Contact Us Host an Event Volunteer Join

Support the plant database you love!

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?

Share

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

Please forgive us, but Mr. Smarty Plants has been overwhelmed by a flood of mail and must take a break for awhile to catch up. We hope to be accepting new questions again soon. Thank you!

Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.

 
rate this answer
Not Yet Rated

Wednesday - March 25, 2015

From: Nashville, TN
Region: Southeast
Topic: Groundcovers, Shade Tolerant, Herbs/Forbs, Trees
Title: Groundcovers for Shade Under a Sweetgum
Answered by: Anne Van Nest

QUESTION:

I have 3 large sweetgum trees that produce so much shade each summer, and grass, even grass meant for shade, won't grow here. It's become a barren desert! I have English ivy but it only seems to grow along the front of the fence and the sides. I need to know what I can do to make this less of a dirt land and something beautiful and sustainable. I've tried different ground covers, and all of them seem to just die.

ANSWER:

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is a large, open-crowned tree, sweet-gum grows 75 ft. tall in cultivation and up to 130 ft. in the wild. Large, aromatic tree with straight trunk and conical crown that becomes round and spreading. Young trees are distinctly conical in form. The long, straight trunk is occasionally buttressed and bears strong, ascending branches. Glossy green, deciduous leaves have five deep lobes making a star shape. Fall foliage is purple and red, and will become colorful even without cold temperatures. The fruit is a globular, horny, woody ball, 1 in. in diameter, which hangs on a long stem and persists through January.

Sweet gum can become aggressive in moist, sandy soils. It is not drought-tolerant and does not do well is polluted areas or small areas which limit root development. It grows rapidly and is long-lived, adapting to a variety of sites. It is susceptible to iron chlorosis in soil which is too basic. Plant only in spring as roots take 3-4 months to recover from the shock of transplanting.

Saying this, about one of my favorite trees, it is tough though to grow groundcovers in the dry shade below large trees.

So looking at the Native Plants Database for groundcovers that tolerate dry shade in Tennessee, there are a couple that you might try.  

Lycopodium digitatum (fan clubmoss) likes dry, well drained soils. Though its foliage looks like that of a coniferous plant like pine or juniper, Lycopodium digitatum is in fact a clubmoss, a relative of ferns, with spores instead of seeds. Its cedar-like appearance, low growth (5-10 inches), evergreen leaves, and spreading habit make it ideal for the well-drained eastern woodland landscape. Once established, it spreads quickly by stems that lie just at the surface of the soil.

Potentilla simplex (common cinquefoil) is a familiar plant with prostrate stems, which root at the nodes, and flowers and leaves arising from runners on separate stalks. Runners are 6-20 in. Five-parted leaves and five-petaled, yellow flowers.  Common cinquefoil is a member of the rose family (family Rosaceae). Tolerant to dry shade.

Whatever you plant will need some help with additional water to get the plants established. Good luck!

 

More Trees Questions

Difference in acorn yields from Georgetown TX
December 27, 2012 - Why do some live oaks produce acorns in abundance and others do not?
view the full question and answer

Dry browning leaves on Monterrey Oak from San Antonio
August 08, 2013 - I have a Monterey Oak that was planted four years ago and was doing great until the last two weeks. It has turned brown and the ends of the branches are very dry and brittle. The root flare was cov...
view the full question and answer

Curling lower leaves on live oak in Cedar Park, TX
June 11, 2009 - I have noticed that one of my live oak tree, the leaves on the bottom of the tree have stared to curl. The leaves above that look fine. The trees are about 12 yrs old. Any suggestions?
view the full question and answer

Problems with rusty blackhaw viburnum in Austin
May 07, 2010 - I have a four foot rusty blackhaw viburnum. Last summer the leaves turned reddish and in the late summer most of them fell off. This February the plant started to leaf out and then bloomed. It has ...
view the full question and answer

Persimmon trunk grown around fence rail in Austin
November 08, 2012 - I have a Texas Persimmon in my backyard that is about 12-15 feet tall. It's been growing next to a chain-link fence and over the years, the top rail of the fence has cut into the bark on the trunk. A...
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.