What to Plant Under Black Walnut Trees

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), © Jami Dwyer

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), © Jami Dwyer

Summary: Native Black Walnut trees (Juglans nigra), while prized for their wood, cause many plants growing under them to wither and die. Included here are suggestions for native plants that will thrive under your Black Walnut Trees

I received this question from one of my readers, and it’s a topic that will provide information to a large number of you, here are my thoughts:

We have an area that has a lot of walnut trees and can not get anything to grow around them or under them. What would be good plants or grass that would survive around these trees. We do not want to cut down our walnut trees, but would like to have something growing under them.

The Problem With Black Walnut Trees

Black Walnut trees (Juglans nigra) are in high demand for their beautiful wood and provide a plethora of nuts for squirrels, birds, and other wildlife (and also are edible for humans, too)

Black Walnut trees produce a chemical called juglone that inhibits many other plants from growing under them. These plants may wilt, turn yellow, and eventually die. Juglone is exuded from all parts of the tree, including the leaves, wood, fruits, and roots.

R K Young sums up the problem:

People who are gifted with a black walnut tree have both an asset and a curse. The asset is a protein source that both you and your squirrels (and other animals) can enjoy. The curse is two-fold: like any nut or fruit tree, they can be messy. But their messiness is far outweighed by their ability to inhibit or kill other plants around them. Isn’t that weird that plants can do that to each other? Walnuts are not alone in this skill set, they are just better at it than anybody else in the plant kingdom.

According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension:

Wet, poorly aerated soil, very common in many urban areas, discourages microbial growth. Plants sensitive to the walnut tree’s toxic effect may be at a higher risk when planted in heavy urban soils that lack organic matter. Toxins adhere to organic matter rather than being absorbed by plants, and organic matter also encourages a healthy soil microbial population.

So one of the very best things you could do to eliminate some of the problems facing plants growing under Black Walnut trees would be to add lots of organic matter to your soil. Working to create healthy soil will be a gift to your overall gardening efforts as well as providing habitat for wildlife and increasing the health of all of your plants.

Native Plants to Plant Under Black Walnut Trees

Here’s some native plants to try out under your Black Walnut Trees:

Heather Holm suggests these native plants that work in her MN wildlife garden:

I have a large black walnut in my yard and the following grow well under it: Nannyberry Viburnum, Red Osier Dogwood, Pennsylvania Sedge, Wild Ginger, Wild Geranium, Red Elderberry, Amercian Hazelnut, Hackberry, Chokecherry, False Solomon’s Seal, Solomon’s Seal, Downy Yellow Violet, Virginia Waterleaf

My friend Ursula Vernon recommends these native plants that work in her NC wildlife garden:

Appalachian sedge–Carex appalachia–works, I think, along with most hardy ferns–if they’ve got sun under them, then serviceberry, New Jersey Tea, shrubby St. John’s wort, black-eyed susan, and probably-but-you-might-want-to-try-a-test-patch River Oats.

Actually, I’d suggest a test patch of anything before investing in a huge planting–much like “deer resistant” there’s occasionally some difference in the literature, and the sedges at least can be slow/expensive to gamble with.

Mr. Smarty Plants, of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center has this great suggestion:

The best advice we can give you is to look around your neighborhood, see what is growing under walnut trees and talk to other gardeners who have black walnut trees in their yards.

Planting lists for native plants that tolerate growing under Black Walnuts:

What are your favorite native plants that grow well under your Black Walnut Trees? Please share by leaving a comment below.

Do you have a question you’d like me to answer? Stop by the Ask Carole page and I’ll give it my best shot.

Don’t miss Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife, A 4-part online workshop series teaching you to garden sustainably, conserve natural resources, and create welcoming habitats for wildlife so that you will attract more birds, butterflies, native pollinators, and other wildlife to your garden.

© 2013 – 2014, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of EcosystemGardening.com If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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  1. Barbara Neuman says

    Hi there. I live in Western North Carolina and couldn’t help but read all of the comments about the black walnut. I have a friend who loves to eat them and is trying to find some. Does anyone living close to Rutherfordton which is located between Ashville and Charlotte have any they would like to give away or sell? I would love to surprise my friend with some.

    Best Regards,
    Barbara Neuman
    Master Garden Volunteer for Rutherford County

  2. says

    The native wildflower Bloodroot grows under black walnut. This plant creates a stunning and magnificent flower in early Spring and creates a great groundcover leaf all season long. (Sanguinaria canadensis)

  3. Allison says

    Mertensia virginica or Virginia bluebells, spreads happily under my walnut. When they fade I cut them down and mulch, using pots for flowers during the summer. I would love to send my walnuts to anyone however the squirrels beat me to them, and make an awful mess while they are at it.

  4. MAGGIE says


  5. Aaron says

    We have a full on grove of black walnut trees in a wide fence row with a healthy wild proliferation of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) thriving around and under them here in Pennsylvania. Daffodil’s (Narcissus pseudonarcissus), an invasive species, also seem to thrive around and under Black Wanut trees.

  6. says

    We bought a property with lots of black walnut trees 5 years ago. At first I was very concerned about what to plant under them, but over time I have stopped worrying. The answer is–anything locally native that is shade tolerant does just fine under black walnut. I have pretty much all the species mentioned in the article and the comments, including river oats, but also: bottlebrush grass, trillium, large flowered bellwort, jack in the pulpit, wood poppy, woodland phlox, early meadow rue, round leaf ragwort, white snakeroot, great blue lobelia, turtlehead, swamp milkweed, boneset, jewelweed, meadowsweet, swamp rose mallow, steeplebush, marsh rose, Virginia creeper, willows, buttonbush, southern blue iris, bottle gentian, various sedges–you get the picture. What won’t grow is nightshade family vegetables. They need sun, anyway, but locate them well away from black walnut.My understanding is the juglone stays in the soil for years after a walnut has been cut.If you are in mid-Michigan, come to a Wild Ones meeting and let’s talk! wildoneslansing.org

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