If you’re lucky enough to have a big maple on your property, you know the joy it can bring – hearing the wind blow through the leaves, enjoying the cool shade in summer, watching the leaves turn vibrant autumn colors. Maybe you are also struggling with a bare patch beneath it where nothing seems to survive. What plants can you grow under a maple tree… and what plants aren’t even worth a try?
Maple trees have a shallow root system where plants underneath will compete for nutrients and water. Avoid planting goldenrod, aster, English ivy, oriental bittersweet, wisteria, field bindweed, bishops weed, honeysuckle, clover, and hostas directly below your maple tree.
With proper landscaping, a mature maple can be a gorgeous centerpiece to your yard. So whether you’re fixing patchy areas beneath your big trees, or whether you’re planting young maples and want to give them a good start in life, read on to learn how to keep your marvelous maples healthy and looking good!
What Are Maple Trees – And Where Do They Grow?
Maples are attractive, easy-to-grow trees found in cultivated gardens and wild forests across the Northern Hemisphere. Some have colorful leaves, others interesting bark, and a few, like the valuable sugar maple (Acer saccharum), provide sap that can be boiled down into tasty maple syrup! There’s over triple digit species of maples in the world, so there’s plenty of trees to go around.
According to Oregon State University, thirteen species of maple tree are native to North America.
In the West, expect to see bigleaf (A. macrophyllum) and vine maple (A. circinatum). Midwestern forests are home to the boxelder (A. negundo), which has the largest range of any North American maple. The red maple (A. rubrum) dominates the East, although the fast-growing silver maple (A. saccharinum) is nearly as common.
In yards and urban areas, you are more likely to encounter one of the many varieties of Japanese maple (A. palmatum), a smaller species that can sometimes be no larger than a shrub, or the Norway maple (A. platanoides), a non-native that spreads so aggressively it has been classified as an invasive species by the USDA.
Learning about the growth stages and patterns of your maple tree is important as well. For more information, check out our full timeline of maple tree growth!
The Challenge To Growing Plants Under Maple Trees
The needs of maple trees vary widely between seasons – however, all seasons typically lead to something not allowing plants to grow well under your maple tree.
Maple Leaves Can Block Sunlight To Plants
In the summer, their dense foliage creates a wall of leaves that completely blocks the sunlight from any plants directly beneath them.
When their lower branches no longer get sunlight, either from their own shade or from a neighboring plant, they will shed those branches and redirect energy into overtopping the surrounding plants. (You can read more about the reasons trees lose their branches here.)
In the fall, the blanket of leaves dropped by maples can smother anything growing beneath them, creating an environment that invites fungus, slugs, and other pests if left to rot in place.
Decomposing leaf litter can also make the pH of soil more acidic over time, further inhibiting competition from other nearby plants.
So, won’t grow well when this happens, but typically that’s in fall. More acidic soil will limit the types of plants that can potentially thrive under your maple.
Maple Tree Roots Stay Close To The Surface
The root system of maples is dense and shallow, with larger roots often breaking the surface while smaller, hairlike ones form a dense mat just underneath the soil. In most species, root growth is not aggressive enough to harm other plants and buildings.
The exceptions are Norway and silver maples, as noted by the USDA, both of which can cause damage to pavement and plumbing.
Since maple trees have dense roots, they tend to suck up all the moisture in the surrounding area during their growing season.
This makes it so that these roots more actively compete with plants, regardless of how deep those plants roots go. In small numbers, it’s OK. However when you get a high maintenance plant, it can become an issue.
Maples Require A Lot Of Water
At the height of summer, a maple tree requires about 10 gallons of water, weekly, for every inch of caliper (the diameter of the trunk measured above ground).
However, in the winter, dormant maples take up little water, leading to muddy, soggy soil in areas with heavy rainfall and poor drainage.
Maple trees also require a large quantity of sunlight, with their canopy blocking the sun from anything under them. Learn more about your maple tree’s need for sun here!
Now, since they need all that water AND have shallow roots, that means that your maple tree really need any water that comes down naturally. So, the only way to make sure that plants can actually grow under your tree are to choose low maintenance ones that you actively water, along with your maple tree.
Plants That You Shouldn’t Grow Under Maple Trees
Some plants that might thrive close to your maple come with other complications. Now, this list isn’t to say you CAN’T plant these plants under your maple tree, but just know that it really could impact your maple tree’s longevity in a negative way.
Think of the area around the maple tree like a nice, big ol’ blackberry pie. If you have the pie all to yourself, you get ALL THE PIE. If you bring it to a multi-family gathering, then you have to share the pie and thus, have some competition on getting a slice.
So, let your maple tree have it’s pie and DON’T grow these plants under your maple tree in order to avoid competition.
Also – I think that’s my favorite maple tree to pie analogy ever 🙂
Beech are beautiful, long-lived trees beloved for their wide canopies and useful wood products, nuts, and syrup. Since beech and maple trees often grow together in the wild, you might suppose a beech would make a good companion plant for your tree.
However, beech trees naturally replace maple trees in forest succession, as shown by this USDA study. Beech trees will eventually crowd your maples out, although that might be a problem you pass down to your grandkids!
Now, when we say “under” your tree, you obviously won’t plant a tree under another tree, but I’m speaking a bit more about planting beech trees (and black walnut which I’ll discuss in a second) relatively close to each other.
Black Walnut Trees
Black walnut trees are allelopathic plants, meaning that they secrete chemicals that inhibit the growth of other nearby plants.
Many maples are tolerant of black walnut’s chemical secretion, also called juglone, making them one of the few trees that can grow nearby, but if your maples are facing other stressors like drought or insufficient sunlight, you’ll want to separate them as much as you can from walnuts. Silver maples are especially susceptible to damage from black walnut trees.
Read more about walnut allelopathy in our guide: 20 Plants Not To Grow Under A Black Walnut Tree.
Goldenrod And Aster
The beautiful perennials are both part of the aster family and grow well together, creating a rich environment for honeybees and other pollinators.
However, research published in Canadian Journal of Forest Research has shown that these flowers, like walnut trees, release allelopathic chemicals in the soil that can inhibit the growth of maples, especially if you are trying to introduce young trees.
Unless your maple is already well-established, you should keep your goldenrods and asters well away from its root system.
During their growing season, grape vines will reach across gaps and begin growing in the branches of your maple tree. The dead wood that accumulates on a grapevine can weigh down and weaken your maple, causing more of its branches to break off during winter storms.
Over time, a grapevine can even cover a maple tree enough to block it from getting sufficient sunlight.
According to the University of Wisconsin, Virginia creeper, native to much of North America, can grow up to 20 feet in a single year. Like grape, it can grow into the branches of your maple, shading the tree and eventually leading to it’s end.
Unlike grape, the berries of Virginia creeper are not for human consumption and the vine itself contains a sap that causes more issues to boot. Don’t plant it.
English Ivy, Oriental Bittersweet, And Chinese/Japanese Wisteria
Attractive and hardy, these invasive ornamentals have become a plague across many forests in North America, covering and eliminating native plants that wildlife rely on for food and shelter.
You might be tempted to green up the bare patch beneath your maple tree with English ivy, bittersweet, or wisteria. Don’t. All three of these aggressive plants will grow up into the branches of your tree, cutting off sunlight and ending your maple section by section.
Sometimes confused with morning glory, field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is one of the more difficult invasive weeds to control once established.
Field bindweed can get into the branches of your maple and strangle it just like other aggressive vines.
In addition, the roots of bindweed can go as deep as 20 feet, according to the University of California, intertwining with the roots of your maple tree. Once this happens, your options for using herbicide are limited, and you’ll have to pull it by hand wherever it comes up to keep it from spreading.
Also called goutweed, this groundcover is sometimes advertised as “Snow on the Mountain” or “ground elder.” Sounds innocent, but Bishop’s weed is a noxious invasive that spreads so aggressively it’s illegal to sell in several states.
Your maples will struggle to get the water and nutrients they need in the summer when their root zone is covered by dense patches of Bishop’s weed, and to make matters worse, bishop’s weed irritates the skin if you try to pull it by hand. Look for the scientific name–Aegopodium podagraria–and avoid it.
Although many species of honeysuckle native to North America are great sources of food to pollinators like honeybees and hummingbirds, two invasive varieties, the Japanese and Amur, are aggressive enough to slow down the growth of your maples.
Both have extensive root systems that can reduce the availability of nutrients in the soil for other plants, and once established, both are difficult to eradicate. In addition, Japanese honeysuckle can send vines into your maple that can gird its trunk and branches, strangling it.
Hosts Of The Ambrosia Beetle
If you have Japanese maples, you’ll need to be on the watch for tiny “toothpicks” of sawdust sticking out of the trunk, a sign that your tree has been infested by granulated ambrosia beetles. First introduced in North America in the 1970s, these pests are a serious problem, difficult to treat, and fatal to young Japanese maples.
One way you can protect your maples is by steering clear of other species frequented by the ambrosia beetle: pecans, plums, peaches, apples, persimmons, figs, ornamental cherries, dogwoods, magnolias, azaleas, rhododendrons, Shumard oaks, Chinese elms, sweetgums, golden rain trees, redbud, crapemyrtle, and plants from the genus Syrax.
If you bring any of these plants back from the nursery, including any new Japanese maples, be aware that the ambrosia beetle might hitch a ride into your yard. Since the beetles can travel several miles a year, planting away from your maple won’t stop the spread.
Fortunately, ambrosia beetles are less likely to attack a healthy tree, another reason you should avoid planting beneath your maple in a way that weakens its health.
Plants That Don’t Stand A Chance Under Maple Trees
Don’t waste money buying plants that will parish beneath your maples. Anything that requires full sunlight won’t stand a chance, and plants that have specific moisture needs, especially ones with shallow root systems, will be in constant competition with the dense surface roots of your maples
(Hint… the maples usually win!)
You should remove the leaves that accumulate around the base of your maples each autumn to prevent pests and rot in your trees. This means you’ll also want to avoid plants that can’t take a little rough handling from rakes and leaf blowers.
Here are some types to avoid:
Most types of lawn grasses won’t be able to tolerate the shade beneath your maple to grow properly. If the area around your tree is clear enough to let morning and evening sun reach beneath it, you may be able to grow some of the more shade-resistant varieties like creeping red fescue and supine bluegrass.
Even if you can find a variety that tolerates what little sun reaches under your maple, your grass will be constantly deprived of water and nutrients in the summer when your maple is at its greediest.
Grasses that continue to grow throughout the winter face a different problem, as the area beneath a dormant maple tree can easily become over-saturated with rainwater without the maple roots to absorb it.
Be aware that grasses growing in the shade, even shade-resistant varieties, develop shallow root systems. If you are successful in establishing a lawn beneath your maple tree, consider using a leaf blower in the fall instead of a rake to keep from accidentally pulling up the more-fragile grass.
Clover is not only great for pollinators like bees, but with its ability to capture and return nitrogen to the soil, it plays an important role for other plants in your yard. Clover that grows near your maple will help it.
However, almost all varieties of clover have high water demands. Unless you can provide extra irrigation during the driest months, clover will have a hard time getting established.
Although hostas can survive the harsh growing conditions underneath maple trees for a while, after a few years, maple roots will invade the root ball of the hosta and slowly choke it out.
A hosta beneath a maple tree will decline in health gradually, even if the first year or two looks like a success!
So What Can I Plant Under My Maple Tree?
Maples are successful at inhibiting growth beneath them, but don’t give up! There are several plants that will survive in the shade of a maple tree:
Plants from bulbs that emerge in the spring can get enough light to bloom before a maple leafs out for the summer.
These types of plants, called spring ephemerals, include: bluebells, daffodils, snowdrops, crocuses, anemones, and hyacinth.
Ferns unfurl new growth in the spring while maple trees are still dormant, and many can survive both heavy summer shade and damp winter soil. Try varieties like maidenhair fern, lady fern, wood fern, or cinnamon fern.
Sword ferns can also thrive beneath a maple, although competition from the tree often dwarfs their height to only a few feet tall.
If you are determined to grow something similar to a lawn beneath your maple, mondo grass might be your solution. Certain varieties, like dwarf mondo and black mondo, can tolerate the varying conditions beneath a maple tree.
Mondo grass spreads slowly over time to fill in gaps, and because it stops growing after it reaches a certain height, you don’t have to mow it. Mondo isn’t a true grass but is more closely related to lilies.
There are a wide variety of other groundcovers and low-growing plants that may succeed in the shade of your maple depending on your climate and the specific conditions beneath your tree.
Plants that do well with maple trees include creeping phlox, rose champion, epimedium, lily of the valley, periwinkle, and Solomon’s seal.
Drought-tolerant moss can flourish over an undisturbed area beneath your tree, although because moss clings to soil with fragile rhizoids instead of roots, it can be difficult to establish.
Whatever you plant, you’ll have better luck if you enrich the soil under your maple with a few inches of compost and plan to provide extra water to the area in the summer months, especially as your new plants are getting started. You can also prune up some of the lower branches of your maple tree, or some of the upper ones to introduce more light to the ground below.
If you want an even more detailed look at what you can plant under your maple tree, check out our list!
Alternative Solutions To Plants Under Your Maple Tree
Let’s face it, your maple wants to dominate the soil beneath it. You’ll have to cut through its roots to plant anything, and anything you plant will be in direct competition with your tree for moisture and nutrients.
Don’t want to fight that battle? Here are some other solutions you might consider:
Encircling the base of your maple with wood chips or another type of mulch can be an attractive alternative to a groundcover. When you mulch around your maple, be careful not to put down too much.
Maple roots need to be close to the surface to exchange oxygen, so you should never apply more than a few inches over the root zone to at least the dripline (the edge of the tree’s canopy). Don’t pile up mulch against the tree, which can encourage disease and rot, but leave a mulch-free area about 12 to 18 inches around the trunk.
Maple roots need to have good airflow with the surface, so avoid using large rocks or pavers to cover the area beneath a tree.
Smaller stones like pea gravel can work as a mulch alternative, but this can cause problems when you need to clean the seeds, blooms, and leaves your tree will drop throughout the year. It can be difficult to rake or blow maple leaves without mixing in whatever you have laid around the base of the tree.
You may also need a good fertilizer, which you can take a look at our list of best maple tree fertilizers here.
Create A Charming Place to Rest
If you’re dealing with a big, mature maple, why not enjoy its cool summer shade for yourself?
Beneath a tree is a brilliant spot for a standalone hammock or reading chair. Incorporate your maple into the space by using something like this circular tree garden bench by Design Toscano.
You can brighten your seating area even more with container plants. Hang containers from sturdy branches or elevate them with plant stands.
Just make sure you don’t affect the roots of your maple too much—no heavy pots that rest directly on the ground—and choose plants that can tolerate the shade.
Feed The Birds
Not all wild birds appreciate a hanging bird feeder.
Some, like juncos and towhees, prefer to feed on the ground, while others, like blackbirds, will purposely knock seed down from feeders for the rest of the flock below. Some, like flickers and doves, struggle to find a perch on small feeders.
Ground-feeding birds do a good job tearing up any plants trying to grow where birdseed falls. If you have a large maple, use this to your advantage!
If nothing seems to grow beneath your maple, designate the area as a feeding spot. Hang feeders in the branches and scatter seed for ground feeders.
The activity of birds will weed out almost everything that tries to grow while also providing bonus nutrients for your tree.
That’s A Wrap!
Maple trees are wonderful for their summer shade and vibrant fall colors. No matter what kind you have, you’ll want to take care of it so it can continue to color your yard for many years to come.
But to care for your maple, you need to think about what’s happening beneath the surface of the soil. Your maple wants to create a dense, shallow root system to absorb every last bit of water and nutrients, and so anything you try planting beneath it will be in direct competition with your tree.
Now, for a quick recap.
You should avoid planting the following under your maple tree:
- Other trees that will outcompete your maple, like beech and black walnut
- Plants with allelopathic chemicals, like goldenrod and aster
- Vines that can choke your tree, like grape, Virginia creeper, English ivy, oriental bittersweet, Chinese/Japanese wisteria, and field bindweed
- Aggressive invasive plants, like bishop’s weed, Japanese honeysuckle, and Amur honeysuckle
- Plants that introduce ambrosia beetles
- Plants that your maple will outcompete, like grass, clover, and hostas
Hopefully this article will help you avoid choosing something you’ll regret down the road while giving you some excellent alternatives. If you’re interested in planting a maple tree, check out our guide on the best maple trees to plant!
Just remember, respect the root zone of your tree, use good companion plants or non-plant alternatives, and you’ll have a happy maple!
Thanks for reading!
Carl H. Tubbs, Allelopathic Relationship between Yellow Birch and Sugar Maple Seedlings, Forest Science, Volume 19, Issue 2, June 1973, Pages 139–145.
Elizabeth Anne France, Dan Binkley, and David Valentine. Soil chemistry changes after 27 years under four tree species in southern Ontario. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 19(12): 1648-1650.
Galbraith-Kent, S.L. and S.N. Handel. 2008. Invasive Acer platanoides inhibits native sapling growth in forest understorey communities. Journal of Ecology 96:293-302 R. F. Fisher, R. A. Woods, and M. R. Glavicic. Allelopathic effects of goldenrod and aster on young sugar maple. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 8(1): 1-9.
Veselkin, D.V., Rafikova, O.S. Effects of Water Extracts from the Leaves of Boxelder Maple Acer negundo and Native Tree Species on the Early Development of Plants. Russ J Ecol 53, 59–67 (2022).