Trees That Grow In Water – Best Trees For Wet Soil

Certain trees growing in water or wet areas of your yard can help improve drainage, but be sure they’re the right ones.

A weeping willow on the water's edge
(Image credit: PurpleImages / Getty Images)

Water-Loving Trees: Trees That Grow In Water

If there is a secret to life, it’s likely to involve making choices that are appropriate for the circumstances. This certainly applies to planting trees. 

The most important part of planting a tree comes before actually digging the hole and involves selecting a tree that will thrive in the circumstances your site offers. 

For example, while many trees prefer well-drained soil, some can thrive in wet soil. Read on for some tips about selecting trees growing in water and wet areas.

Growing Trees in Wet Soil

Not every tree will be happy in every site, so determining what your backyard has to offer a tree is step one for a successful landscape. You’ll want to know your USDA hardiness zone, which tells you which trees will survive your winters. It’s also important to know the site’s sun exposure and the type of soil.

The reason some trees die or grow poorly in wet areas is simply because they cannot breathe. Most tree roots need air as much as they need water. If they do not get air, they will die. But some water-loving trees have developed the ability to grow roots without needing air. This allows them to live in marshy areas where other trees would die.

Some trees love watery areas or can survive occasional flooding, but take care: different trees that like wet soil have different tolerance levels. Most trees classified as “trees that grow in water” may accept moist soil, but may not survive flooding.

Using Trees to Improve Drainage

When it comes to planting, drainage means how fast water will pass through the soil. An average soil will contain an equal amount of solid materials and pore space that is filled by air and water, both of which are needed for plants. 

When the soil is poorly drained, water fills most of the pore space, leaving too little space for air. You can ameliorate this situation by planting trees that grow in water. These water-tolerant  trees have shorter roots but they can uptake excess water in the soil. This allows for more oxygen to penetrate and results in improved soil filtration. 

If you plan to plant trees in wet areas it’s important to note that the roots of most water-loving trees are extensive and can possibly cause damage to pipes (though not often foundations). If these trees use up all the water in the wet area of your yard, they will seek water elsewhere. In urban and suburban areas, this could mean the tree will grow into sewer and water pipes as it seeks more water.

Best Trees for Wet Areas

You can find lists online of trees that tolerate wet soil better than others. When you consult these sites, be sure to read the small print explaining for each tree what type of water tolerance the tree has. 

For example, river birch is often listed as one of the trees growing in water since it prefers soil that’s very moist and is often seen along streams or river banks. This tree tolerates occasional flooding. On the other hand, red maples tolerate standing water for months on end when growing in the wild, but will not tolerate flooding when used in a landscape. 

Standing Water and Wet Soil Trees

Here is a list of trees that can tolerate wet soil and/or standing water:

  • Atlantic White Cedar
  • Bald Cypress
  • Black Ash
  • Freeman Maple
  • Green Ash
  • Nuttall Oak
  • Pear
  • Pin Oak
  • Plane Tree
  • Pond Cypress
  • Pumpkin Ash
  • Red Maple
  • River Birch
  • Swamp Cottonwood
  • Swamp Tupelo
  • Sweetbay Magnolia
  • Water Tupelo
  • Willow
Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.