Understory native tree choices:
Asimina triloba (Pawpaw) – small tree (15-20ft) with big tropical looking foliage. Usually found growing in colonies from root suckering. Growth form is open as an uderstory tree but it also makes a tight well-branched rounded small tree grown in full sun. Good yellow fall color. Likes moist soils but is fairly adaptable. Dark purple flowers appear 3-sided and are pollinated by flies and beetles. Need more than one plant for best fruit production. Fruits late summer into fall, tasteing like banana/papaya. Short shelf life fresh but can be used in cooking or pulp frozen for later use. Many varieties available with better fruiting characteristics but those may be hard to find. Pawpaw is a larval host for the Zebra Swallowtail.
Carpinus caroliniana (American Hornbeam, Musclewood, Blue Beech) – Small tree (15-30ft) or multistem shrub usually with irregular habit, found commonly in the woods. Has smooth grey bark and the wood forms a sinuous, muscle-like appearance with age that gives its common name. In the hazelnut family, with separate male (catkins in spring) and female flowers. Fruit (nutlets) hang in papery clusters like a lantern, providing late fall into winter interest. Grouse, quail and squirrels eat the nutlets, probably other birds as well. Fall color is variable, yellow to good shades of red/orange. Frequently found in rich bottomlands where it can take some flooding. Fairly adaptable to other soils/limestone based. Can actually be used for hedging like the more common European Hornbeam.
Sassafras albidum (Sassafras) – More frequently found near wood edge, and often in clusters where root disturbance caused suckering. Very distinctive leaves, with 3 different forms present. Very attractive yellow flower clusters in spring before leaves emerge. Takes a fair amount of shade when young but can become quite large, especially in full sun. All parts of the plant are highly fragrant, with that distinctive citrusy/rootbeer scent. The fall color is variable but usually very good range of yellows/oranges/reds. Sassafras is a larval host or nectar source for some swallowtail butterflies and its fruit are a good food source for a variety of birds.
Flowering tree choices:
Cercis canadensis (Redbud) – The native species is a small (15-25ft) tree, sometimes found multistem. Very common flowering tree found growing in our calcarious soils; does not tolerate wet soil. Purple-pink flowers along the branches outline the tree in spring before the beautiful heart-shaped leaves emerge. A wide range of flower colors from white to pink to purple are available now, through the many cultivars, and look great when used in combination. Grows best on a wood edge where it receives some shade during hottest part of the day but will tolerate many conditions. Also available is a wide variety of leaf colors, and in weeping or dwarf forms. Some of the easy to find varieties: Whitebud, Appalachian Red, Tennessee Pink, Forest Pansy, Hearts of Gold, Rising Sun, Ace of Hearts, Little Woody, Floating Clouds, and in the weepers Lavender Twist, Pink Heartbreaker, Ruby Falls, and Whitewater.
Cladrastis lutea (Yellowwood) – Native but rare in
Chionanthus virginicus (Fringetree, Old Man’s Beard) – Small rounded tree, usually grown low branched or even multistem. In
Very Small Shade Trees (~15ft):
Viburnum prunifolium (Blackhaw Viburnum) or V. lentago (Nannyberry Viburnum) - The distinction between a large shrub and small tree is blurry. These two large native shrubs can be limbed up as a multistem tree or can be trained when young into a single trunk. These do double duty as an ornamental with white flower clusters in spring followed by profuse and beautiful fruit clusters. The glossy foliage turns an outstanding red in the fall. Root suckers can be a problem, especially if you dig around the tree and disturb the roots.
Amelanchier cultivars (Serviceberry) – Another large shrub/small ornamental tree that can fit the bill as a small shade tree, the Serviceberry enjoys moist soils and will grow faster under these conditions but will also tolerate fairly droughty soils after established. Many of the cultivated varieties in particular will remain in the 12-18ft range, such as Cumulus, Robin Hill, Cole’s Select, Autumn Brilliance. The Serviceberry puts on a splendid Spring flower show, though it tends to be short-lived. The fruit is excellent to eat fresh or baked, though typically taken by wildlife before fully ripened. Serviceberry is another small tree with dependably good fall color.
Acer ginnala (Amur Maple) - Frequently used in the landscape in a multistem form because its dense twiggy habit also gives some privacy, it can also be limbed up or grown as a single stem small tree. Actually has fairly showy white, fragrant flowers (for a maple!) The most available variety is one call Flame, so named for its brilliant red fall color. The Amur Maple does produce prolific seeds, however, which remain on the tree in winter. It shouldn’t be used near natural/sensitive areas where seedlings could spread.
Small Shade Trees:
Acer rubrum ‘
Parrotia persica (Persian Ironwood) – This is one more typically found in public gardens but would be perfectly suited to the home landscape. Can grow to medium shade tree (20-40ft) size but since it grows more slowly, I would consider it a small tree. Often grown as a multistem tree. This native of
Koelreuteria paniculata (Goldenraintree) – Another tree blurring the lines between ornamental and shade tree, the Goldenraintree is of modest height and equally wide or wider spread. It’s name comes from the large panicles of yellow flowers that cover the tree in early to mid summer, long after all the spring flowering trees have finished. The flowers give way to papery lantern-like seed capsules that are considered decorative by some. Seeds will germinate below the tree but are not carried away by birds and so generally this is not considered a problem tree. This is a tree will tolerate dry and alkaline soils and a fair amount of pollution.
Medium Shade Trees:
Ostrya virginiana (Hophornbeam, Ironwood) – Another native tree widely distributed in the
Nyssa sylvatica (Black Gum, Tupelo) – Not as common locally but widely distributed in eastern forests, Black Gum is a very desirable shade tree which will easily reach 35-50ft at maturity. It’s shape is somewhat pyramidal when young, it has some downward reaching branches- like a pin oak. New leaves emerge with distinct red coloration and in at least one cultivar, Wildfire, this is a feature that stretches throughout the growing season. Black Tupelo likes deep moist soils and while most urban landscapes don’t meet that description, the tolerance to moisture does make this tree more adaptable to wet soil conditions. This is another species that comes in male or female; the female produce a dark blue/black fruit that is relished by birds. Fall color is always an outstanding firey red.
Acer miyabei ‘Morton’ (
Large Shade Trees:
Fagus grandifolia (American Beech) – Ultimately a very large tree (50ft +) it typically spends its young life as an understory tree until the canopy begins to opens up (a “climax species”). Will do better with semi-shade when young. Foliage is beautiful glossy green that turns to bronzy yellow in fall, then golden brown, then light brown and persist over winter. The leaves make the tree readily apparent in the winter understory. The smooth grey bark is one of its best features and also make it easily identifiable in the woods. Beech are shallow rooted so plant where there isn’t going to be a lot of foot traffic. The 3-sided nuts are an important hard mast source for wildlife.
Aesculus octondra syn. flava (Yellow Buckeye) – Very common tree in our woods, it has that unique hand-shaped 5-part compound leaf. This tree will easily reach over 60ft with maturity. The flowers, are very showy yellow panicles. It produces the familiar Buckeye seeds, usually 2 or 3 to a capsule. The easiest way to tell the yellow Buckeye from the Ohio Buckeye also found in our local woods is that the surface of this capsule will be smooth, versus spiny. Also, for the home landscape the Yellow Buckeye is preferred because its foliage isn’t disfigured by leaf blotch which causes so many others to defoliate by August, which means you will get to appreciate its beautiful yellow/orange fall color. There is also a hybrid of the Yellow Buckeye available (Autumn Splendor) which has an even more intense orange/red fall color.
Quercus macrocarpa (Bur Oak) – A very common resident of our limestone soils, there are many very large specimens of this Oak in
Liz’s Tree Picks
Very Small Shade Trees
Small Shade Trees
Medium Shade Trees
Large Shade Trees