En EspaŅol

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?


Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions
Can't find the answer in our existing FAQs, submit a question to Mr. Smarty Plants.
Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.
rate this answer
3 ratings

Tuesday - April 21, 2009

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Planting, Herbs/Forbs
Title: Plants under oak trees
Answered by: Nina Hawkins


I have a large live oak (actually several) in my front yard, which basically puts the beds at the foundation of my house in full shade. I tore out the builder-boxwoods and privets, hoping to plant something that would provide some interest. I'm having an awful time getting anything to grow there. Pigeonberries just died. Barbados cherries are spindly with yellowish leaves, beautybush just has 2 or 3 long branches sticking straight up, even the turk's caps look anemic. I've tried snapdragon vine and bleeding hearts and neither took hold. There are also some spindly roses in the bed that survive and flower occasionally. The soil is very rocky and I'm not sure what to do to amend it. Am I watering too much (doubtful) or too little? Should I just build up the edges of the bed and fill it with topsoil? I really want to xeriscape, because I don't want to have to spend every weekend babying my garden. HELP!


It sounds like you have had these plants for less than a year, so my first piece of advice is to give them a bit more time.  When plants go into the ground, they are under a great deal of stress.  They are adjusting from a posh life at the nursery where they get a splash of water every day to keep their specialized soil slightly moist at all times to, in the case of a xeriscape, a life of scarce resources.  In some cases, it can take a year for a plant to really get established in its new home.  As if rocky soil and full shade weren't inhospitable enough, the roots of oak trees produce chemicals that retard the growth of other plants.  If the plants still don't take after temporarily babying them, you may want to consider putting down a thin layer of hardwood mulch instead and place your beds in a spot with more light.

All of the plants that you mentioned (aside from the rose, which requires full sun to be anything worth looking at) are part shade plants and while some part shade plants can survive in full shade, they can tend to get lanky in their search for light and this may be the case with your Malpighia glabra (wild crapemyrtle) (Barbados Cherry).  Rivina humilis (rougeplant) (Pigeonberry) is deciduous and may go dormant without extra water in summer.  Are you sure it's dead?  Callicarpa americana (American beautyberry) loses its leaves in the winter, so the "sticks standing straight up" are totally normal while the plant is dormant.  Mine are just starting to leaf out and hopefully yours will too.  Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii (wax mallow) (Turk's cap) will freeze back in winter and you can cut it back when this happens if you like.  Like most plants that tolerate shade, these plants prefer to live in moist soil and are competing with your trees for water.  We recommend adding a couple inches of hardwood mulch or compost to your bed each year so that you can build up the soil slowly and not have to worry about smothering tree roots.  Below are links to the information pages of two other plants for shade that you may want to try:


From the Image Gallery

Eastern red columbine
Aquilegia canadensis

Inland sea oats
Chasmanthium latifolium

More Planting Questions

Compatibility of mixed ground covers with St. Agustine grass
March 04, 2015 - My husband and I live in Northwest Austin. We have removed lawn from our front yard and replaced it with mulch and some trees and other plantings. We would like to replace the lawn in our backyard ...
view the full question and answer

Flowers under pine trees from Elkhart Indiana
May 02, 2013 - I have a number of pine trees at the back of my lot and would like to plant flowers under the tree. What can I plant?
view the full question and answer

O.K. to grow grass under a live oak?
November 26, 2014 - Is it a bad idea to plant grass around a mature live oak? We have erosion issues and trying to keep mulch in the beds around the tree groves is a challenge, even with edging. Much of the native dirt...
view the full question and answer

Male and female Ilex decidua ( Possumhaw) trees
May 18, 2015 - I was excited to finally find and purchase a male and female possum haw pair via Amazon. (Berry Poppins variety). They were marked male-female and are thriving. But the male has little flowers and the...
view the full question and answer

Evergreen tree for planter in Sherman Oaks CA
November 11, 2010 - We have a large cinder block planter, 6ftx6ftx6ft,in the back of our building and would love to find a good evergreen accent tree (but not pine like). Planter is near a building so preferable it shoul...
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.
© 2015 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center