Battus philenor.” Journal of Insect Science 13.1 (2013). https://academic.oup.com/jinsectscience/article/13/1/110/1751849  

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