Colorful Native Hardwoods for the Landscape
Planting trees native to Virginia offers real advantages to the homeowner who wants to enjoy long term success for the landscape. With a few exceptions noted below, natives are much more resistant to pests and diseases and more likely to thrive in central Virginia. Some
offer spectacular displays of flowers, leaves or bark, while others provide shade.
Late winter is an ideal time to plant a tree before the sap begins to rise. Choose a healthy tree from a reputable nursery in burlap or a pot. Bare root trees should keep their roots wet until planted in late fall or winter.
Plant your tree correctly. Dig a hole twice as wide as the root system and deep enough to finish leveling the soil to the same point on the trunk as it was before planting. Remove the tree from the pot to place in the hole. A burlap wrapping will deteriorate, but remove any wire at least halfway down the ball. If the roots have twisted around the root ball, either tease them to spread out in the hole or make three or four cuts in the root ball to allow them to grow out. Add enough dirt to cover the roots, then water thoroughly to settle the soil. When the water has been absorbed, finish filling the hole to the old soil line on the trunk. Add mulch 2-3 inches deep and 2- 3 feet wide around the tree, but pull the mulch away from the trunk itself. Stake the tree for support if necessary.
Hint: If you have deer in your area, take precautions. Males will sometimes kill a small tree cleaning their antlers in the early fall. All deer will eat the new shoots when forage is scarce. Two to four feet of chicken wire wrapped a couple of inches from the trunk will protect it; or a four foot high fence of the same material in a four foot square will usually keep the varmints away until the tree is established.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) is Virginia’s state tree and remains the most popular native despite recent trouble with disease and borer damage. The Stellar® hybrids (crosses of C. florida and C. kousa) are more hardy and can take more sun, although they would not be considered true natives.
The beloved Virginia dogwood with its distinctive white bracts 2-4 inches wide is often tinged with red or purple and blooms close to the official start of spring. It complements mature long needle pines, oaks and maples in many yards. The leaves will be among the harbingers of fall as they turn a deep wine-red with an early frost and persist for weeks. Red, glossy fruit attracts birds.
Dogwood needs to be planted in the understory in order to benefit from the shade of larger trees. In deep shade, it can develop a single trunk, but with a little sun it often puts out low lateral branches making it a large shrub. Under good conditions, it grows to 30 feet. Avoid planting dogwoods in full sun. Poor or compacted soils will need amendments of compost or topsoil; and mulching the area under the branches will help insure moisture for the roots.
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is the other showoff in springtime with a multitude of small, pink-purple flowers ranged along the young branches. Its growth habit is less regular and more open than the dogwood, making it a candidate for a single specimen in your sunny yard. Throughout winter the long, brown seedpods hang from branches. Although redbuds may be abundant in the wild, they have not transplanted successfully for me, so buying from a good nursery is a better bet. For a full description of redbuds, see Pat Chadwick’s article in this issue.
Fringe tree ( Chionanthus virginicus) Later in spring the delicate panicles of the fringe tree, also known as old man’s beard, will spread its blanket of ivory blossoms over the branches. Its modest size (12-20 ft.) and slower growth make it a good candidate for smaller yards. The deep green leaves turn gold in fall, and dark blue fruit attracts birds. This tree prefers sun to partial shade and moist, well-drained soil.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) requires similar soil conditions to the fringe tree, but may grow twice as tall, displaying a thick array of white flowers in clusters that are replaced by maroon-purple berries devoured by birds. Leaves will turn yellow, golden or red in the fall. Leaf-eating insects may do some damage.
River birch (Betula nigra) offers little in the way of spring flowers, but provides year round interest in the bark, which peels abundantly in irregular, paper-like layers that are alternately khaki, cinnamon and brown. Often found along stream banks, hence the name, where it’s used to prevent erosion, this tree can grow to 70 or 80 feet. The trunk often divides and the long twigs droop lazily toward the ground. Be warned that these switches fall abundantly throughout the year.
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) is hard to beat for red and yellow fall color. Although it prefers cool temperatures and loamy soils in higher elevations, it often does well for us lowlanders. It’s a large shade tree (70-100 feet) with seeds borne on the wind by means of little propellers beloved by children. Sapsuckers may ring the trunk looking for the sap used to make maple syrup (we make the syrup, not the birds).
Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) also offers color in fall with its star-shaped leaves: mostly deep red, as well as purple, orange and gold. Growing 60-90 feet tall in a pyramidal shape, its hardened sap was, in earlier times, chewed for gum. In order to plant it in your yard, you will want to buy a “fruitless” variety that will not litter those one-inch prickly “gumballs” that make walking difficult.
For more information:
Common Native Trees of Virginia, Virginia Dept. of Forestry, 2007.
“Tree and Shrub Planting Guidelines,” Bonnie Lee Appleton and Susan French, http://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/430/430-295/430-295.html
“Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida,” Alex X. Niemiera, http://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/3010/3010-1484/3010-1484.html
“24 Ways to Kill a Tree,” Bonnie Appleton, http://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/430/430-210/430-210.html
“Dogwood Borer,” Eric Day, http://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/2808/2808-1010/2808-1010_pdf.pdf
For these natives as well as other options: “Problem-free Trees for Virginia Landscapes,” Mary Ann Hansen, http://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/450/450-237/450-237.html
“Selecting Landscape Plants: Flowering Trees,” Diane Relf and Bonnie Appleton, http://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-611/426-611.html