If you’ve visited the Arboretum recently, you probably noticed a series of new, stately planters stationed along the Grand Garden Promenade. Each of these containers is planted with one of 15 trees identified by our staff as adaptable, steady performers that offer exceptional ornamental or wildlife value, for which this popup exhibit is aptly called “Great Trees for Landscapes.” Over the next few months, we will be highlighting these trees in thematic groups, so be sure to follow along with our blog for future updates!
Today, we’re kicking things off with the group I affectionately like to call the “Flower Power” stars of the bunch. These are the flowering dogwood, flowering crabapple, fringetree and American yellowwood. All of these trees offer distinctive blooms, which makes them great choices for the home landscape.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Mature Size: 20′ high and slightly wider
USDA Hardiness Zone: 5 – 9
Light Requirements: Full Sun to Part Shade
If you’re looking for a great understory tree for partial shade, our native dogwood takes the cake as one of my absolute favorites for the springtime garden. This tree may have a smaller stature, but there’s nothing small about its floral display, which earned it the species name “florida.” Interestingly, what appear to be white or pink “petals” are actually bracts, or modified leaves, that are arranged in distinctive groups of four, like a cross, around the inconspicuous true flowers. These blooms (our state flower!) appear en masse on the dogwood’s attractively spreading branches in early spring and can persist for weeks, given favorable weather conditions.
Even though these trees are known for their spring display, I would be remiss not to mention the flowering dogwood’s second season of interest in the fall, when its branches are graced by bright red berries and stunning, crimson leaves.
If dogwood anthracnose is a known problem in your area, you might consider growing one of many disease-resistant hybrids on the market that have been produced from crosses with an Asian species, the Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa). Your local garden center or extension service are both great resources to consult about known plant pathogens in your area.
Flowering Crabapple (Malus sp.)
Mature Size: Depends on variety, typically 10 – 20′ high
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4 – 8
Light Requirements: Full Sun
Crabapples are another great choice for a stunning floral display in the spring. And where there’s flowers, there’s fruit! While the small apples these trees produce in the summer are technically edible, most are poor candidates for your classic apple pie and are probably best left for wildlife to enjoy.
Many species in the genus Malus (which also encompasses eating apples) readily hybridize with each other, which means there’s probably a crabapple to suit your tastes and location. In general, these trees are on the shorter side, with rounded crowns. But there are many combinations of desirable traits available for gardeners to choose from, from double-flowered weeping varieties to single-flowered columnar ones, with flowers in shades varying from white to crimson and peach to mauve. Some cultivars are also prized for their showy fruits that persist well into the colder months. At the Arboretum, we’ve had good luck with the lovely, disease-resistant variety ‘Adirondack,’ a selection from the U.S. National Arboretum.
Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
This is a plant I first met at The North Carolina Arboretum, and I’m so glad I did! Around here, its charming clusters of pendulous white flowers tend to appear at the end of the dogwood bloom, as if to take the flowering baton from its fellow southeast native. As the name would suggest, those flowers have a noticeably fringe-like quality and provide an unusual, airy texture in the garden.
Interestingly, fringetrees are dioecious, meaning individual plants have either male or female flowers. And while the flowers of males are slightly showier, the blooms on a female tree give way to purplish fruits that birds adore.
The fringetree is well-suited as an openly-branched specimen tree for locations that receive afternoon shade and prefers its soil on the moist side. Over time, it may grow as high as 30 feet if grown in a woodland setting, but in a sunnier site, it will happily stay much shorter.
American Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea)
A tree in the pea family? Yes! Like its cousin the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), the American yellowwood is a member of the Fabaceae, and in looking at its blooms, there could never be any question. Although the floral show tends to alternate years, it is well worth the wait to see one of these trees draped in white, wisteria-like racemes of blooms.
Unlike the others on this list, the American yellowwood isn’t a spring bloomer, but rather waits until early summer to put on a show. It is a medium-sized tree to 50 feet that is suitable for use as a shade tree, and has the attractive tendency of branching low to the ground to form vase-shaped, multi-trunked specimens. Its light green leaves are pinnately arranged and turn an attractive yellow in the fall.
Another benefit of this tree is that in normal soil conditions, it will develop a deep root system, making it easier for gardeners to plant beneath it, as seen in the Arboretum’s Stream Garden.
If you want to see beautiful, mature specimens of the American yellowwood—or any of the trees featured in this post—you can find them all growing at The North Carolina Arboretum! We think there’s a spot for more of these trees in home landscapes around the country, and hope you’ll check back for the follow-up to this post where we’ll be highlighting even more of these “Great Trees.”