Did you choose a tree to plant for Father’s Day, Mother’s Day or Arbor Day? If you did, it was the right day to do so. According to a Chinese proverb and Mother Nature – who speaks with me often – any day is a great day to plant a tree.
Which tree to choose takes some thinking, and I fear that many buyers base the choice on what they see before them in the nursery. That is human – to trust your eyes.
The trouble is this: Trees in the nursery do not inform you of their future beauty or performance in landscapes. They don’t look like what they will be. Many young trees don’t have the colorful bark, elegant silhouette or branching pattern of their mature selves. Most don’t show you their summer berries, or fall color, or speak of their value for birds or for cooling and shade. You need a nursery professional as well as some good reading in order to choose well. A tree is a long-term commitment.
The following are some wonderful trees that are often underestimated or sited poorly because in the pot they don’t tell you much about themselves. Of course each one is only as good as its suitability for the site – environmental and cultural conditions, and soil. While I have suggested heights, many cultivars vary. Read the tags.
• Acer griseum (Paperbark maple): Cornell horticulture professors enthuse over this beauty, but it is often overlooked while less elegant but immediately showy trees go home in a truck. It will remain small (22 to 25 feet), oval, with rich fall color and shiny reddish-brown, peeling bark. Protect from the harshest wind, but plant it if you can.
• Amelanchier (Serviceberry, Shadbush): Generally considered large, multistemmed shrubs (12 to 18 feet), serviceberries are great for birds and for us; every yard should have one; multiple seasons of interest from gray bark to spring flowers, summer berries (edible) and fall color.
• Betula nigra (River birch) and cultivars: Prefer moist, acidic soil but generally do well in our landscapes – terrific for soaking up excess water. The popular white birches of yesteryear often succumbed to bronze birch borers, but cultivars of many birches now offer white, cinnamon, gold or reddish bark in single and multistemmed forms, with no borer problems. Try a ‘Renaissance Reflection’ (white, peeling bark; 35 feet) or ‘Heritage’ (cinnamon-colored peeling bark; 50 feet) among others.
• Carpinus caroliniana (American Hornbeam): Native tree for partial shade, with great fall color, to 25 feet; also called Musclewood because of its sinuous bark.
• Cerciiphyllum japonicum (Katsuratree): This one does not sell itself at all well as a young potted tree, so I tell people that Michael Dirr (America’s top plantsman) said it would be the first tree he’d take to heaven. Then I show the blue-toned heart-shaped leaves that turn apricot in fall, and tell of the future rounded shape and stunning, shaggy bark; to 45 feet. Just believe me.
• Cercis canadensis (Eastern redbud): The redbuds bloomed beautifully this spring (branches laden with pink, before the leaves open) in spite of the severe winter; they do best with wind protection though, such as the east side of a building; partial shade is fine. Gorgeous cultivars now offer wine-colored, gold or multi-toned leaves; native species about 23 feet tall but dwarf and weeping forms available.
• Chionanthus virginicus, C. retusus (White or Chinese fringe tree): Truly darling, white, fringelike flowers drape off the branches; great bark, great shape, usually petite.
• Gingko biloba: This companion of the dinosaurs still grows easily here; loved for leaf shape, bright yellow fall color; a noble shade tree (to 60 feet tall) although some dwarf, weeping and columnar forms may be found.
• Gymnocladus dioicus (Kentucky coffee tree): Another huge shade tree, this native features coarse, 10-inch seed pods, scalelike bark and a great winter silhouette.
• Halesia (native or Chinese silverbells): Small trees with sweet, white bells and an attractive branching pattern; great near a patio.
• Heptacodium miconioides (Seven-son flower, seven sons tree): Relatively new to the United States, this terrific little tree is often bypassed because young ones have an irregular, asymmetrical branch pattern that doesn’t adequately represent how nice it will be to live with. It flowers, surprisingly, in late summer – white with red calyxes; bark is cream-colored and shaggy. It is problem-free, quick to grow, fine in partial shade, about 18 feet tall. I truly love mine.
• Laburnum x watereri (Goldenchain Tree) and Koelreuteria paniculata (Goldenraintree): These are entirely different trees but are usually discussed in the same breath because of their confusingly similar names as well as breathtaking, yellow-gold, drooping flowers. Both are slightly tender (Zone 6) for our purposes, but you may want to try. The Laburnum flowers in spring and is shorter; Koelreuteria flowers in summer, to 30 feet tall.
• Metasequoia (Dawn Redwood): Wonderful, trouble-free conifer that drops its needles only after turning a rich color (bronze or rusty) in the fall. Exfoliating bark, beautiful flute-shaped trunk; grows quickly (to 65 feet or more) but offers dappled shade and only a 25-foot width. Gold, columnar and shorter versions may be available. Compares with larches.
• Ostrya virginiana (American Hophornbeam, aka Ironwood): Native, 25 to 40 feet tall; graceful, trouble-free and handsome.
• Stewartia pseudocamellia (Japanese Stewartia): I can’t be impartial; this is a superior, small- to medium-sized tree, with exquisite camellia-like flowers and the prettiest branching pattern and shape of any tree. When mature, the bark becomes multicolored and shaggy. Leaves turn yellow-orange or wine-colored in fall. Prefers acidic soil and some afternoon shade; might benefit from wind protection.
Why did I not mention flowering pears, crabapples, ornamental cherries, magnolias and dogwoods? Because they show off all by themselves; you’ve seen, desired and bought them, or may be heading out to do so. Whatever trees you choose, shop with full information – and then do plant a tree.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.