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.
The right tree in the right location can make all the difference in an outdoor space, yet many of us give very little thought to what trees are around us or why.
Sometimes it’s useful to step back and take a fresh look at our properties. Do some areas cry out for a splash of seasonal color? More contrast in texture? Winter interest? A living privacy screen? A self-generating food supply for wildlife? Could the views from inside the house use some improvement?
If so, the addition of an ornamental tree may be in order. But just what does that term mean?
“There’s not a perfect answer,” says Jon Carlson, owner of J. Carlson Growers, Inc., 8939 Newburg Road, Rockford. “Basically, the term makes a distinction between giant shade trees that are 30 feet tall or more, and smaller trees that are bred for certain attractive qualities.”
Newer ornamental pear trees, for example, are bred for their pyramidal shapes, spring blooms and colorful fall foliage; traditional pears are bred for their fruit. Both may be bred for improved disease resistance.
Ornamental trees are distinguished from shrubs by their singular trunk, but that line can blur, too. Rhododendrons, lilacs and hydrangeas can be grown or trained into tree forms. And conifers bred to be small and attractive can compete with the best of ornamental trees.
“Ever since builders started making residential lots much smaller in size, the demand for ornamentals has grown,” says Kyle Aurit, nursery manager for the past 11 years at K&W Greenery Inc., 1328 US Hwy. 14, Janesville. “You can’t necessarily fit a 70-by-50-foot maple tree or a huge oak on your lot. But you may want something other than what everyone else on your street has. So the varieties keep expanding.”
The U.S. National Arboretum alone has introduced 650 different woody and herbaceous plants to the public since 1930. While the number of species stays constant, the variety within each species is growing.
Today, homeowners can find dwarf or weeping forms of everything, from cherry, plum and crabapple trees to pines, hemlocks, larches and pussy willows. It’s important to make a good match between a tree and its planting site. This means giving thought to soil type, moisture and light conditions. Many forms of Japanese maple, for example, benefit from being near a house or other structure that protects them from strong winds and extreme cold. If your site is often soggy with rain runoff, a form of willow or birch might grow most successfully. It’s also very important to choose a tree that won’t outgrow your space.
“Most trees are pretty forgiving about soil and light conditions,” says Carlson. “The biggest common mistakes are putting a tree in the wrong site and taking bad advice when you plant it. It’s a lot better to pick the right tree for the space and let it do its thing naturally. Too often, people try to correct their mistake by pruning a tree too severely to make it fit.”
Local growers like Carlson and K&W offer stock that’s already thriving in our climate. Buying a tree from big box stores or nurseries that ship trees from warmer states is risky. Such trees may struggle to survive our cold winters, despite what their tags read, and the terms of a replacement guarantee may be difficult to satisfy long-distance. By contrast, local growers know exactly what to expect in our climate from any tree they sell.
“We don’t buy anything at all from growers south of us – the majority of our stock is either grown here or it comes from Minnesota, and occasionally from Oregon,” says Aurit. “It’s not that something shipped in from the South can’t make it, but it’s a much bigger gamble.”
Carlson, who raises most of his own stock on-site, has been specializing in ornamental trees and conifers for nearly 30 years. A journey through his sprawling acreage is a treat for the senses and provides a glimpse of how certain trees will look five or 10 years from now; how their branch habit will form; what wildlife is attracted to them; what colors they display in every season.
Scores of flowering trees put on a spectacular show in the Old Northwest Territory. A few favorites: crabapples, pears, redbuds, magnolias, serviceberries, witch hazels, dogwoods and tree lilacs.
“The newer crabapples are really improved in their disease resistance,” says Aurit. “The apple scab that caused brown spots on leaves and left bare spots by mid-summer is no longer an issue. Also, the fruit is a lot smaller, so it doesn’t make a mess on the ground and is easier for birds to eat.”
He recommends ‘Royal Raindrops,’ with its dark burgundy leaves and fruit, a cousin to ‘Golden Raindrops.’ He’s also a fan of ‘Candymint Sargent,’ unusual for its habit of growing wider than tall. It has bright pink flowers edged in deep pink with purple-tinged leaves, and tiny fruit. “Its bark is a handsome dark brown that looks nice against snow,” Aurit adds. Today’s crabapple forms vary from small lollipop to columnar, vase-shaped, upright oval, horizontal spreading, compact rounded, dwarf and weeping.
Carlson enjoys M. ‘Louisa,’ a pink weeping crabapple with yellow fruit; and the unusual ‘Corkscrew Louisa.’ To those who want a more traditional crabapple, he recommends ‘Firebird.’ “The tree has a small, rounded shape, with white spring flowers that bloom dependably, and bright red fruit,” he says.
Sturdier, no-fuss varieties of ornamental pear trees are loved for their four-season good looks. Carlson recommends ‘Aristocrat’ for its pyramidal habit with open, spreading branches, but adds: “You can’t beat ‘Autumn Blaze’ for great fall color.” Both have creamy white spring blossoms.
Aurit likes ‘Autumn Blaze,’ too, but at 25 to 30 feet tall and wide, it can outgrow some spaces. In those cases he recommends the ‘Korean Sun,’ pear tree, which grows just 10 to 15 feet tall and has a lollipop shape. “It’s ideal for anchoring a garden bed or the corner of a house,” he says. Aurit also likes ‘Cleveland Select.’ “It’s narrower and has a very sturdy shape.” Growers have improved upon the once-standard Bradford pear, introduced in the 1960s, which was loved for its white blooms and fall color but not its off-smelling fruit and brittle branches.
One of the more interesting and under-utilized flowering trees in our region is the witch hazel, with varieties that bloom either in fall or late winter – yes, winter. “It’s pretty unusual, but Vernal Witch Hazel [‘H. vernalis’] has reddish-orange flowers that open in February-March,” says Carlson. “It has yellow fall foliage and tolerates sun or shade.” Its maximum height is 15 feet, just like its cousin, Common Witch Hazel (H. Virginiana), which blooms with yellow flowers for several weeks in autumn. Both are fast-growers. Aurit likes spring-blooming ‘Diane’ for its red late-winter flowers and mix of yellow to red fall foliage.
If the very word “magnolia” gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling, you’re not alone. “A lot of times people choose a tree because they associate it with a good memory. That happens a lot with the magnolia tree,” says Carlson.
The magnolia has long been prized in southern states, but hybridization has allowed many generations of Midwesterners to enjoy hardy varieties. Carlson grows 11 of them, from fast-growing ‘Dr. Merill,’ with its cloud of white spring blooms, to ‘Leonard Messel,’ with large pink/purple flowers. For a modern twist on this old favorite, Carlson recommends ‘Yellowbird,’ with its late-flowering, bright yellow blooms.
Aurit also enjoys the newer yellow-blooming magnolias. “For one thing, there aren’t a lot of them around. ‘Butterflies’ is very showy, and it has a nice, waxy deep green leaf. But I also like the more traditional pink/purple varieties. Two of my favorites are ‘Ann’ and ‘Jane,’ which top out between 10 and 15 feet and bloom beautifully every year.”
Redbuds are another Midwestern favorite, often seen growing along wooded roadways. They’re distinguished by rosy-pink flowers that bloom all the way along the stems, the trees reaching 20 to 30 feet tall. Carlson grows several varieties, including classic Eastern Redbud, “which looks especially nice in woodland or naturalized type landscapes.” He’s also enamored by ‘Lavendar Twist,’ a stunning newer weeping form.
The serviceberry is a staple in our region, with its copper-colored fall foliage, pretty trunk structure in winter, delicate white spring flowers and profuse red berries in summer, much enjoyed by birds. Its natural structure is multiple small trunks that form a vase shape, but it can be trained as a single-trunk tree.
“Serviceberries look nice placed in groups and have airy structures that don’t block a view or the light,” says Carlson. He and Aurit recommend ‘Autumn Brilliance’ and ‘Princess Diana.’ Each blooms creamy white in spring, “and ‘Princess Diana’ has purple-blue berries instead of red,” says Aurit. “Neither grows more than 20 feet tall.” Carlson also grows a unique, pink-blooming variety called ‘Robin Hill.’
When it comes to tree lilacs, both Carlson and Aurit recommend ‘Ivory Silk,’ an easy-going and disease-resistant Japanese cultivar. Says Aurit: “It’s very tolerant and blooms in mid-June with creamy white, delicate-scented flower panicles.”
Carlson also likes ‘Pekin Lilac,’ with its fine-textured leaves, white flowers and “cherry-like reddish-brown exfoliating bark that’s interesting to see in the winter garden.”
Dogwood trees are another Midwest favorite. Carlson grows more than a dozen varieties and enjoys ‘Pagoda Dogwood,’ with its tiers of branches and delicate white spring flowers. For an unusual twist, he suggests ‘Cornelian Cherry,’ a form that boasts large, golden yellow flowers in spring and showy red fruit in fall. ‘Wolf Eyes’ is a lovely variegated Chinese dogwood tree with green leaves edged in cream.
Flowering trees aren’t the only stars of a beautiful property. Conifers are valued for the texture, shape 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. As with other ornamental trees, newer dwarf and weeping forms are catching the American imagination. 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’s a big fan of Norway Spruce. “It’s fast-growing, dependable and has dark green needles. 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; and ‘Dwarf Norway Spruce’ grows just 3 feet tall; and ‘Weeping Norway Spruce’ has pendulous branches that form a whimsical shape.
Aurit recommends ‘Sester Dwarf’ Blue Spruce, which won’t grow more than 10 feet tall or 6 feet wide. “It has such bright, powdery blue needles that really add color contrast, and it’s compact and very nicely shaped.” Hardy to minus 40 degrees, this no-fuss spruce grows more slowly than the better-known Colorado Spruce, which homeowners too often underestimate by planting in too-small spaces. For many of the same reasons, Aurit recommends the ‘Blue Limber.’
With more than 60 pine varieties growing on his property, Carlson finds it difficult to choose favorites, but points to ‘Tanyosho’ as an interesting, slow-growing and dense tree with a rounded head and flat top that produces an inverted umbrella effect. It exfoliates bark to reveal a reddish under-color. He also likes ‘Golden Mugo,’ a semi-dwarf with shapely oval form and long, light green needles that turn bright gold in winter.
Carlson sees a lot of interest in ‘Weeping White Pine.’ As the plant ages, boughs of soft, blue-green needles cascade. Other favorite conifers: ‘Weeping Hemlock,’ with its delicate, lacy foliage and arching branches; and‘Weeping Larch,’ a tall, irregular form with long, pendulous branchlets.
Although the differences among needles and scale-like leaves on conifers are subtle, they contribute to very different looks in weeping trees. “‘Weeping Norway Spruce’ is sort of an octopus,” says Carlson. “‘Weeping Larch’ is elegant and graceful. ‘Weeping White Pine’ has a completely different effect because of its long, soft needles. Each one is like a living piece of art.”
Still other trees are valued for their foliage color and unique attributes. Aurit points to Paper Bark Maple for its “copper-colored peeling bark that gets better with age and provides year-round interest.”
Carlson specializes in ornamental maples and sells about 65 kinds that have met his high standards through the years. Some favorites: ‘Amur Maple,’ a fast-grower that turns brilliant scarlet in fall; ‘Purple of the East,’ with dark purple spring leaves that turn green in summer; and rare ‘Groundcover Maple’ that grows just 1 foot tall.
He also likes ever-popular Japanese maple ‘Crimson Queen.’ Its lacy leaves are almost fern-like, cascading elegantly from branches that may grow as wide as the tree is tall. “It’s a stunning tree that appreciates being in a protected area away from extreme wind and cold,” says Carlson.
Beautiful Japanese maple cultivars just seem to keep multiplying. Aurit says: “The hardiest is probably ‘Emperor One,’ which does very well in our climate, especially if it’s somewhat protected from wind. It’s shade tolerant, has great orange fall color and a lovely, dissected crimson leaf.”
Beeches are another tree genus with multiple ornamental forms. ‘Tri-color Beech’ has variegated purple/pink foliage all summer long, then turns to copper in autumn. There are weeping varieties, like petite ‘Purple Fountain,’ which tops out at 12 feet, and ‘Weeping Purple Beech,’ which becomes mushroom-shaped with age. There’s also a new twisted form called ‘Tortuosa Purpurea Beech.’ And where space permits, Carlson heartily recommends ‘Horizontalis Beech,’ a large weeping form that grows 50 feet tall and wide. “This tree is just as beautiful in winter as in summer, because of the horizontal, twisting form it takes,” he says. “It’s like a big piece of sculpture.”
Aurit enjoys ‘Blue Beech’ (also known as American Hornbeam or Musclewood). He likes its “nice, round shape, interesting blue-gray striated bark and great orange-red fall foliage color.”
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 living relatives. Native to China, it dates back at least two million years and has unique and dainty bi-lobed leaves. Carlson grows several varieties, including tiny ‘Troll Ginko,’ just 3 by 3 feet, and ‘Weeping Gingko,’ a horizontal cultivar with beautiful yellow fall color. Older forms can grow more than 160 feet tall and live more than 1,000 years.
Another tree known for its unique leaf shape is the Katsura, which has delicate, heart-shaped leaves that emerge in red, turn bluish-green in summer and bright apricot in fall. “This is a wonderful, under-utilized, medium-sized tree,” says Carlson, who also grows it in weeping and dwarf forms.
Few specimen tree forms have amused people, in recent years, as much as curly, corkscrew and contorted ones. Examples include ‘Scarlet Curls Willow,’ ‘Curly White Pine’ and ‘Contorted Filbert,’ also called “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.”
“‘Contorted Filbert’ is quite a conversation piece,” says Aurit. “It’s one of a kind.” As the name implies, its stems curl and twist to form unusual shapes, and in winter, golden catkins (cylindrical clusters of tiny flowers) remain on the branches.
“I advise people to think hard about what they’re trying to achieve with a tree placement,” says Carlson. “Do they want shade on a patio? Are they trying to hide their neighbor’s RV from view? There are so many kinds of trees that offer so much.”
“The biggest problem I have with all these wonderful trees, in my own yard, is finding space to put them,” says Aurit. “The options are always expanding. I wish I could grow every one of them.” ❚