Sunday, December 18, 2011

Underused Native Trees

I’d like to spotlight some trees that don’t get used enough in the Georgia Piedmont area.  I was helping someone recently put together a list of native trees that developers could use when choosing trees for a project that would require new trees - either for restoration or for landscaping a new area.  I wanted to include trees that were generally available because it does no good to recommend something that is hard to obtain, yet I know that in practice many of the same plants get used over and over again.  How about some trees that are still sold in nurseries but are not used over and over again?

Lily of the Valley tree or Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

Large trees are an important component of the landscape – they provide shade and structure in the landscape as well as support for a large amount of wildlife.  Here are five large trees that I think could be used more in residential plantings:

  • Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) is a fast growing tree with great fall color; it supports wildlife as a host for many species of Lepidoptera as well as by providing acorns for turkeys, deer and small mammals.  Height is up to 80 feet.
  • American beech (Fagus grandifolia) grows throughout Georgia except the southeastern area.   While not a very fast growing tree, if you’d like to leave a legacy, grow a beech - they can live up to 300 years.  Mature height is up to 80 feet tall.  The leaves transition through the year from a deep green to yellow to brown to light tan that can persist all winter long.
  • Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is an adaptable tree that grows well in average soil or in wet conditions; it has good fall color (especially some of the cultivars) and produces berries that birds enjoy.  Height is up to 60 feet.
  • Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is a semi-evergreen to evergreen (especially M. virginiana var. australis) tree that is native to the Coastal Plain and southern areas of the Piedmont.  Flowers are especially fragrant and the leaves are very attractive, showing silvery backsides when the wind is blowing.  It naturally grows in moist areas. Height is up to 60 feet in the more southern areas of its range.
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is also widely distributed throughout Georgia.  The vibrant fall color is familiar to many people as is the distinctive “mitten” shape of some of the leaves.  It is a dioecious plant so only the flowers on the female trees produce blue drupes that the birds enjoy. In optimal conditions, it grows up to 60 feet but is usually smaller.
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)

Don't want something so big?  Well, here are five medium trees that should be considered more often:

  • American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) is not nearly as well-known as its European cousin which comes in shades of purple.  Although the natural range in Georgia is limited, this tree does well in gardens as a specimen plant; the feathery flowers are the reason for the common name.  The foliage is handsome and fall color is good.  It grows up to 25 feet. 
    • Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a summer blooming tree with excellent fall color and is adaptable to sun or shade.  The flower sprays resemble lily of the valley blooms.  It is naturally found in the Piedmont and upper Coastal Plain.  Although it can grow up to 50 feet, it is normally up to 30.
    • Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) has a leaf that resembles Northern sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and also Chalk maple (see below).  Fall color is clear yellow with usually little hint of orange. A smaller tree than Northern sugar maple, it grows to about 25 feet or more. Unlike the more common red maple (Acer rubrum), the fruits mature in the fall.  
      • Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) is a smaller tree than A. barbatum (above) with more fall color variation in my experience – you’ll see some red/orange hues.  Chalk maple may be multi-stemmed in form and usually is less than 25 feet.  The common name is derived from the pale color of the bark. Fruits mature in the fall.  
        • Musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) is also called Ironwood because the wood is so hard, but most people recognize it by its sinewy trunk.  Hornbeam is another common name.  The flowers are not showy, but the tree has an attractive shape and the fall color can be nice.  Height can be up to 35 feet.
        Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme)

        When you’re looking for a small tree, often you can find what you need in a large shrub.  Therefore, the last five “trees” might also be considered shrubs.  But does it matter what you call them?  They fit the bill when you need something small and tree-like:

        • Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is a beautiful small tree with outstanding form.  The leaves are good-looking, the flowers are nice, and the blue fruit is popular with birds.  For those of you used to seeing Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), this is a lot different, but the birds will love you for it. Height is up to 25 feet.
        • Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is more upright than most viburnums, allowing it to have a tree-like form.  Rusty blackhaw viburnum (V. rudfidulum) is very similar. The fall color is superb and the birds relish the fruit. Height is up to 15-20 feet.
        • Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) is getting more use these days, but be careful you don’t accidentally buy the Chinese species.  The spring bloom on this small tree warrants usage as a specimen tree where people can appreciate the unique flower show.  This dioecious plant only produces fruit if female, but supposedly the male has showier flowers. Another common name is Grancy greybeard.  Height is up to 20 feet. 
        • Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a great plant for hummingbirds in the spring and squirrels in the fall.  This shrubby buckeye is a surprise to those familiar with the Ohio and yellow buckeyes that grow so large.  Painted buckeye (A. sylvatica) is similar to red buckeye and the two can hybridize in the wild. Growing in part-shade, these shrubby buckeyes can grow to 20 feet. 
        • Parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) is one of the prettiest hawthorns, especially the foliage.  Hawthorns in general are good host plants for many Lepidoptera, and their fruit is popular with birds and small mammals.  Height is up to 20 feet and this species is tolerant of occasional wet conditions.
        Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
        Parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii)

        So if you have occasion to need a new tree, think about these.  You'll have something out of the ordinary, you’ll increase market demand in the nursery trade, and you just might inspire one of your neighbors to think differently as well.

        Where can you find these plants?  First ASK your local nursery.  Nurseries need to hear from their customers about plants that they want.  Even if they don’t have them, your question will alert them to consider ordering them in the future.  Or they may be able to order them for you right then.

        Mail order sources may be an alternative for you if you don't live near any sources.  Always search using the scientific name to make sure you are searching for the right plant.  For mail order companies, do check ratings and customer reviews on Garden Watchdog. If the company is not listed on Garden Watchdog - beware!  At least one disreputable company in Georgia sued to have Garden Watchdog remove their poor rating and bad customer reviews.


        1. I sure hope the fine folks in Georgia appreciate your efforts. If not, please feel free to do a Central Virginia edition!

        2. Great post Ellen. Only a few of these range into the north woods - Blue Beech (Musclewood) and the Pagoda Dogwood. American Beech I am really fond of, it was common where I grew up in Ontario. Can't beat its smooth gray bark.