Shopping for the Right Tree

Betty Jakum
Adams County Master Gardener

It’s the peak of planting season, and I’m in search of the perfect flowering tree that will replace one that’s been all but done in by two summers of drought and a difficult winter. The tree I’m looking for needs to be small, flowering, withstand winter winds, and tolerate dry, sunny conditions. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But read on.

I love Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica). This tree flowers in May through early June. It has white, bell shaped mildly fragrant flowers, rounded habit, reaches 20’ – 25’ in height, and is hardy in zones 5 - 7. Sounds great! But here’s the thing; it does best in moderate shade to full sun and moist, well-drained soil. I can do the well-drained part, but moisture it will not get. So on to another possibility.

Syringa reticulata (Japanese Tree Lilac) is a beautiful tree. It gets large white flowers in early to mid June. The most common variety in this area is ‘Ivory Silk’. This tree is well adapted as a street tree and is great in parks. It reaches 20’ – 30’, tolerates higher soil pH, and does best in sun. It is hardy in zones 3 – 7. Of course, my husband likes to use natives when possible, and this tree is from Japan. But it is the perfect tree for my problem spot except that I already have one

Sourwood (Oxydendron arborem) is another lovely tree that blooms in June. It gets flowers that hang on drooping stalks called racemes. This U.S. native is a slender tree, slow growing, and has a great red fall color. It is hardy in zones 6 – 8. But I don’t think it will work for me because it does best in part shade and moist well-drained soils. However, maybe I could plant it along the wood’s edge.

Magnolias are beautiful trees. The saucer and star magnolias are commonly found in local nurseries and garden centers. The saucer magnolia (Magnolia soulangiana) has striking pink to purple flowers in mid to late April. It has a shrubby, rounded habit and smooth bark. The fall color is insignificant, but its spring show makes up for its fall shortcomings. It grows well in zones 4 – 9 and will take full sun to filtered shade. It likes soil with high organic matter. This tree could probably work for me, but again I already have one.

The star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is a nice tree, but for my location it just won’t work. Its habit is shrubby, and it likes moist, well-drained soils. It also wants to be protected from the winter winds. It is one of the earliest trees to bloom, usually in early May, and frost will damage the beautiful white flowers if not protected. It is perfectly hardy here in zone 6.

The fringetree, Chionanthus virginicus, is a small tree to large shrub. I love this tree; I have one. It is very late in coming out in leaf, but the wait is well worth it. Its flowers are fringe-like, as its name implies. They are a creamy white, very fragrant, and very showy, blooming in early June after the leaves have come out. This tree is a native and likes moist, acid soils. It tolerates part shade but blooms best in full sun. Because it requires moist, acid soils, I don’t think it’s the tree for my problem spot.

Crabapples (Malus species) are a large group of trees that provide lots of flower color in the spring. They come in colors of whites, pinks and purples. The crabapples are now being hybridized to resist disease problems that have long been associated with them. They like full sun and tolerate most soils. Their adaptability to most sites and the new disease resistant varieties make this group of trees more desirable than ever. They get nice berries, or crabapples, in the late summer/early fall, making them great for birds. However beautiful these trees are in the spring and fall, they tend to be messy when their berries drop. I think I’ll pass on this plant for my special spot.

Another possibility is the Yoshino cherry (Prunus yedoensis). This tree is very adaptable to most soils, tolerating clays and sandy soils alike. It is hardy to zone 6 and loves full sun. It is fast growing and has proven to be a good street tree because of its adaptability. It reaches to 30’ or more and provides beautiful white flowers in May. My favorite cherry tree, it is a good choice for my difficult spot. But I won’t end the search here.

As you can see, juggling the demands of various trees, not to mention my own site limitations, can be quite a challenge. However, it’s not all hard work. Searching to find just the right tree gives me an excuse to visit the many wonderful nurseries and garden centers in our area.

Read other articles about trees

Read other articles by Betty Jakum