Depending on who you ask, willow trees can be polarizing; while some gardeners love them, others curse these trees for being difficult to keep alive, water-seeking plants of misery. Whether you love willows or you hate them, one thing is certain: it’s difficult to grow plants under their canopy. You can do it though if you use these best plants to put under your willow tree.
Shallow-rooted, vigorous-growing native plants do well under willow trees. Shade-tolerant plants also thrive in these conditions. The best plants for under your willow tree are vinca minor, hostas, lily of the valley, jack in the pulpit, Solomon’s seal, carpet bugle, daffodils, and white trillium.
Don’t despair if the area under your willow tree looks like it needs something to make it look more interesting. We have plenty of ideas to turn that drab area into an eye-catching excitement that compliments the splendor of your willow tree. Let’s dive right in!
What Are Willow Trees?
There are over 400 varieties of willow trees, from small shrubs to giants towering nearly 100 feet into the air. One thing they all have in common is their love of water and moist soil. They are often seen along banks of ponds or streams where their roots help to hold the soil together.
Willows and weeping willows are very similar, but also have distinct qualities. Like how every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square. You can read about their differences here!
There’s something majestic about a weeping willow that has long, vine-like branches trailing down to the water’s edge. That must be one reason so many people love these popular trees.
These sweeping canopies make it difficult to grow most plants below them. While this article focuses on what you can plant, there are some you want to stay away from. Learn more in our full list of plants not to grow under your willow tree!
Popular Species Of Willow Tree
Some of the most popular willow trees include the iconic weeping willow, Salix caprea, and corkscrew willow. Weeping willows are large trees that have thin branches that cascade down to look like a tree in mourning.
The Salix caprea produces fuzzy catkins in early spring. These branches are often dried and used in home decor. A bunch of these branches set in a decorative vase can liven up a normally boring corner.
Catkins are petalless flowers that can look like fuzzy spikes or miniature bottle brushes that grow from trees like willows, oaks, aspens, and birches. Weeping willow catkins can attract honeybees, butterflies, and other pollinators because they produce small amounts of nectar.
Corkscrew willows have an all-year-long visual appeal because of the curving habits of the branches. The twisting branches look more frizzy than Ms. Frizzle’s hair on a hot, humid southern day. The good thing about the corkscrew willow is they don’t have to worry about bedhead. Their frizzy, curled branches are what makes them look so amazing.
What To Watch Out For With Willow Trees
Homeowners have to be careful planting willow trees as they are fast-growing trees that can break easily in bad weather. Their roots can also be incredibly invasive if they find a source of water. They can infiltrate pipes, or dig into underground pools if there is only a tiny crack where they can cause quite a bit of damage.
These issues and more may lead you to cut down your willow tree, but that decision is usually a last resort!
Best Plants To Grow Under Willow Trees
When searching for plants that can handle the stressful environment under willow trees, there are a few things to search for. You need to find plants that can tolerate or grow well in shady areas.
The canopy of willow trees, especially weeping willows, can keep most sunlight at bay nearly all day long. Look for plants that do well in partial to full shade unless you plan on placing these plants along the outer edges of the trees where they are likely to get more sunlight.
Look for plants that like moist soil because a dry willow won’t last very long. While some hybrids take better to dry dirt, the vast majority of willow trees need a lot of water to stay alive. So you don’t want to find shade-loving plants that grow best during dry periods.
Shallow-rooted plants are something else to look for. Willow tree roots can create dense pockets of thirsty roots that are very competitive when it comes to nutrients and water.
Planting something with deep, heavy roots under a willow tree will probably end up getting choked out by the willow roots.
While you can certainly find more plants that can coexist with your willow tree by following the above recommendations, here are nine plants you can plant under your willow tree.
Vinca Minor Will Thrive Under Willow Trees
|Hardiness Zone||4 – 9|
|Bloom Time||Spring to summer|
|Average Size||6” tall. Ground cover|
|Water Needs||Drought tolerant|
This hardy ground cover is also known as periwinkle or creeping myrtle. It is a shallow-rooted, evergreen, vine-like creeper that can grow well in different soil conditions. This vine produces dainty five-petaled flowers in mid-spring and sometimes again in the fall.
The flowers can be purple (periwinkle), blue, or white, and they often attract small butterflies. The leaves are oblong, glossy, and deep green, but they also come in variegated versions with an outside border of white or cream coloring. For an easy way to liven up the area under your willow tree, vinca can do the trick.
Even though it’s a vine, you don’t have to worry about it crawling up and choking out your trees like other species like English ivy, or wisteria. Vinca minor likes to stay close to the ground and make a carpet of green leaves.
Periwinkle is easy to propagate as well as it will spread well on its own, or you can take cuttings and start them in water. As the plant sends out runners, wherever the thin branches touch the ground, they will shoot out small roots.
You can also cut small sections from the vines, remove the bottom half of the leaves, and put the bare area in a small container of water. In a few weeks, roots will sprout, then you can take them and put them in the ground. That’s it, you have a new vinca plant.
Find 50 vinca minor roots right here: Greenwood Nursery / Live Ground Cover Plants – Vinca Minor!
Hostas Grow Beautifully Below Willow Trees
|Hardiness Zones||3 – 9|
|Average Size||12” tall and wide, up to 4’ tall and wide|
|Water Needs||Minimal once established|
These vigorous foliage plants with attractive mounding habits are great for planting further away from the trunk of willow trees. When planted too close to the willow’s trunk, the roots can choke hostas out, so plant these closer to the drip line of the tree.
Hostas come in an array of colors and sizes so you could plant an entire ring of these perennial plants around your willow trees and not have two of the same. They do better with shady or early morning sunlight and like to have moist soil, so they will coexist well with willow trees.
Hostas can be separated after a few years of growth because they send out runners which sprout new mounds. They can also spread by seed, so even if willow roots choke them out, they typically keep growing new plants.
Depending on the variety, hostas can flower in spring or into late summer. The plant sends out a handful of spikes where small, drooping flowers will appear and bloom for a few weeks before fading away. The foliage grows in early spring and continues to grow until a hard frost shrivels them.
When they die back, cut out the brown foliage and flower spikes to keep infections away, and they will come back next season bigger and fuller.
Colossal varieties of hostas might appeal to you because you won’t have to plant too many of them, but with their bigger, deeper roots, they may struggle against a willow tree. Stick to normal-sized hostas which grow about a foot to three feet wide and about a foot tall.
With their spreading habits, you’ll have plenty of hostas growing under your willow trees in no time.
You can get a variety of six hosta roots here: Mixed Hosta Perennials (6 Pack of Bare Roots).
Lily Of The Valley Grows Great Under Willow Trees
|Hardiness Zones||3 – 8|
|Average Size||12” by 12”|
Another plant that will help to cover the area under your willow trees is the fast-growing lily of the valley. These flowers grow wide, oblong, green leaves and sprout little, bell-shaped flower stalks in the spring. Lily of the valley are fast-growing shade-loving plants that like moist soil.
In the hottest areas, these plants might wither away in the heat of the summer, but they usually come back every spring. In cooler climates, they will stick around until a hard frost when they go dormant for the winter and return later.
They spread through rhizomes and when they get crowded together can easily be split apart and transplanted. Once you plant these flowers though, they can quickly spread out on their own. Especially if they get enough water and stay out of the southern sun.
You don’t have to worry about deer or rabbits eating your lily of the valley if you have these foragers in your area. Lily of the valley doesn’t contend with many pests aside from aphids and occasionally mites, but these pests rarely do enough damage to the plants to harm them.
Lily of the valley flowers are such vigorous growing plants they are considered invasive in some areas. Check with your local nursery expert to find out if these flowers are acceptable in your area.
If lily of the valley sounds like the plant for your willow, check out this White Lily of the Valley!
Jack-In-The-Pulpit Makes Great Ground Cover
|Hardiness Zones||4 – 9|
|Bloom Time||Spring to summer|
|Average Size||12” to 24” tall|
These plants resemble the carnivorous pitcher plant, but they don’t have that habit. They prefer to get their nutrients from rich, moist, sometimes swampy soil. Because they like their soil to be “juicy” and full of nutrients, much like willow trees, these flowers can do well around willows.
Jack-in-the-pulpit are flowers that love shade and are often found underneath trees in their native areas. According to the U.S. Forest Service, jack in the pulpits are also called Indian turnips and are found in deciduous forests and floodplains. They can live for over 25 years and will spread out over time.
Jack-in-the-pulpits are exotic-looking plants with three sectioned leaves and odd flower shapes. They are cylindrical and long, with a type of hood that hangs over the open end of the flower, and they grow as tall as the leaves. The flowers are typically green with maroon stripes.
Once the flowers have been pollinated, they create clusters of seeds on a single spike. These berries ripen to a bright red and are a food source for some birds.
These plants can make a showy, exotic addition to any garden. Combined with a dense ground cover, your willow tree could be the envy of the neighborhood.
For exotic looking jack-in-the-pulpit bulbs, take a look at these 10 Jack-in-The-Pulpit Bulbs.
Solomon’s Seal Will Grow Under Willow Trees
|Hardiness Zones||3 – 9|
|Average Size||Some varieties can grow to 7 feet tall. 12” to 4’ wide.|
Solomon’s seal is another slow-growing perennial that can live for decades. They spread so slowly that many owners of this flower simply let them grow as they please. Most varieties don’t get large, only growing a foot or two tall.
These plants are virtually maintenance-free. The only thing you need to do for Solomon’s seals to keep them healthy is to water them regularly and protect them from the sun. They prefer soft, humid soil and only dappled sunlight, too much sun will scorch the leaves.
You won’t even have to deadhead the flowers or cut back the growth when they go dormant for the cold season. The vegetation separates itself from the rhizomes on its own so you don’t have to cut the dried growth for plant health.
Solomon’s seal blooms in the spring. They send out small, white, bell-shaped flowers that run along a single stem. After the flowers drop, berries grow that some bird species will consume.
With a thick bed of mulch and a couple of handfuls of Solomon’s seal, you can make the area under your willow tree beautiful and natural looking.
You can find bare roots of Solomon’s seal here: Solomon’s Seal Plạnts Perennial Bare Root Stock.
Carpet Bugle Will Cover Under Your Willow Tree
|Hardiness Zones||3 – 10|
|Average Size||8” tall. Ground cover|
Also known as ajuga, or bugleweed (uh oh, when “weed” is in the name, that can’t be good), carpet bugle will cover a barren area rather quickly. Carpet bugle is an evergreen ground cover that can grow almost anywhere, that includes under willow trees.
This thick ground covering can choke out weeds, control erosion, and fill in spots other plants can’t seem to manage. It keeps its visual appeal all year long and blooms with blue, purple, or white flowers from May through June.
So… the bugleweed can become a nuisance because it’s a member of the mint family. If you have any experience with mint, you’re probably experiencing a bout of PTSD right now.
Don’t worry, because carpet bugle isn’t as bad as mint, you won’t have to burn your entire yard to get rid of it.
While this plant will grow well underneath the canopy of willow trees and the shade they provide when it hits full sun, the fast-spreading habit slows down, so it’s easier to control. Also, bugleweed sends out visible runners, instead of popping out from thin air like mint does.
When you take the runners and reposition them, they will continue to grow in that direction, so you have control there.
You can also contain carpet bugle by installing edging around it. Unlike most other mint family plants, this flower usually respects boundaries, instead of acting like an invasive neighbor that shows up at the wrong time, every time.
Deadheading them before they shower the ground with seeds is another way to keep the carpet bugle from disrespecting boundaries. They can still spread out, but this way they slow it down.
While you can cover a large area with a few plants, when they start to clump together in tight clusters, you’ll have to separate them to keep them healthy and reduce infections.
Though this plant requires a bit more work than others on the list, they are one of the strongest contenders that can keep up with willow roots, and they look good all year long.
Daffodils Spring Up Under Willow Trees
|Hardiness Zones||4 – 8|
|Average Size||6” to 12” by 6” to 30”|
|Water Needs||Drought tolerant|
These spring-blooming bulbs are a great addition for naturalization and a pop of early spring color. Daffodils or jonquils, as they are sometimes called, are easy to care for. All you need to do is plant them in the fall for spring flowers and let them go.
They will begin to sprout when the winter days start to let up, then they produce yellow, orange, or sometimes white flowers that hang around for a little while before they shrivel up.
The foliage will stick around for a month or two after the flowers are gone, so you will have some color under your willow tree until summer.
Add these bulbs to a ground cover like vinca and you’ll have year-round color in the once barren area under your willow. All you have to do with daffodils is to cut away the brown, dried foliage, and separate them when they get crowded.
You can get wild, brilliant yellow daffodils right here—Wild Daffodil (Bulbs).
White Trillium Flourishes Under Willow Trees
|Hardiness Zones||4 – 8|
|Bloom Time||Mid spring to summer|
|Average Size||1’ by 2’|
|Water Needs||Humid soil|
Found in abundance in the wilds of the Appalachian mountains, white trilliums thrive underneath the thick canopies of trees and forests. They do better with rich, moist, loamy soil, which is where you’ll find most willow trees.
According to the U.S. Forestry Service, trilliums can be found as far north as Canada and Maine, as far west as Minnesota, and all over the Appalachian mountains, down into Georgia. In the Blue Ridge Mountains along Virginia, you can find a vast expanse of trilliums that are estimated to carry 10 million plants.
These beautiful perennial plants can be propagated by separating their rhizomes, but it’s a slow process. It can take a few years before new plants bloom while growing trilliums from seed can take even longer. Sometimes these plants won’t bloom from seeds for up to seven years.
You won’t have to worry about these slow growers taking over anytime soon, but they are a long-lived flower. White trilliums can grow back year after year for up to 25 years.
White trilliums produce emerald-colored leaves and a single three-petaled white flower per plant that bloom from late April until June. Though they are named white trilliums, occasionally you can find a pink flower amongst the sea of white and bright green.
Trilliums are endangered in the wild, so if you see them on a hike through the forest, it’s best to let them be and find them in your local nursery. They make brilliant companions with jack in the pulpits and hostas.
Watering Around Your Willow
When you plant flowers, ground cover, or shrubs under your willow trees, it might seem like second nature to water the new arrival. This needs to be done to keep them healthy and welcome them to their new home, but neglecting the willow tree could cause early problems.
The roots will sense this alternative source of water and send out little feeder roots.
These new roots could quickly drown out or choke the new arrivals. Not a great way to start a cohesive living arrangement. To avoid this, you need to water the ground all around your willow tree so that it doesn’t create these invasive feeder roots.
Set Your New Plants Up For Success
Whenever you water these new plants, don’t forget to hit the ground all around the willow. To limit the need to water all the time, add a layer of mulch around the willow tree.
Just keep the mulch about two to three inches away from the trunk so it doesn’t cause problems on the trunk.
The mulch not only serves to make the area look better and more professional, but it helps to keep moisture in the ground (you don’t have to water as much). The mulch also adds organic material to the ground as it breaks down.
Also, be careful when watering your willow trees. Snakes love to take shelter under these huge trees! You can learn more about how to keep snakes away from your willow trees here!
Place Plants In Containers As An Alternative
If all these plants seem like too much trouble, or they just don’t work, you can always make the area interesting by adding a variety of container plants
There are many benefits to doing containers underneath trees. They can be moved, you can plant almost anything in the containers—as long as it’s big enough for the plant in question—and you don’t have to worry about the tree competing for water and nutrients.
The problems with containers are they can become exceptionally heavy, and you’ll have to water them much more often because the soil will dry out faster.
With all the shapes, sizes, and materials containers are now made from, you have endless options if this is the route you decide. You can also put plants in the ground and compliment them with a few containers if you wish.
Wrapping Things Up!
Now you have endless options for ideas to spruce up the barren area under your willow trees, so go out there and get planting.
Plant some bulbs, or a few taller plants for color and contrast, then add some ground cover to fill in between these spaces.
Willow trees can be difficult roommates because of their greedy, invasive roots, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a pleasant garden underneath that thick, swaying canopy.
Jensen, Julie K., et al. “The potential of willow for remediation of heavy metal polluted calcareous urban soils.” Environmental pollution 157.3 (2009): 931-937.
Wilkinson, A. G. “Poplars and willows for soil erosion control in New Zealand.” Biomass and Bioenergy 16.4 (1999): 263-274.
Phillips, Chris J., Michael Marden, and Lambie M. Suzanne. “Observations of root growth of young poplar and willow planting types.” New Zealand Journal of Forestry Science 44.1 (2014): 1-12.
Mickovski, Slobodan B., et al. “The effect of willow roots on the shear strength of soil.” The soils of tomorrow: soils changing in a changing world (2008): 247-262.