Seasoned landscapers know the value of shade trees. They offer shade during the hot summer months, slowing the penetration of the sun’s warmth into the house.
Conversely, more sunlight when leafless in the winter. All of which translates to lower energy costs. But they also provide a cozy spot in the garden or yard when spending time outdoors.
Choosing a shade tree in Wisconsin is not tricky. There are so many native trees that make excellent additions to the landscape. Most of the trees on the list below are native to Wisconsin.
12 Shade Trees Worth Planting in Wisconsin
1. American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) – Native Tree
American beech is one of the most beautiful shade trees you can plant in your yard. It has a wide-spreading canopy that provides excellent shade.
The tree’s smooth bark retains its youthful beauty as it ages. American beech has golden bronze fall foliage, adding to its landscape appeal each year.
American beech grows slowly to moderately, with height increasing from less than 12 to 24 inches per year. A benefit of slow growth is that you will have plenty of time to decide where exactly in your yard you want this beautiful tree planted.
American beech thrives best in full sun but can tolerate partial shade. But growth will be even slower in partial shade. The tree grows well in acidic, moist, loamy, or sandy soils as long they are well-drained. Clay soils are also acceptable if they’re kept moist enough during dry spells.
Other Common Names: North American beech
Growing Zones: 4 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 70 feet tall with a spread of 40 feet
2. American Elm (Ulmus americana) – Native Tree
American elm is a medium to large tree that can grow up to 60 feet tall and 40 feet wide. Many American elms were planted in Wisconsin in the 1850s, but most died from Dutch elm disease.
American elms are beloved for their graceful and stately shape. There are still some excellent examples of this shade tree in parks across the state, such as Washington Park Arboretum in Milwaukee and Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison. Their branches spread, resembling a fountain. The green summer leaves turn gold in fall.
This tree does well on dry sites. Also, they are good choices for urban landscapes where water is scarce or areas with plenty of road salt usage.
American elm prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade when young. But later, it may require full sun since the lower branches will die off if they do not get enough sunlight. This shade tree prefers moist soil but will tolerate drought once established.
Other Common Names: White elm, Water elm
Growing Zones: 3 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 80 – 130 feet tall with a spread of 60 – 120 feet
3. Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) – Native Tree
Bur oak is a native of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and grows at a slow rate. It offers dense shade and grows in a rounded shape. This massive tree lives for more than 200–300 years and can reach heights of well over 60 feet tall. Due to its size, bur oak is best for large yards and fields.
In spring, the leaves emerge in shades of green with silvery hairs along the underside. In fall, mature bur oaks produce acorns that are 2 inches long with a beautiful brown cap.
This shade tree tolerates pollution and heat stress well. Such makes it an ideal choice for urban areas where trees may occasionally be exposed to these conditions.
Bur oak grows well in acidic, alkaline, or loamy soils but does not tolerate sandy soils. Sandy soils do not retain enough nutrients to sustain the tree’s growth over time. Bur oak seems to grow quite well in wet soil conditions as long as adequate drainage is present nearby.
Other Common Names: Burr oak
Growing Zones: 3 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 70 – 80 feet tall with a spread of 80 feet
4. Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) – Native Tree
Green ash is a large, oval, upright, or erect tree with a spreading canopy. It is ideal for landscapers because it has fast growth rates. Also, green ash is excellent at blocking sunlight quickly, providing dense shade.
Green ash has lustrous medium-to-dark green leaves that turn bright yellow in the fall. In spring, they also produce green to reddish-purple flowers. These flowers are not ornamental; the seed pods that follow are attractive.
This tree strives under most soil and moisture conditions. However, you will have to be careful not to plant it in areas with excessive moisture, such as swamps or bogs. There it may die from root rot due to lack of oxygen.
Other Common Names: Red ash
Growing Zones: 2 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 60 feet tall with a spread of 25 feet
5. Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra) – Non-Native Tree
The name Ohio buckeye comes from its “buckeyes,” its small, dark brown nut-like seeds with a light patch resembling a deer’s eye. People used to believe that the seeds bring good luck, and school children would carry them in their pockets as a lucky charm.
Ohio buckeye trees are an excellent choice for a landscaper looking for dense shade. They have dense foliage that provides deep shade. Ohio buckeye trees are among the first to leaf out in spring.
This makes them popular as they offer long-awaited green to the brown winter landscape. Also, their sweeping branches are attractive year-round.
But great shade and foliage aren’t Ohio Buckeye’s only gift. They produce yellow flowers in early summer. These flowers turn off-white berries before ripening into their famous seeds that drop off throughout autumn and winter.
Ohio buckeye prefers moist, deep, well-drained soil. It is indifferent to full sun or partial shade. However, the leaves will scorch and drop in hot dry spells. Such is more likely to happen in the southeastern corner of the state.
Growing Zones: 3 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 20 – 40 feet tall with a similar spread
6. Red Maple (Acer rubrum) – Native Tree
Red maple is a medium-sized shade tree that can grow in an oval, rounded, or upright shape. This tree grows at a medium to fast rate. Each year, it can grow anywhere from a foot to two feet or more.
Red maple’s green stems turn red in winter. In spring, the tree displays vivid red flowers which come out much earlier than most other trees. Also, new leaves are red-tinged as they unfold, eventually turning green. This tree is noted for its excellent fall color, deep red or bright yellow.
Full sun is the ideal condition for this tree, with at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. But it will also tolerate partial shade conditions.
The roots are adapted to most soil conditions. But for optimal growth and tree health, prefers moist yet well-drained soils are better. Also, it grows well in relatively acidic (low pH) loamy soil. But it also performs well on sandy soils and clay soil types if adequate water is available during dry spells.
Other Common Names: Swamp maple, Water maple, Soft maple
Growing Zones: 3 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 60 feet tall with a spread of 40 feet
7. Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima)
Young sawtooth oak trees grow very fast compared to most oak trees. But growth is slow with age. As the tree matures, it grows at a medium to fast rate, around two feet per year. It has dark lustrous summer foliage, which transitions from yellow to golden brown in the fall.
Full sun is the ideal condition for sawtooth oaks. Also, they prefer acidic, loamy, and moist soils but can grow in sandy or clay soil.
Sawtooth oaks set acorns at a very young age. These acorns are a valuable food source for wildlife such as wild turkeys.
Growing Zones: 5 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 60 feet tall with a similar spread
8. Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) – Native Tree
This fast-growing shade tree is popular because it provides shade earlier than most trees. Silver maple grows in a vase shape. Note that silver maple is a remarkably tall tree. Landscapers should choose their planting site carefully.
The leaves are green on top and silvery-white on the underside. Such is the source of its name. These beautiful leaves tend to shimmer and dance in the wind. Such adds some charm to the landscape. The leaves turn a pale yellow to red in fall to make room for new growth in spring.
Full sun or partial shade is best for silver maple. Silver maple prefers deep, moist soil with good drainage. But will tolerate some clay soils as long as they’re not too wet or compacted.
Other Common Names: Creek maple, Large maple, Silverleaf maple, Soft maple, Water maple, Swamp maple, White maple
Growing Zones: 3 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 80 feet tall with a spread of 35 – 40 feet
9. Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) – Native Tree
Slippery elm is a vase-shaped tree with dark green, rough leaves with fuzzy undersides. The broad, open, flat-topped crown of spreading branches is distinctive. Also, it features a corky bark on the trunk.
Side note – slippery elm is not only an excellent shade tree – it has medicinal value. Slippery elm features a glue-like substance in its edible inner bark that is thick and slightly fragrant. The substance is dried, moistened, and used for coughs and sore throats. The medicine can be used fresh or dried in powder form.
Slippery elm grows well in either sun or partial shade. It prefers moist soil and is an excellent choice for areas with moist soils. Also, soil with organically rich matter is perfect for this tree.
Other Common Names: Red elm, Gray elm, Soft elm, Moose elm, Indian elm
Growing Zones: 3 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 70 feet tall with a similar spread
10. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) – Native Tree
Sugar maple is a beautiful shade tree that offers impressive fall foliage. Its leaves are medium green, turning yellow, burnt orange, or red in fall.
Sugar maple features dense foliage, which provides excellent shade. The sugar maple grows in a rounded or oval shape and develops an open canopy with age. The trees grow at a slow to medium rate, so not a quick fix for shade.
These trees tolerate shade but prefer full sun for best growth and leaf coloration.
It is better to avoid planting in tight and confined spaces. Sugar maples need adequate space to grow.
Growing Zones: 3 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 75 feet with a spread of 40 – 50 feet
11. Thornless Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos form inermis) – Native Tree
Thornless honeylocust is a fast-growing tree that can reach heights of 90 feet. The tree is native to isolated spots in Southeastern Wisconsin. This particular variety does not have thorns, as the thorny type makes a miserable landscape tree for those with children.
These massive trees grow in an oval or round shape. The tree has a spreading canopy, but its shade is not dense, allowing enough light for grass to strive underneath it.
One outstanding feature of this tree is its tiny greenish-yellow blossoms arranged around spike-like stalks that are notably fragrant. They come out in the spring. Butterflies and bees enjoy getting nectar from these trees. Such makes both an excellent ornamental and shade tree.
Thornless honeylocust has tiny leaflets which come together to form a compound leaf. They turn yellow or yellow-green in fall.
Full sun is the ideal condition for this tree. It tolerates many soils, including acidic, alkaline, moist, and dry soils. Also, it tends to handle salty soil conditions better than other trees.
Growing Zones: 3 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 70 feet tall with a spread of 30 – 70 feet
12. White Ash (Fraxinus americana) – Native Tree
White ash trees are fast-growing. They feature an oval or pyramidal shape when young but become round with age. The big white ash is great for large areas such as parks, and large yards. The tree grows at a medium rate, with height increases of one to two feet each year.
One spectacular aspect of this tree is its brilliant fall color. The fall color ranges from yellow to deep purple and maroon.
White ash produces green to purple flowers in the spring. But they are not ornamental, so you might miss them.
White ash trees are beautiful and somewhat delicate. They do not like hard climate conditions such as extreme cold, severe heat, or drought.
They grow well in spots with full sun exposure, that is at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. Regarding soil conditions, they grow well in acidic, alkaline and loamy soils. They can tolerate sandy or clay soils, moist situations, dry sites, and wet soil.
Other Common Names: American ash
Growing Zones: 4 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 80 feet tall with a spread of 40 – 50 feet
Choosing Shade Trees in Wisconsin
The above list is a great starting point if you want to plant some shade trees in Wisconsin. They are all beautiful and easy to find.
You should also carefully consider where you want to plant your chosen shade tree. Some, such as American elm, bur oak, and sugar maple, are great for large yards. In comparison, others such as sawtooth oak and Ohio buckeye suit those with less space.
Then you should consider the type of soil you have. Is it on the drier or wetter side? Does it have an alkaline or acid pH? Is the soil sandy, loamy, or clay? Under each of the above sections, some brief notes on what type of soil suits the particular tree.
Understanding your soil type and choosing the right tree for the Wisconsin hardiness zone you are in makes a difference in how well your shade tree survives.
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Kenique grew up in Florida and currently lives in southern China. Before China, he spent many years in Portugal and the Caribbean. He studied economics and is a teacher, entrepreneur, and writer. Since he was knee-high, he has been gardening and was an active member of FFA (Future Farmers of America). He is his best self in a densely wooded forest or park. Depending on the day, you can find him reading, hiking, traveling, exercising, sipping lots of tea, or eating everything in sight.