Tag Archive: Trees

  1. Elegant, Evergreen Magnolias

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    Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is graced with outstanding evergreen foliage and glorious bowl-shaped spring flowers. (image by Pam Beck)

    Gardening in eastern North America has many challenges.  But it also has many glories. Among the latter are the two evergreen magnolia species that call the region home.  Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and evergreen forms of sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana var. australis) have it all: handsome gray bark; large, sweet-scented, creamy-white flowers in late spring (and sporadically until fall); and evergreen leaves that take center stage in winter.

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    Southern magnolias add evergreen beauty to dull winter landscapes. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    These native beauties are also more cold-tolerant than most gardeners know.  Although they hail from the Southeast United States, they succeed in cultivation into USDA Zone 5b.  Centerpieces of many a Mid-Atlantic and Southeast garden, they’re also capable of making a statement in parts of New England, New York,  and the Midwest.

    Southern magnolia is one of those big, bold, primordial plants that looks like it just dropped in from the Cretaceous.  Indeed, its ancestors dominated much of Earth’s vegetation some 70- to 90-million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the planet.  But this magnificent magnolia also works just fine as a visually dominant specimen tree for twenty-first century landscapes.

    In its boldest forms, Magnolia grandiflora takes the primordial look to awe-inspiring lengths (and breadths).  The aptly named ‘Goliath’ (and the somewhat similar ‘Gloriosa’) produces enormous cupped flowers of ivory that open to a foot or more across, displayed against large, polished, relatively broad leaves.  The flowers of ‘Samuel Sommer’ are even larger (to 14 inches across), and its leaves have striking rust-brown felting on their undersides.  Selected for its abundance of bloom, ‘Majestic Beauty’ also features immense deep green leaves and a symmetrical, broadly conical growth habit.  Cultivars ‘Angustifolia’ and ‘Lanceolata’ have narrower leaves, felted brown underneath.

    Magnolia grandiflora 'Edith Bogue'

    The more delicate ‘Edith Bogue’ is best espaliered against a sturdy, protective wall.

    Although typically forming a slow-growing, 40- to 60-foot tree, Southern magnolia sometimes assumes more compact forms, as in the narrowly conical, 30-foot-tall ‘Little Gem’.  Its 4-inch-wide flowers are relatively precocious (most Southern magnolias varieties take several years to a decade to come to bloom), and as with most varieties they recur sparingly after the main flush in late spring.

    Two other compact Magnolia grandiflora cultivars are of particular interest to Northern gardeners.  Both ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ and ‘Edith Bogue’ have a good chance of succeeding into USDA Zone 5b in sites protected from winter sun and harsh northwest winds.  For sheer hardiness and sturdiness, ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ can’t be beat, although even this toughest of Southern magnolias will go brownish-tan in cold, Zone-6 winters.  The slightly more delicate ‘Edith Bogue’ is notorious for losing limbs to heavy winter snow, and functions best in North gardens as an espalier, with her branches fixed to a stout frame (a shaded east-facing wall is ideal).

    Whatever the climatic zone, Southern magnolia does best in relatively fertile soil that’s not too sandy or heavy.  A good compost (such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost) can help bring marginal soils into line.

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    The highly fragrant blooms of sweetbay appear in spring and are almost primrose yellow. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Native from Texas to North-Coastal Massachusetts, Magnolia virginiana makes a natural choice for gardens from USDA Zones 5 to 9.  Evergreen forms of this elegant small tree – known botanically as variety australis – are confined to the Southeast, and tend to either expire or defoliate in Zone 5 and 6 winters.  Exceptions do occur, however, including the cultivars ‘Henry Hicks’ and ‘Moonglow’, both of which are hardy and often evergreen (or semi-evergreen) into Zone 5b.

    In all its forms, sweetbay magnolia is one of the finest small trees for American gardens.  Typically single-trunked in warmer climes and multi-stemmed in chillier regions, it bears oval, rich green leaves with silvery undersides that shimmer in the breeze.  The cupped, creamy (almost primrose yellow) flowers debut in late spring and continue sporadically throughout summer, casting a piquant, questing fragrance reminiscent of roses or lemons.  Attractive clusters of red-fleshed fruits follow the blooms.  Often found in wetlands in nature, Magnolia virginiana is well suited for moister areas of the landscape (and loathes dry, sandy soil).

    Natural and Organic

    Before planting evergreen magnolias, fortify your soil with Fafard Natural & Organic Compost Blend.

    Also well worth growing is the hybrid between sweetbay magnolia and umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala), which combines the fragrant, summer-long blooms of the former with the bold, primordial, deciduous foliage of the latter.  Its cultivar ‘Cairn Croft’ is sometimes available from specialty nurseries.  Crosses between sweetbay and Southern magnolia have been developed and introduced by hybridizers, but offer no notable advantages over the parents.  For year-round leafage and beauty, these two exceptional natives can’t be beat.

  2. Trees with Beautiful Winter Bark

    Acer rufinerve bark

    The cheerful green bank of Acer rufinerve is a real winter standout.

    A number of hardy tree species possess bark that is eye-catchingly handsome, particularly in winter, when most everything else in the garden is dressed in frostbitten drab. Such trees are essential for bringing defining structure and color and texture to the winter landscape.

    The maples have given us a number of trees that possess arresting bark, including the iconic paperbark maple (Acer griseum). In its best forms, this highly variable Chinese native slowly matures into a 25- to 35-foot, round-headed specimen with polished, flaking, cinnamon-brown bark that is especially striking when frosted with snow. The three-parted leaves assume sunset tones rather late in fall. Paperbark maple interbreeds with another trifoliate East Asian maple, Acer nikoense, to produce hybrids with finely shredded bark of a somewhat paler cinnamon-brown. A third species in the three-leaved maple tribe, Acer triflorum, has shaggily flaking, silvery- to creamy-gray bark. It, too, is a small to medium tree, perfectly sized for most residential gardens in USDA Cold Hardiness Zones 5b to 8. Sunny or lightly shaded sites work best.

    Prunus maackii bark

    Prunus maackii bark is distinctive among cherry trees.

    Snake-bark maples constitute another group well worth growing for their colorful stems. Arguably the most beautiful is red-vein maple, Acer rufinerve. Some selections of this fast-growing, medium-sized tree have luminous lime-green bark marked with paler longitudinal fissures. Abundant, colorfully winged fruits dangle from the branches late summer and early fall. This Japanese native is closely related to our native moosewood (Acer pensylvanicum), which is sometimes represented in gardens by the red-stemmed cultivar ‘Erythrocladum’. Both do well in sun or partial shade.

    A Stewartia sinensis

    The mottled bark of Stewartia sinensis is one of many great features of this small tree.

    Like the maples, the genus Stewartia is centered in temperate East Asia and eastern North America, and contains several species with beautiful bark. The best known, Stewartia pseudocamellia, bears white, camellia-like flowers in early summer, and oval leaves that go fiery in fall. Its most notable feature, however, is its multicolored bark, which exfoliates into mottled patches of gray and bronze and pinkish-tan. Other, far lesser known stewartias (including Stewartia rostrata and S. sinensis) are also beautifully mottled. Also noteworthy is Stewartia monadelpha, a relatively slight species whose bark resembles that of paperbark maple. All these stewartias are small, rather spreading trees that make good choices for sunny to partly shaded niches in modest-sized gardens. Most are hardy to USDA Zone 5b.

    A Stewartia monadelpha

    Stewartia monadelpha is flaking brownish red bark with a greenish gray under layer.

    A diverse species that occurs over a wide range of Asia in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia) has given rise to numerous cultivars, including some dwarf selections that make ideal bonsai subjects. For the garden, forms with exfoliating bark are undoubtedly the most desirable, their trunks maturing into a stewartia-like patchwork. All forms flourish in full sun, and most will weather USDA Zone 5b conditions.

    Also notable for its showy patchwork bark (and also hardy into USDA Zone 5b) is a medium-sized tree from the witch-hazel family, Parrotia persica. Typically multi-stemmed and wide-spreading, it bears leaves that resemble common witch-hazel, and produces curious little early spring flowers composed of clusters of purple stamens. Fall color is often a spectacular blaze of orange, red, and smoky purple, with brightest coloration occurring in full sun.

    One of the best ornamental trees for sunny niches in especially chilly regions (USDA zones 3 to 6), Amur chokecherry (Prunus maackii) grows rapidly into a medium-sized tree with lustrous, shredding, tawny-orange bark that fairly glows in the winter landscape. Rounded clusters of white flowers open in spring, and are followed by small black fruits. Although relatively short-lived and prone to damage from heavy wet snow and ice, it is still unsurpassed as a four-season tree for cold-climate gardens.

    A. nikoense x A. griseum bark

    The bark of the hybrid A. nikoense x A. griseum bark is uniquely attractive.

    Peking tree lilac (Syringa pekinensis) resembles Amur chokecherry both in its exceptional cold-hardiness (USDA zones 3 to 7) and in the exfoliating, coppery bark of its finest forms (such as ‘Copper Curls’). But this variable Manchurian native offers greater longevity and clay-soil tolerance, as well as a bevy of fleecy, fragrant early-summer flowers. Typically multi-stemmed, it grows at a moderate rate to 20 to 30 feet tall, prospering in most soils in full sun.

    Copper-tinged bark and USDA Zone 3 hardiness are also among the virtues of another small tree from the harsh climes of Manchuria, Maackia amurensis. Amur maackia’s bark is remarkable not only for its rust-brown coloration, but also for the diamond-shaped exfoliations that decorate its surface, inviting closer inspection. Upright candelabras of dull white flowers deck its branches in early summer. The pinnately compound foliage of this single-stemmed, round-crowned, leguminous tree is an attractive dark green in summer, but offers little in the way of fall color. Growth is slow, even in ideal conditions (full sun and fertile, well-drained soil).

    Natural and OrganicPlant one of these trees with beautiful winter bark next spring, and it will bring much-needed color and presence to the garden next winter (and for years to come). To get it off to a good start, give it a planting hole that’s about the same depth as the root ball, and three times as wide. Amend the backfilled soil with a bit of balanced fertilizer, as well as a humus-rich amendment such as Fafard Natural & Organic Compost if the soil is excessively sandy or heavy.

  3. Small Trees Fit for Yard & Garden

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    The American fringetree is a small, shrubby tree that offers a cloud of soft, ivory flowers in spring.

    Small trees are useful things. Although lacking the lofty majesty of tulip poplar or silver maple or European beech, they compensate by being a good fit for yard and garden. Majesty is all well and good in a large city park or country estate. More modest properties, however, call for something that can coexist peaceably with nearby landscape elements such as perennials, dwellings, power lines, and neighbors. Happily, many tree species– including some of the best ornamental plants for American gardens – are of just such a size (20 to 30 feet or so).

    Euonymus carnosus fruit is colorful in fall.

    The fruit of Euonymus carnosus is bright crimson.

    As is true for all ornamental plants, the best small trees offer something at every season. Case in point: glossy euonymus (Euonymus carnosus). This East Asian native starts off spring by bringing forth handsome pale-yellow-tinged leaves. They deepen to lustrous dark green in summer and turn gleaming maroon-red in fall. Flat lacy clusters of creamy white flowers veil the tree in June, followed by plump fleshy seed capsules that ripen to rosy-pink. In late summer, the capsules split wide to reveal bright orange seeds that stand out against the smoky fall foliage. Greenish-gray, silver-grooved bark provides a pleasing winter feature. Unlike some others of its tribe, glossy euonymus appears to produce few volunteer seedlings and is thus not considered an invasive threat. It is well suited to sunny or partly shaded sites in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9.

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    Chionanthus retusus bears clusters of berry-like fruits of concord blue later in the season.

    Flowering at about the same time (and hailing from the same region) as Euonymus carnosus, Chinese fringetree (Chionanthus retusus) envelops itself in late spring with fleecy white flowers that cast a light sweet fragrance. The best forms of this rather variable species possess a single-trunked, vase-shaped habit and beautiful cherry-like bark that flakes and furrows with age. The dark glossy green leaves turn yellow in fall. Individual trees produce only male or female flowers, with female trees ripening a profusion of deep-blue fruits in fall (if a pollinating male is available). Chinese fringetree’s shrubby American cousin, Chionanthus virginicus, is similarly lovely in flower and fruit. Both make excellent specimens for sunny or lightly shaded gardens from zone 5 (or 4 in the case of Chionanthus virginicus) to 9.

    Like the best forms of Chinese fringetree, those of Peking lilac (Syringa reticulata ssp. pekinensis) are worth growing for their striking bark alone. The peeling, deep-coppery-tan, silver-dotted trunk and branches are eye-catching year round, but are particularly arresting in winter. Fragrant, frothy white flower clusters in late spring, amber fall color, and a round-crowned, single- or multi-stemmed habit add to Peking lilac’s all-season value, as does its exceptional cold hardiness (zones 3 to 7). It flourishes in full sun and fertile, medium-textured soil.

    Magnolia salicifolia has ivory spring flowers that appear before the foliage.

    Magnolia salicifolia has ivory spring flowers that appear before the foliage.

    Numerous magnolias make excellent subjects for small gardens. Among the best of these is sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), an evergreen to deciduous, often multi-trunked beauty occurring from the Deep South to coastal Massachusetts. Charming in every season thanks to its fresh green leaves and smooth gray bark, it is particularly alluring from late spring through summer, opening a succession of cupped, creamy-white blooms that fill the garden with a heady perfume that hints at lemons and roses. Southern, evergreen forms of the species (known botanically as variety australis) do best in hardiness zones 7 to 9, but a few (including ‘Henry Hicks’) are hardy and evergreen into zone 5. Cultivars (such as ‘Milton’) of sweetbay magnolia’s deciduous northern race are usually hardy through zone 5. All types do well in well-drained, humus-rich soil (I recommend amending soil with Fafard Premium Topsoil and Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss before planting) and full to partial sun. Other worthy small magnolias include umbrella magnolia (M. tripetala), anise magnolia (M. salicifolia), Yulan magnolia (M. denudata), star magnolia (M. kobus var. stellata and its hybrids), and the yellow-flowered ‘Elizabeth’. This list is far from exhaustive.

    The above are but a fraction of the small hardy trees that offer multi-season interest. Many more are to be found among the stewartias, dogwoods, maples, buckeyes, mountain ashes, and hornbeams, to name a few. Gardeners with limited space have a nearly limitless variety of suitably sized trees at their disposal.

  4. Persimmons and Paw Paws: Fall Fruits of the Forest

    Persimmon fruits sweeten up and taste best after the first frost of the season. (photo courtesy of Mark Miller)

    So you want to plant a fruit tree? Something that will fill that blank space in the back yard while supplying your family (and impressing your neighbors) with a bumper crop of juicy, scrumptious munchies?

    Great idea! Of course, you could always opt for a perfunctory apple or peach (which could all too easily develop into a horticultural and aesthetic nightmare). On the other hand, you could plant a tree (or two) that’s native to the eastern United States, offers year-round beauty, and yields succulent fruits that look and taste like they came from the tropics.

    Case in point: your back yard (if it’s not too small) could grow real persimmons, produced by the only hardy species in the ebony family. How cool is that! Native from the deep Southeast to southernmost New England, American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a comely, medium-sized tree characterized by knobbly, deeply grooved, “alligator” bark, large oval leaves, and relatively sparse, often sinuous branches. Of greatest interest to culinary gardeners, however, are its flavorful fruits, which put on a show as they ripen orange in late summer and early fall. A heavily fruiting tree gives the impression of being hung with hosts of miniature pumpkins. Astringent at first, the pulpy flesh sweetens and mellows to an eggnog-like flavor as the fruits mature, reaching its peak as they wrinkle and soften. It makes for good fresh eating, as well as for yummy puddings, pies and preserves.Far less remarkable are the fragrant, pale greenish-yellow, late-spring flowers, which tend to be exclusively male or female, requiring two trees for pollination and fruiting. Self-fruitful persimmons do occur, though, including ‘Meador’, an exceptionally cold-hardy, prolifically fruiting selection that bears at a relatively young age (typically 10 years).

    The American persimmon is a large tree with alligator-like bark that looks great in winter.

    If you’d like a cool tropicalesque native fruit tree in a somewhat smaller size, there’s always the only hardy member of the custard apple family. Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) occurs in the understory of rich woodlands from the mid-Atlantic to the Southeast to the Midwest, typically growing as a gaunt shrub distinguished only by its bold, oblong leaves that broaden toward their tips. But it undergoes a total personality change in sunny or lightly shaded gardens, developing into a small, densely leaved, round-headed tree that brings an equatorial vibe to the temperate landscape. It also produces its large potato-shaped fruits much more willingly in cultivation than in the wild, provided more than one variety is grown. The fruit’s relatively thin, pale green to yellow-green rind encloses a fleshy interior that turns yellow as it ripens to a custardy texture in late summer or early fall. Flavor varies from delectable to astringent, with the flesh of most named varieties (such as ‘Susquehanna’ and ‘Sunflower’) possessing a delightful, fruity taste reminiscent of banana, pineapple, or mango. Large, bean-shaped seeds also occupy much of the interior, but are typically smaller and fewer in cultivated varieties. Curious, fleshy, purple flowers precede the fruits in spring, adding to pawpaw’s singular charm.

    Paw paws, also called custard apples, have sweet yellowish flesh with a custardy banana-like flavor.

    Of brief shelf life (and thus rarely appearing in markets), pawpaw fruits are best eaten fresh off the tree, or incorporated into puddings, pies, preserves, custards, and ice cream. The flesh freezes well, making for a mid-winter, fridge-to-table treat. In addition to their delectable flavor, pawpaws also abound in nutrients including vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, potassium, amino acids, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. As with American persimmon, pawpaw is a tree — and fruit — of distinction, that will do your yard and table proud.

    Get your new tree off to a good start by planting it in spring or late summer in a hole that’s the same depth but several times wider than its root ball. Backfill with native soil, and mulch with a good compost, such as Fafard Premium Organic Compost, topped by 2 to 3 inches of leaf mold or bark mulch. American persimmon grows well in most soils, but pawpaw requires a relatively moist, humus-rich soil for optimal performance. Bon appetit!

  5. The Best Fall Leaves

    Rainbow Flowering Dogwood

    The tricolored leaves of Rainbow flowering dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Rainbow) are a fall delight!

    Cool, moist, bountiful summers lead to gloriously bright fall leaves. Why? Because the healthier the trees and shrubs, the brighter and more colorful the leaf pigments. (Leaf pigments require a lot of energy to make, which is why plants need to be healthy and productive to produce a lot.) So, if the growing season has been generous, the season’s leaf colors should be off the charts!

    A blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) glows against fall blue skies.

    It’s almost like magic when the fall leaves turn from green to fiery fall shades. Red, yellow, orange and purple fall leaf colors are present even in summer, but they are hidden behind a mask of green chlorophyll. This dominant green pigment hides nearly all other leaf pigments until temperatures cool down and leaves begin to die in autumn. As the leaves end their cycle, water-soluble chlorophyll breaks down while many of the brighter leaf pigments remain intact. So at the end of the season, leaves truly show off their true colors (or underlying pigments).

    Different pigment types produce different leaf colors, and there are three primary pigments, including chlorophyll. The two other types are carotenoids and anthocyanins. Carotenoids (think carrots) are water repellent and product bright yellow and orange colors in fall leaves. (The most common carotenoid is the healthful ß-carotene, which is in many of the foods we eat.) Anthocyanins are water-soluble and responsible for red leaf colors as well as purplish leaf colors. When the green chlorophyll in the chloroplast dies away, carotenoids and anthocyanins are the showy pigments left behind.

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    Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) leaves turn the finest shades of orange and gold.

    Best Gold and Orange Fall Leaves

    Of the yellow-, gold- and orange-leaved fall shrubs, few are as nice as native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) and Fothergilla (Fothergilla major and F. minor). The low, spreading fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro Low’) is also a winning shrub with bright gold and orange color. For peachy golden orange leaves, nothing is better than the sugar maple (Acer saccharum); the cultivars ‘Legacy’ and ‘Green Mountain’ are particularly bright orange show stoppers. Two more trees of note include the two deciduous conifers, the eastern larch (Larix laricina), which has lovely golden needles, and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), which turns rich russet orange. Finally, the pure gold leaves of the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) look like golden fans on the limb before they quickly fall to the ground creating a bright carpet of color.

    Best Red Fall Leaves

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    The red maple (Acer rubrum) is a classic tree for great fall red color.

    Gardeners love red-leaved trees and few are as crimson in fall as the red maple ‘October Glory’ (Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’), though the Freeman maple Autumn Blaze (Acer x freemanii ‘Jeffersred’ AUTUMN BLAZE) is a contender. A desirable tree with pleasing russet red leaves is the shumard oak (Quercus schumardii) while the native blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) offers leaves of the finest scarlet. Sumacs (Rhus spp.) of all manner of brilliance typically redden roadsides across North America, and a few like Prairie Flame Dwarf Sumac (Rhus copallinum var. latifolia ‘Morton’ PRAIRIE FLAME) are also great for the landscape. Two more superb red-leaved fall shrubs of desire are the chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’) and the orange-red-leaved Canadian serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis).

    Best Purple Fall Leaves

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    The purple-red fall leaves of sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) trees are unique and attractive.

    Many fall beauties have leaves emboldened with both purple and red hues. The ever-beautiful oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quericifolia) is one of these as is the classic flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). Of the flowering dogwoods, the disease-resistant cultivar ‘Appalachian Spring’, with its crimson-purple fall leaves, is the most recommended, but the tricolored cultivar ‘Rainbow’ is also a visual delight. The wonderfully hardy American cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) also turns pleasing shades of purple and red come autumn. And when it comes to trees with impressive purple shades, the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) are both exceptional.

    There are several ways to keep fall-fantastic trees and shrubs in prime health for the autumnal show. First, it is important to keep them well-irrigated during very dry periods. A mulch of rich compost or well-deteriorated bark will also help them retain summer moisture while dissuading weeds at the root zone. Fafard Premium Organic Compost is an excellent product for seasonal mulching. And if care and the season have been generous, take time to enjoy the fleeting but glorious color of fall.

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    Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) is one of the better native shrubs for crimson color.