No matter how small your yard or how fully-planted you might think it is, you probably have room for at least one more tree. Maybe not a giant oak, but most yards can still accommodate another small ornamental tree, or one of the delightful understory trees that are native, or adapted, to our Midwestern landscapes.
During the first 15 years we lived on our acreage we enjoyed the native woodlands that surround a ravine on the property. But we wanted a lot more variety, height, shade and structure in our landscape so we began planting species and cultivars of native and introduced, non-invasive trees and shrubs about 15 years ago. Our collection has grown to several hundred and we love them all, but here are a “delightful dozen” that rank among our favorites.
Shantung maple (Acer truncatum). This is a terrific small maple, whose leaves turn a beautiful reddish-orange in fall. Our specimen was damaged by the October 1997 snowstorm, but with a little pruning quickly recovered its oval shape. It does best in full sun but can take a little shade and still produce fall color.
Trident maple (Acer buergerianum), photo top right. Even visitors who profess no interest in trees seem to notice the dainty, 3-lobed leaves and muscly trunk of this delightful small maple. The dark green leaves turn a brilliant red every fall, and our two specimens have shrugged off some major snow and ice storms.
American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). “Musclewood” is a small, adaptable, understory tree with few insect or disease problems and nice orange-red fall color. It’s perfect for filling the gap between grass or groundcovers and the crowns of bigger shade trees.
Katsuratree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). Our 13-year-old katsura towers 35’ above a pathway behind the house. Its rounded leaves—red-tinged in spring, blue-green in summer and yellow in the fall—never fail to attract visitors’ interest. We like it so much we’ve planted two more.
White fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), photo opposite. This tiny, slow-growing tree, which thrives in either partial shade or full sun, rewards us with a spectacular flower show every spring. A friend gave us the 1917 book Trees Worth Knowing, which says, “Whoever goes into the woods in May is rewarded for many miles of tramping if he comes upon a ‘snow flower tree’ (fringetree) in the height of its blooming season…an experience that will not be forgotten.” Fortunately, you can grow one at home and save the tramping.
American yellowwood (Cladrastis lutea). This handsome, low-branching, rounded tree is mid-sized. We like its spring show of lacy white flowers, although ours often takes a year off between peak performances. Its bright green leaves provide a nice contrast to the darker leaves of oaks and maples.
Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides). This unusual small tree provides a late summer show of 6-inch-long clusters of creamy-white flowers. After the petals fall, the sepals turn rosy-red, producing a stunning flowering effect that lasts until Thanksgiving. Seven-son has handsome, peeling bark that resembles that of a crapemyrtle.
Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Dawn redwood’s delightful, feathery, bright-green leaves change to rich, reddish-brown in the fall. It’s a deciduous conifer from Asia, once thought to be extinct, and grows fairly rapidly into a huge, pyramidal tree. Ours flourishes in a low, wet, open spot.
American hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). Happy in either full sun or as an understory tree, “ironwood” has elm-shaped leaves and showy spring flowers. In his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael Dirr writes that its autumn color is seldom effective and the leaves fall early. That has not been the case for our hophornbeams. Instead, the leaves turn from yellow to rusty brown, hanging on most of the winter. We love the greenish-white fruits that resemble hops, too.
Mongolian oak (Quercus mongolica). We’d grow this one for its bright red fall color alone, although its dark-green summer foliage is eye-pleasing, too. Our two specimens are low-branching with a full, oval shape and no problems.
Common sassafras (Sassafras albidum). A pleasure in all four seasons, sassafras has bright yellow early-spring flowers and multi-shaped leaves that are bright green in summer, changing to orange, red and purple in fall. The bark is a dark reddish brown, very handsome in winter. Although suckering can occur, ours has remained a handsome, single-stemmed tree and has yet to produce a single sucker.
Lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia), photo opposite. This is the real Chinese elm, not to be confused with the weedy, breakage-prone Siberian elms that are often mistakenly called Chinese. The lacebark has, as its name suggests, beautiful bark. It also has small, glossy-green leaves and is highly resistant to Dutch elm disease. Two great cultivars are ‘Glory’ and ‘Hallelujah’ from Arbor Village Nursery in Holt, Missouri.