What are Good Shade Trees and Shrubs for Wet Clay Soils?

Red Maple is one of many trees tolerant of shade and wet, clay soils.

“What are the best trees and shrubs for western NC that can take shade and wet, clay soil?” Question from Vickie of West Palm Beach, Florida

Answer: I am assuming you have another home in North Carolina. There are several great trees and shrubs that will grow well in shady spots with wet, clay soils. Here are some of my recommendations.

Shade Trees for Wet, Clay Soils

American snowbells (Styrax americanus, 6-10 feet): This little tree is a real southern beauty. It’s bell-shaped, white spring flowers are fragrant, and it grows beautifully in wet clay. The blooms even attract butterflies.

Canadian serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, 15-30 feet): This multi-stemmed, small tree is an all-around winner for good looks and grows beautifully in partial shade and moist, clay soils. It has beautiful white spring flowers that bloom before the trees leaf out, edible summer fruits, and great fall color. They are also native to the forests of North Carolina.

Cucumber Tree (Magnolia acuminata, 40-70 feet): This large magnolia is admired for its huge, showy summer leaves and fragrant greenish-yellow flowers that bloom in late spring. It is also a regional native for your area that thrives in moist soils and shade.

Mayhaw (Crataegus opaca, 12-36 feet): This southern classic for your area with edible fruits used to make jam. In spring it has white flowers.  It grows best in low, wet woods.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum, 40-70 feet): There are many varieties of red maple that are known for their beautiful fall color. All can withstand partial shade and wet soils. This tree is also a North Carolina native.

Shade Shrubs for Wet, Clay Soils

Black Cat Pussywillow (Salix chaenomeloides Black Cat®, 10-13 feet): In very early spring this large pussywillow produces dark purple flowers, and it grows beautifully in shady spots with wet, clay soils.

Sugar Shach Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis, 3-4 feet): This attractive shrub has round, fragrant, white flower clusters in summer. The cultivar Sugar Shack® is much shorter than wild forms and will thrive in your soils and shade.

Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea): These are some of the prettiest shrubs for winter with their super colorful red, orange, or yellow twigs. Some are very compact, and they all grow well in wet, clay soils and shade. (Click here to read more about great varieties of this shrub.)

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata): This is another amazing shrub for winter. The moisture-loving holly produces brilliant clusters of red or yellow berries in winter and withstands shade. (Click here to read more about great varieties of this shrub.)

I hope this list helps!

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist


Plants are the lens Jessie views the world through because they’re all-sustaining. (“They feed, clothe, house and heal us. They produce the air we breathe and even make us smell pretty.”) She’s a garden writer and photographer with degrees in both horticulture and plant biology from Purdue and Michigan State Universities. Her degrees were bolstered by internships at Longwood Gardens and the American Horticultural Society. She has since worked for many horticultural institutions and companies and now manages communications for Sun Gro Horticulture, the parent company of Black Gold. Her joy is sharing all things green and lovely with her two daughters.

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