Selecting Native Trees for Your Yard

Janet Larkin
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

There are 77 species of native forest trees in Frederick County however, not all of them would be suitable or desirable for a home landscape. Natives are not necessarily more resistant to disease than other plants but they are well suited to the climate and soil and also provide food and shelter for local wildlife. In general the faster growing trees are more short-lived and prone to more problems at maturity than slower growing species. For a bare lot you may wish to plant a few fast growing trees to appreciate now and to provide some immediate privacy, but donít forget to plant some slower growing trees for you or your grand kids to write poems about. Good soil, (not compacted by construction trucks) and good drainage is appreciated by most varieties. 

Of the native evergreens the White pine (Pinus strobus) is fast growing but intolerant of air pollution and salt so donít plant them close to busy roads. Also, remember that it will eventually get 50-80í high and 20-40í wide! Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) (40-70í)can handle a shaded location but are susceptible to many diseases and insects. They also can not handle wind, drought, or bad drainage so be sure to use this native only under ideal conditions. The Scrub Pine (Pinus virginiana) will grow where nothing else can and can even handle salt spray but its ornamental value is debatable. The Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is also tolerant of adverse conditions, particularly limestone based soils but I would recommend one of the cultivars that has better color and form than the species. 

In this area we see a lot of Bradford Pears, Norway Maples, Pin Oaks and Cherries but, there are many native deciduous trees that are used less often that I would recommend. White Oak is king of the oaks but it prefers undisturbed forest soil, so try the Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)or the Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata) as an alternative if youíre looking for a long lived, stately tree. The Swamp White Oak grows 50-60íin swampy locations but also has good drought resistance and is easier to transplant than the White Oak. The Overcup Oak also can withstand considerable flooding and is easier to transplant. It grows 40-60í high and wide and has yellow-brown fall color. 

The Chestnut once made up 50% of the forest in Frederick County but was wiped out by blight in the 1920ís. The American Chestnut Foundation is working on developing a resistant chestnut and it would be an excellent addition to your landscape as soon as they are available

The Red Maple (Acer rubrum) grows 40-60í high but not all will get good red fall color in this area. Be sure to pick a cultivar that is cold hardy since some southern cultivars are not hardy here. The cultivars "Brandywine", "Somerset", and "Sun Valley" are males (no helicopter seeds to sweep up), have red fall color and are tolerant of leaf hopper (a common pest).The White Elm (Ulmus americana) (60-80í) was once used extensively as a street and lawn tree for itís classic vase shape but many have been killed by Dutch Elm disease. The National Arboretum has developed a few disease resistant cultivars. "Valley Forge" shows the most resistance and should be available now. 

If youíre looking for another large tree (60-75í high and 40-50í wide) with medium to fast growth the Sweet Gum (Liquidambar stryraciflua) might be your choice. Fall color can be excellent but is variable and the tree may take awhile to become established. The seed balls are attractive on the tree but can become a nuisance on the ground (especially in bare feet) so choose the cultivar "Rotundiloba" which is seedless and has good fall color.

If you are looking for fall color the Sour gum (Nyssa sylvatica), also known as Black Tupelo (30-50í), is one of the prettiest native trees. Growth can be slow but plant this tree when small to avoid transplant problems. Sassafras (Sassafras albidum, 30-60í) also has excellent fall color and while it may be scrubbier looking than many specimen trees itís fruit makes great bird food. The same can be said of another native, the Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) which is shrubby with white flowers in spring. 

Picture of Cornus florida
Cornus florida

If you are looking for a smaller tree (up to 30í high) two common but beautiful, spring flowering natives are the Redbud (Cercis canadensis) and Dogwood (Cornus florida) which both enjoy some shade. But more uncommon is the Hop Hornbeam (Ostyra virginiana) which likes dry, or well-drained soil and is an attractive tree for a smaller area. The Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) also known as Blue Beech is another under used species that will tolerate heavy shade, periodic flooding, and pruning. It can be used as a tall hedge or in a naturalized setting. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is also small and flowers in late fall or winter when nothing else is in flower.

Last, but not least is a tree to plant for posterity, the Beech (Fagus grandifolia). It doesnít like wet or compacted soil and grows slowly but is worth it. Golden leaves often persist into winter and the nuts are food for many types of wildlife. Donít forget, it will eventually get 70í tall! 

All of these trees can be planted in the fall but still need regular watering until they become established. Look for trees without any trunk damage, that are labeled correctly, and that are not left over from spring inventory. Also, while a bare landscape may be hard to live with, remember younger trees become established more quickly than more mature specimens and have a better survivability rate. Also be sure to consider the mature size of a tree when determining itís location and the number of trees to plant.  

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