Light Shining Through Large Shade Tree
wnc shade tree
(Image credit: avarooa)

Summers can be hot in the Heartland of the U.S., and shade trees are a place of refuge from unrelenting heat and blazing sun. Selecting northern plains shade trees starts with deciding if you want evergreen or deciduous, fruit, size, and other considerations.

Shade trees in the Rockies also need to be vigorous and hardy to survive the see-saw of weather conditions and temperatures. Some suggestions might help get you started on the shady retreat of your dreams. 

Cultivated Shade Trees for West North Central Region

Before you purchase and plant a tree, evaluate your soil and drainage conditions. Make sure you know your individual hardiness rating, as microclimates across the region vary. West North Central shade trees need to be cold hardy; otherwise, they may be plagued by winter die-back or worse. Each species is different in a genus and not all are able to survive the cold.

No matter what size tree you want or its individual attributes, the easiest trees to grow are always native. That doesn't mean you can't have a shade tree that is from another region, it just means you will have to give that transplant more care and it will be more prone to disease or pest problems. This is where cultivars come in.

If you want to enjoy a native plant but need a variety suited for your compact soil, producing a different color of flowers or other traits, there is probably an option for you. Plant researchers are breeding new cultivars all the time and the variety within a species is now astounding.

Deciduous Northern Plains Shade Trees

Deciduous trees provide some of the most beautiful fall colors. While they may lack foliage in the cold season, they more than make up for it while the leaves are still around. The tree's outstretched branches maximize the area that gets shade, and many have fruits, flowers, or other special characteristics.

  • American Elm - You can't go wrong with the classic American elm. There are new varieties that are resistant to the Dutch elm disease, which ravaged much of the native population.
  • Cottonwood - One of the better shade trees in the Rockies is the cottonwood. It has a variety of cultivars with bigger or smaller leaves. Very tolerant of poor soil and fast growing.
  • Bur Oak - Bur oak has interesting, corky bark and a broad canopy. It also attracts squirrels with its acorns, so this is a consideration.
  • American LindenAmerican linden is a pyramid shaped tree that is easy to grow. Heart shaped leaves turn a bright gold tone in autumn.
  • Cutleaf Weeping Birch - Truly a grand old dame when mature, this tree has weeping foliage and white bark. Even in winter, it has dignity.
  • Hotwings Tatarian Maple - A maple cultivar that has bright pinkish red samaras in midsummer to fall. Plus, the leaves turn orangey red in fall.
  • Crabapples - If you want a smaller tree that casts less shade, crabapples provide lovely spring blooms followed by bright fruit.
  • Northern Catalpa - Northern catalpa trees have white flowers, heart-shaped leaves, and bean-like fruits.

Evergreen West North Central Shade Trees

Winter can get a little bleak when all the flowers are gone, the vegetable garden has died back, and leaves have left the trees. Evergreen shade trees for West North Central regions add a bit of color and life while everything else is hibernating.

  • Korean Fir - A nice pyramid form and big ornamental cones make this an attractive shade tree. The thick green needles of the Korean fir have white undersides, adding more appeal.
  • Norway Spruce - It may take a while for this tree to reach full size, but the Norway spruce has a lovely shape with attractive needles and bark.
  • White Fir - White fir has blue green needles that emit a citrus scent when crushed. Tolerant of many soil situations.
  • Austrian Pine - Conical when young, Austrian pine branches out and becomes umbrella shaped with wide shading arms.
  • Black Hills Spruce - A compact tree that is very resistant to winter injury. Needles are blueish green. Easy to grow.
Bonnie L. Grant

Bonnie Grant is a professional landscaper with a Certification in Urban Gardening. She has been gardening and writing for 15 years. A former professional chef, she has a passion for edible landscaping.