Ornamental trees can add shade, color and liveliness to any landscape, but there’s a certain art to finding the right one for your landscape. Learn about the best varieties and what makes them so popular.
Sometimes it’s useful to step back and take a fresh look at our landscapes. Do some areas cry out for a splash of seasonal color? Better contrast in texture? More winter interest? A natural privacy screen or food supply for wildlife? Does your property need something to distinguish it from others on the street?
If so, the addition of an ornamental tree may be in order. But just what does that term mean?
“We think of ornamental trees as flowering or otherwise providing some kind of interest beyond just shade,” says Robert Bloom, nursery manager at Platt Hill Nursery, 2400 Randall Road, Carpentersville and 222 W. Lake St., Bloomingdale. “They’re bred for aesthetics more than function, and are smaller trees, typically 20 feet tall or less.”
As residential lot sizes have diminished, ornamental tree varieties have expanded. The U.S. National Arboretum alone has introduced 650 woody and herbaceous plants to the public since 1930. While the number of species stays constant, the number of cultivars within each species just keeps growing.
It’s important to make a good match between a tree and its planting site. This means giving thought to your soil type, moisture, light conditions and space.
“The best thing to do is come to a nursery and talk to someone who really knows what kind of tree will do well in your particular site,” says Karen Campney, nursery manager at Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery & Garden Center, 5301 Terra Cotta Ave., Crystal Lake. “And bring in a snapshot that shows us the site from a distance, so we can see it in context. We need to know what kind of sunlight the tree will receive.” (Hint: cell phone photos are too hard for nursery employees to see in bright sunlight.)
“Most trees are pretty forgiving about soil and light conditions,” says Jon Carlson, owner of J. Carlson Growers Inc., 8939 Newburg Road, Rockford. “But people sometimes try to force a tree to fit a space that’s too small, by severely pruning it. It’s better to put the tree in the right space and let it do its thing.”
The best local nurseries offer trees that already thrive in our climate. It’s risky to buy trees from big-box stores that import stock from warmer parts of the nation. Such trees may struggle to survive cold winters, despite what their tags state. Also, the terms of a replacement guarantee may be difficult to satisfy if the tree dies. By contrast, local growers know exactly what to expect in our climate from any tree they sell.
“Temperature and soil conditions matter a lot,” says Sean Ducey, manager of Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center, 8401 Ill. Rte. 31, Cary. “If a tree has been grown in sandy soil somewhere in the South, and you place it in our green clay and expect it to thrive, it’s just not going to happen.” Whispering Hills either grows its own stock or buys it locally. Nothing is imported from a warm-weather climate. “This is better for the plants, the homeowners, the environment and us, since it requires less fuel,” says Ducey.
Scores of flowering trees put on a spectacular springtime show in the northwest suburbs. Among favorites: magnolias, pears, crabapples, redbuds, serviceberries, witch hazels, dogwoods and tree lilacs.
Magnolias are a Southern favorite that have become a Midwestern favorite over the past century, thanks to good breeding of hardy plants. The ‘Leonard Messel’ Japanese magnolia places high on the recommendation list of Gwen VanSteen, nursery manager at The Gardens of Woodstock, 5211 Swanson Road, Woodstock. “It’s dependable, easy to grow and beautiful,” she says. “Plant it on the east side of a house, to protect it from harsh west winds. This helps the blossoms last longer.”
Campney likes the “Little Girl” magnolia series. “People tend to think first of the traditional Saucer magnolia, which is absolutely gorgeous, but has one slight drawback,” Campney says. “It blooms early, so there are years when the flower buds freeze.” That’s why she stocks the Little Girl series at Countryside. Developed as an eight-tree series during the 1950s at the U.S. National Arboretum, “These are bred to bloom a little bit later and the trees are a little smaller, just 10 to 15 feet tall,” she explains. Named for the daughters of the horticulturalist who developed them, ‘Ann’ and ‘Jane’ are perhaps best known, with pink-purple and reddish-purple blooms, respectively. More unusual are ‘Ricki,’ with deep purple blooms, and ‘Susan,’ with reddish-purple blossoms.
“We’ve also had very good success with the ‘Butterflies’ magnolia,” Campney adds. It unfurls medium-yellow blossoms in early spring, before glossy green leaves emerge, and suits those who seek something a bit unusual. For something really novel, Campney suggests the ‘Black Tulip’ magnolia, which has nearly-black buds that open into very deep purple.
Another tree that’s improved tremendously with breeding is the beloved crabapple, though VanSteen cautions that these trees may require some maintenance, such as trimming suckers and guarding against pests like tent worms.
“I’m a big fan of the ‘Royal Raindrops’ crabapple,” Bloom says. “It’s tough as nails and has beautiful, dark pink flowers in spring. It holds its color even in the heat and is very resistant to insects and disease. It keeps its fruit into winter, which means no mess below, and the critters love to eat it. It’s attractive even after it’s done blooming, because of its dark burgundy porcelain leaves.” A close cousin is ‘Golden Raindrops,’ which has white creamy flowers, green leaves and small, golden yellow fruit. Both trees grow about 20 feet tall and have a spread that’s 15 feet wide.
Ducey recommends ‘Red Jewel’ as a dependable flowering crabapple tree, because of its white spring flowers and bright red summer fruit. He likes its pleasing pyramid shape and upright growth habit. It’s slightly smaller than ‘Raindrops,’ topping out at 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide. “Crabapple trees are a good example of how problems can be overcome by good breeding,” Ducey says. “We all remember seeing a lot of apple scab on crabapples when we were growing up, but that’s no longer a problem with these newer varieties.”
Newer varieties of the ornamental pear, such as ‘Aristocrat,’ are much improved since the introduction of the brittle, problematic Bradford pear in the 1960s. Along with disease-resistance, the newer variety has no-mess tiny fruit and stronger branches. Bloom’s favorite is ‘Chanticleer,’ with its narrow pyramid shape and creamy white spring flowers. He also likes the globe-shaped ‘New Bradford.’
“It has snowy white flowers in spring, glossy green leaves in summer and colorful foliage in autumn,” he says.
Redbud trees are distinguished by rosy-pink flowers that bloom all the way along their stems. But this is a case in which newer cultivars are not necessarily better, says VanSteen. “I find that people are better off sticking to the standard, true redbuds like Eastern Redbud,” she says. “Some of the newer cultivars are a little bit weaker.”
Campney is a big fan of the weeping redbud, especially ‘Lavendar Twist,’ which offers four-season interest. She agrees it’s a bit fragile, however, and should be planted far away from foot traffic. In winter, ‘Lavendar Twist’ is an umbrella-shaped sculpture comprised of zig-zag weeping branches; in spring, the branches are covered with small, rosy-pink flowers. Summer brings an abundance of heart-shaped leaves that turn golden in autumn. As with corkscrew, contorted and other odd-shaped ornamental forms, people tend to react strongly to weeping trees.
“It’s kind of interesting to observe peoples’ first expressions when they see a tree like the weeping redbud, beech or mulberry,” Campney says. “They instinctively either love them or hate them.”
When customers ask him for something “out of the ordinary,” Ducey often points them toward the witch hazels he stocks at Whispering Hills. “These trees are too often overlooked. They do well in our climate, rarely get diseases and bloom at times when little or nothing else is blooming,” he says. One variety actually blooms during late winter – yes, winter. Vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis) has reddish-orange flowers that open around February and March. Common witch hazel (H. Virginiana) blooms with yellow flowers for several weeks in autumn. Both are fast-growing. ‘Diane’ is a favorite vernal variety, with copper-red to red flowers and rich, orange fall color.
Another tree that’s under-used, in Ducey’s judgment, is the Seven-Son Flower tree (Hepticodium miconioides), a member of the honeysuckle family that can be trained to grow as a single trunk or low-branched tree. Its shiny, downward-pointing, heart-shaped leaves emerge in early spring and turn yellow with silvery undersides in autumn. “It’s a late-flowering tree that produces a nice white jasmine-type flower in August, followed by bright red sepals [the flower base that surrounds developing seeds] into fall,” says Ducey. “So you get this two-stage color that’s really amazing. It also adds to the winter landscape, because it has peeling bark that reveals a chocolate color. It’s very hardy, disease-resistant, drought-tolerant and exotic looking.”
Less exotic, but very dependable, is the serviceberry, uniformly recommended by growers for its delicate white spring flowers, red summer fruit prized by wildlife, copper to red-colored fall foliage and airy, vase-shaped trunk that’s pretty in winter.
‘Autumn Brilliance’ and ‘Princess Diana’ are popular serviceberry cultivars, the former boasting brilliant red fall foliage, the latter showing berries that are purple-blue instead of red. The average height of either is 15 to 20 feet. VanSteen also recommends ‘Shadblow,’ a bit taller at 30 feet, with yellow-to-red fall color and snowy white spring blooms.
Growers are enthusiastic about some of the newer tree lilacs, too. “We’re very excited about ‘Snow Dance,’ a 20-foot-tall Japanese lilac with big, lush, creamy white flower panicles that bloom in June,” Campney says. With an attractive shape that’s slightly wider than tall, averaging 18 feet tall and 20 feet wide, this tree is pest- and disease-free, won’t produce brown seed heads and has dark green leaves that set off the showy flowers beautifully.
Carlson recommends the smaller ‘Pekin Lilac,’ with its fine-textured leaves, white flowers and cherry-like, reddish-brown, exfoliating bark. Another easy-going favorite with similar characteristics is ‘Ivory Silk.’
Dogwood trees are another Midwestern favorite. Carlson grows more than a dozen varieties and enjoys ‘Pagoda Dogwood,’ with its tiers of branches and delicate white spring blooms. For an unusual twist, he suggests ‘Cornelian Cherry,’ a dogwood that boasts large, golden-yellow flowers in spring and showy red fruit in fall.
Flowering trees aren’t the only stars of a beautiful property. Conifers are valued for the shape, texture and year-round color they contribute, since most are evergreen. They typically have cones and needles or small, scale-like leaves rather than broad, flat leaves. Newer dwarf and weeping forms have caught the American imagination and added whimsy to landscapes. Conifers include pines, false cypresses, spruces, junipers, larches, redwoods, yews, arborvitae and more.
A member of the American Conifer Society, Carlson grows more than 200 kinds. “You need showy plants like crabapples and forsythias, but I’ve always thought it was important to choose trees for their year-round form, and conifers are great that way,” he says. Carlson likes the Norway Spruce. “It’s fast-growing, dependable and has dark green needles,” he says. “It won’t brown out like some conifers do – ones that really weren’t meant to live in our region and shouldn’t have been sold here.”
A narrower version, ‘Columnar Norway Spruce,’ is ideal for vertical interest; ‘Dwarf Norway Spruce’ grows just 3 feet tall; and ‘Weeping Norway Spruce’ has a fairy tale look. Carlson is also a fan of ‘Golden Mugo’ Pine, which he describes as “a semi-dwarf with shapely oval form and long, light-green needles that turn bright gold in winter.”
At Platt Hill, Bloom often recommends the ‘Fat Albert’ Blue Spruce. “It’s a very dense, bright blue tree, more of a dwarf in size, and does very well in our climate,” he says.
Campney recommends ‘Sester Blue’ spruce, a dwarf with a pleasing pyramid shape and true blue needles. She also likes ‘Vander Limber’ Pine.
VanSteen finds it hard to choose a favorite conifer. “They’re so important to a landscape, and there are so many great ones,” she says. VanSteen points to ‘Emerald Twister’ Douglas Fir as an easy-to-grow contorted fir that makes for interesting conversation. She also favors pendulous Serbian Spruce, with its tall, slim form, purple pine cones and draping cascade of new growth. Its green needles have silvery white undersides.
At Whispering Hills, Ducey encourages homeowners to use conifers as privacy screens, wind-break energy savers, specimen plants and sources of year-round color and interest.“One-third of every landscape should be comprised of conifers,” he says. Along with spruces, pines and common arborvitae, homeowners should explore conifers in the Chamaecyparis (false cypress) and cypress families, says Ducey.
Beyond flowering and evergreen trees, other trees are valued for their unique attributes, such as Japanese Maples, available in a mind-boggling number of variations. Among Bloom’s favorites are ‘Crimson Queen,’ with its delicate, lacy red leaves, and ‘Bloodgood,’ which offers burgundy foliage that turns bright red in autumn.
“Japanese maples are best located near something that gives them some protection from extreme wind and cold, but they generally do very well in our climate,” says Bloom. “Other beautiful maple varieties include ‘Red Sunset’ and ‘Autumn Blaze.’ They’re durable, fast growers that rarely have issues and offer stunning fall color.”
“The ‘Paperbark Maple’ is an extremely nice, slow-growing tree with absolutely beautiful, brilliant red fall color and peeling bark that reveals a fabulous green color underneath,” says Campney. “You don’t see as many of them around the region as you’d like, because they’re very expensive, being slow growers.”
Beeches are another tree genus with multiple ornamental forms. ‘Tri-color Beech’ has variegated purple/pink foliage that turns to copper in autumn. There are weeping beeches, like petite ‘Purple Fountain,’ which tops out at 12 feet, and ‘Weeping Purple Beech,’ which becomes mushroom-shaped with age. There’s also a newer twisted form, called ‘Tortuosa Purpurea Beech.’
Where space permits, Carlson recommends ‘Horizontal Beech,’ a large weeping form that grows 50 feet tall and wide. “This tree is just as beautiful in winter as summer, because of the horizontal, twisting form it takes,” he says. ‘Blue Beech,’ also known as American Hornbeam or Musclewood, has an interesting, striated trunk and striking orange fall foliage.
With their unusual colors of bark, Birch trees provide contrast and thrive in soggy soil sites. Campney recommends ‘Royal Frost Birch’ for its unique purple foliage that brightens to crimson in fall.
Among trees with historic importance, few are more closely associated with antiquity than Ginkgo biloba (Maiden Hair Tree), a genus in its own right, with no close relatives. Native to China, it dates back at least two million years and has dainty bi-lobed leaves.
Another tree known for its unique leaf shape is the Katsura, with delicate, heart-shaped leaves that emerge in red, then turn bluish-green in summer and bright apricot in fall.
Few specimen tree forms have amused people so much in recent years as the curly, corkscrew and contorted ones, like ‘Scarlet Curls’ willow, ‘Curly White Pine,’ and ‘Contorted Filbert,’ also called “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.”
Pleasing the senses, and the heart, is, after all, what good landscape design is all about.
“Line, form, color, texture,” says Bloom. “That’s what they teach us in design school, and it really holds true over time. Putting the right plants in the right places makes all the difference in how you feel when you come home.” ❚