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).
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.
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.
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.