Guide to Picking a Shade Tree – Evergreen Trees

Picking an evergreen shade tree should not be difficult. But many people do not think of evergreens as shade trees. They are usually thought of as windbreak or specimen trees. We need to work around that misjudgment, and let gardeners know that evergreen trees can be for shade too.

Before you ever decide which evergreen will become a shade tree, you need to know more about where you are going to plant it. I talk a lot about site conditions, and for good reason, they are more important than the tree itself. What kind of soil do you have? Have you done a soil test? Do you have full sun or part shade? Is the ground sloped, flat, or does water stand in it when it rains? Check out our guide to planting trees by clicking here. Do this before you pick your evergreen shade tree.

Evergreen shade trees are mostly conifers, which produce seeds in cones. However, there are a few evergreens that can be grown in the Central Great Plains which are not conifers. We will see more about those later.

Coniferous Evergreen Shade Trees

Quite a mouthful right there? I will say so. Conifers include pines, spruce, firs, and other, similar species. Some conifers are deciduous, like ginkgo and baldcypress. But most of what we can grow are evergreen. But not all trees work for providing shade. We want large evergreens that do not stay in a pyramidal form all as they age. Not all evergreens are suited for that.

Eastern Red Cedar

This tree is not a true cedar, but rather a juniper. The wood of this tree is very fragrant and used for cabinet making, flooring, closets, and chests. The trees are often used as windbreaks, but can lose many of the lower branches as it ages, and develops a rather large canopy, creating shade. There are 2 huge red cedars next to my grandparent’s home in North Central Kansas.

  • They grow pyramidal when young, but the canopy fills out as they mature.
  • Red cedar grows 50 to 70 feet tall by 30 feet wide.
  • Even though they prefer well-drained soil, they are quite adaptable, but do not like standing water or wet feet.
  • Flowers are small, but produce a lot of pollen which can affect allergies. Seeds are produced in berry-like cones.
  • Eastern red cedar is the alternate host to cedar-apple rust, but the fungus causes only visual damage to the tree. There are a variety of smaller rust fungi that affect junipers, but are not major. Bagworms may be any issue in some years.
  • There are 10 or more moths and 2 butterflies that use it as a host plant. Birds eat the fruit.
older eastern red cedar
The large eastern red cedar at the author’s grandma’s home

Eastern White Pine

Pine trees are very well known for windbreaks. But the eastern white pine is best known, at least historically, as the tree used for ships’ masts in the early part of American history. In fact, many of our pine forests were clear cut for the ship building industry, before the use creation of steamers with coal fired boilers. As a shade tree, eastern white pine starts pyramidal, but becomes wider at the top and loses lower branches as it ages. This makes it great for shade around the house or in the garden.

  • They can grow 50 to 100 feet tall by 20 to 50 feet wide. The national champion is 132 feet tall by 72 feet wide.
  • White pine prefers full sun, in well-drained to slightly acidic soil. But they are adaptable not only to high pH soils, but clay soil as well.
  • Flowers are insignificant, but there is a lot of pollen grains. Seeds are produced in cones 3 to 8 inches long.
  • White pine blister rust can be fatal, but it is not currently a problem in the Central Great Plains. Bagworms and pine sawfly can cause major damage to the shoots and needles.
  • As many as 20 moths use the white pine as a host plant.
eastern white pine
Large eastern white pine used for shade

Douglas Fir

The douglas fir is one of the dominant evergreen species of the Pacific Northwest region. There, it towers over other trees, even matching heights of redwoods. Here, in the Central Great Plains region, we can and do grow some douglas fir, and with success. This is one of my favorite evergreen trees, mainly because the needles are soft and easy to work with when wreath-making.

  • Douglas fir trees can grow 100 feet tall by 30 to 50 feet wide. Their height alone makes them a good choice for shade.
  • They prefer well-drained soil, acidic, and moist, but are fairly adaptable to drought conditions. If unsure, plant them in a drainage swale or low spot where water moves through often.
  • Flowers are small and insignificant. The cones are small, 2 to 3 inches long, but decorative.
  • It has no major pests in the Great Plains.
douglas fir trees
Douglas Fir trees

Canadian Hemlock

Although found rarely in landscapes in the Central Great Plains, it does become a nice shade tree. The few that I know of make good shade over decks and porches. The needles are fine textured and soft. It is mostly native to the Eastern U.S., east of the Mississippi River.

  • Canadian hemlock grows 40 to 70 feet tall by 35 feet wide.
  • They are very adaptable to dry or rocky soil, but does not favor hot climates. Use as an understory plant in our region may be a must. The biggest one I know of grows under larger river birch trees.
  • Seed cones are small and look like miniature pine cones.
  • Hemlock woolly adelgid is a serious pest of hemlocks in the wild, but has not been introduced to the Great Plains. Bagworms may feed on the needles, though I have not seen it yet.
Canadian hemlock
Large Canadian hemlock in Sabetha, KS

Broadleaf Evergreen Shade Trees

There are just 2 broadleaf evergreens (not conifers) that will grow well in the Central Great Plains region, and others as well. For other parts of the country, with less extreme weather fluctuations as us, there are a variety of other broadleaf evergreens available. Broadleaf evergreens do not produce seeds in cones.

American Holly

One of my favorite evergreen trees, the American holly is native to the southeastern Unites States, and there is some concern for winter hardiness in northern climates. It is hardy in zones 5 to 9. The leaves are shiny, dark green, and the overall shape is pyramidal. But they can grow large enough to provide good shade.

  • American holly grows 40 to 50 feet tall and wide.
  • Prefers well-drained, moist, fertile, and acidic soil, but is adaptable to average and clay soils.
  • Seeds are set in red berries which are eaten readily by birds, especially cedar waxwings.
  • There are no major insect or disease problems, though iron chlorosis on high pH soils may be an issue.
  • Only a few moths use holly as a host plant.
American holly
American holly (right) providing shade against the house

Southern Magnolia

Also called the bigflower magnolia, this broadleaf evergreen has large, lustrous and almost leathery leaves which give it a tropical look. Hardy in zones 6 to 10, it grows in the southern portion of the Central Great Plains and southward. These trees can become quite large in the landscape, and have rounded habits, making them excellent shade trees.

  • Southern magnolia grows 60 to 80 feet tall and wide.
  • Grows best in moist, wet areas, but shows to be very adaptable to landscapes with well-drained to clay soils.
  • Flowers are very showy and fragrant. Seeds are formed in a long cluster or red berries.
  • There are no serious disease or insect problems.
southern magnolia tree
Southern Magnolia in Kansas


Picking an evergreen as a shade tree does not seem like the norm, when so many are looking for fall color in large trees. But evergreens can have year-round benefits. Despite their name, they do drop leaves yearly, but usually the inner leaves or needles from the previous season. Try a row of evergreens with a row of maples, oaks, and birches for a truly magnificent shade plantation.

Happy planting!

author of evergreen shade trees

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