Everyday trees provide beauty, shade, air purification and windbreaks, not to mention food and shelter for birds and animals. In spite of all that, we gardeners sometimes ask for even more—four seasons of interest.
The following 10 trees are great landscape performers, adding something special to the landscape in every season, including varying combinations of significant flowers, fruit, colorful leaves, and interesting bark. All are great garden investments that guarantee years of good horticultural returns.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)
These small deciduous trees are also known as serviceberry, Juneberry and shadbush. Whatever you call them, they are especially useful in small- to mid-size gardens. In spring, fragrant white flowers bloom in drooping clusters just before the leaves appear. The leaves are dark green by summer, setting off the small blueberry-like fruits that ripen gradually to dark-reddish-purple. Birds love them and humans have been known to harvest them for pies, jams, and other treats. When fall rolls around, the leaves turn shades of yellow, orange and red before dropping. Smooth gray bark, which is marked with reddish fissures, shines in the winter light.
Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)
Best known for its gorgeous flowers, Japanese stewartia also has spectacular bark. As the Latin name suggests, its flowers look like camellia blooms, with pure white petals and golden anthers. Unlike many flowering ornamental trees, Japanese stewartia flowers in early summer. Topping out at between 12 and 40 feet, this member of the tea family features oval-shaped green leaves that turn dark red, gold, and orange in the fall. Winter light reveals the smooth exfoliating bark that peels away to reveal dappled patterns of tawny brown and gray.
Lacebark Pine (Pinus bungeana)
This distinctive pine has all the landscape virtues associated with evergreens. Holding its needles through even the harshest weather, the large tree can be grown as a spreading, multi-stemmed specimen or trimmed into a single-stemmed tree that assumes a conical shape at maturity. What makes the lacebark pine distinctive is its exfoliating bark, which showcases patches of silvery-white, olive, and pale gray. Lacebark is an investment evergreen that will begin exfoliating at about the ten-year mark. By the time the tree reaches its mature size of 30 to 50 feet, the exposed portions of the bark will be gleaming white.
Coral Bark Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
Japanese maples in the coral bark group, like ‘Sango-Kaku’, feature palm-shaped foliage characteristic of these ornamental members of the maple clan. Growing to a maximum height of 25 feet, the trees are distinctive for their vibrant pink or red bark, which is brightest on young growth and most prominent in the winter. When leaves emerge in spring, they are light green with eye-catching reddish edges. The red gives way to darker green in summer, followed by a brilliant yellow fall color.
Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)
Tree guru Dr. Michael Dirr calls Persian ironwood, “one of the most beautiful trees for foliage effect”. As temperatures cool in the fall, the small tree’s lustrous green summer leaves turn vivid yellow, orange, and red. The effect is magnified by the leaves’ relatively large size—each one is up to five inches long. When the foliage has disappeared, ironwood’s exfoliating bark reveals a camouflage-like array of gray, green, white and brown. The beauty of that bark is complemented in spring when ironwood trees sprout curious flowers reminiscent of those of their other relatives in the witch hazel family. Though the flowers lack true petals, showy red stamens add visual interest, while the leaves wait in the wings.
Sargent Cherry (Prunus sargentii)
Once you have seen the bark of the Sargent cherry in winter, you will never forget it. It is the color of highly polished mahogany, interspersed with lighter brown lateral striations. But glorious bark is only one of the small tree’s attractions. The rounded, lightly toothed leaves are bronze-purple as they unfold, turning to green in summer, and dark red in fall. Like many ornamental cherry trees, Sargent types cover themselves with masses of single pink blooms in mid-spring. These are followed by nearly-black fruits, beloved of birds.
Green Hawthorne (Crataegus viridis)
Native to central to southeastern North America, green hawthorne is a handsome tree, growing 25 to 30 feet tall at maturity with a rounded crown. It begins the growing season covered in clusters of fragrant white flowers. These are succeeded by toothed, slightly lobed leaves that are green in summer and red-purple in fall. Hawthorne fruits, sometimes known as “haws”, are bright red, assuming that color in early fall and persisting through the winter. Trunks of mature green hawthorns exfoliate to reveal tawny brown inner bark. ‘Winter King’ is a favorite selection because of its numerous fruits and scarce thorns.
Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa)
The dogwood clan is full of beautiful trees, but the kousa dogwood stands out. Kousas are relatively small, topping out at about 30 feet tall. Blooming in spring, the trees feature characteristic dogwood “flowers”, each of which consists of a cluster of small, true flowers surrounded by four large, petal-like bracts that are pointed at the tips. The bracts start out white but turn dusty pink as they age. Kousa dogwoods produce unusual, decorative fruits that resemble small pinkish golf balls. The oval leaves are dark green in summer, turning red or red-purple in fall. Afterward, the exfoliating bark takes center stage in shades of gray, brown and tan.
Hybrid Holly (Ilex hybrid)
Of the hundreds of available hybrid hollies, evergreen ‘Nellie R. Stevens’, a hybrid of English and Chinese holly species, is a standout for hardiness, beauty, and four-season interest. Rising between 15 and 25 feet at maturity, ‘Nellie’ has a pleasing conical shape and abundant, shiny green leaves on densely branched trees. If you look carefully in April, you will notice small, greenish-white flowers. These give way to quantities of bright red holly berries that persist through the winter.
Chinese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata subsp. pekinensis)
If you love the shape and fragrance of lilac flowers, Chinese tree lilac is the four-season tree for you. The small, deciduous tree lilacs grow to about 15 feet tall and produce masses of creamy white, fragrant flower clusters in late spring or early summer, in addition to the dark green leaves typical of the lilac family. The brown seed capsules that come after the flowers persist through the winter when trees also reveal furrowed, reddish brown bark that often exfoliates.
Tree Planting Instructions
To make the most of any four-season tree, plant in spring or early fall in well-drained soil in full sun or light shade. Before choosing a location for your young tree, make sure that there is ample space to accommodate its mature dimensions. When planting, remove burlap or other covering on the tree’s root ball. Give your specimen a good start by amending the soil from the planting hole with equal parts of a quality amendment, like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Water in thoroughly while planting and water regularly while the tree is establishing its root system. Apply at least two inches of mulch in a three-foot circle around the tree to conserve soil moisture, but do not allow mulch to touch the trunk.