Not everybody is a tree hugger. Some people learn to love a tree only when they become adults, make a home, and create memories in the proximity of a tree. Then their tree may become a backdrop for life – where the kids played, climbed or read fairy tales, or where lovers ducked out of sight, or where older folks sat on their benches to talk over coffee. Some trees earn their appreciation slowly, when their people need shade or begin to observe the birds that live among the branches.
Sad to say, a few people never get it: They acquire no reverence for a living, growing tree. Trees are messy, they say, a lot of work, an inconvenience. “Just cut it down,” they say. The tree might as well be furniture – easily replaced.
I am truly a tree hugger – no surprise to those who know me – and I mean it literally. As a country girl I played outside lots, without nearby friends. Out there in the yard and woods two traits developed: a deep interest in plants and animals, and an expansive imagination. One maple tree in particular, near the pump, became my prince (Norway maple, 4-inch diameter). I hugged and yes, admittedly, I kissed that trunk many times. In spite of the kisses, no human prince actually stepped out of there – probably for the best – and I learned to love the tree exactly as it was. Fifty-some years later I can still look on it tenderly where it stands near my sister’s house on the family property. Still no hidden prince there; just a good old tree.
The reason for my confession is this: As a tree lover, along with many other nursery people and landscapers I find it frustrating to try to convince others of the trees that could be growing in their yards. Some of the best trees don’t look like much in the nursery and it’s really a challenge to communicate what they will become. Plant tags, online pictures, and reference books only give clues. Unlike most annuals and perennials a young tree doesn’t show you its future size, shape, flowers, fruit, mature bark tones or fall colors. Your landscape consultant or tree seller has to wave her arms, jump up and down, and try to create the mature tree image. And we can only hope you believe that what you’re buying is not what you see.
Here are just a few examples of young trees in pots that don’t remotely show you what they can do if you plant them in the right place on your property. So many trees are too modest by far. They need advocates. I can’t get them to speak up, but I can try to tell you what you’re missing if you don’t look beyond the uninspiring nursery specimen in front of you. Listen harder and imagine – then take one home to plant as soon as possible.
• Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple): It’s usually called a “small tree,” meaning that it rarely grows beyond 25 feet tall. I have heard some nurserymen call it the most elegant of trees, and yet it stands spindly in its container with barely a hint of future glory. It will have a rounded or oval silhouette, and reddish-orange or scarlet color in the fall after other colorful maples have petered out. At least it shows off its best feature early in its life: a rich, cinnamon colored, peeling bark – unforgettable against snow. It tolerates many soil types including our typical alkaline soil. If it is more expensive than another tree because it is slow growing and somewhat difficult to propagate. Place this tree out of the worst of winter winds in the Zone 5 region (east side of a building).
• Acer pensylvanicum (Snakebark or Moosewood/Striped Maple): Speaking of bark, wait until you see this straight green trunk with white vertical stripes. It has large (6- or 8-inch) leaves and grows 25 or 30 feet tall depending upon species or cultivar. Snakebark leaves turn bright yellow in fall. A beautiful feature that you may miss in the nursery is its shoots: red in winter and bright pink when they first emerge. This maple requires acidic, moist soil, and at least partial shade. Very cold tolerant. If you see a green striped bark, grab that tree. (Native.)
• Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura Tree): This is the tree I personally find the most difficult to sell without much acting and waving of arms, even though our country’s tree guru Michael Dirr has named it the first tree he would take to heaven with him. It really hates drought when it is young, so it tends to look a little drought-stressed in a pot. And the tall and slender specimens don’t hint at their eventual 50-foot tall (or more) stature with a perfectly oval shape. So look at pictures of it: The heart-shaped leaves open with bronze colors, then turn bluish green, and later bright gold or orange. When they drop they smell like cinnamon (or some say gingerbread or fudge). And the bark is multi-toned and deeply fissured. It needs moist soil and perhaps a little protection from full sun when it’s young (so it doesn’t dry out so quickly). Very hardy – many examples in Buffalo and at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. If it’s too tall for you, weeping forms can be found.
So many people buy flowering crabapples, dogwoods and magnolias in the spring. They’re flowering. It makes sense. But for long-term function and performance, many other trees might be much better choices. Consider an American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana – part shade, 35 feet tall, twisty (muscle-like) bark, brilliant fall colors, bird pleasing. Or plant the deciduous American Larch or a Dawn Redwood – both fast-growing to 50 feet tall with their bright fall needle colors. Or a Hophornbeam or Basswood for shade in the future.
Just look further than what you see in the pot. That tree will be so much more than you ever imagined (even if no kissing is involved).
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.