Roots and Shoots: Consider the Trees

There are ways to benefit from trees in any size yard. Aside from providing shade and summer cooling to reducing utility costs from running air conditioners, trees clean the air, soak up stormwater with their roots and provide all sorts of ecological benefits (depending on the tree) to wildlife, birds and insects. Additionally, studies show that simply looking at trees in your yard can be a stress reliever. 

A shadbush blooms in the school garden at Haldane in Cold Spring. Photo by P. Doan

A shadbush blooms in the school garden at Haldane in Cold Spring. (Photo by P. Doan)

While size is relative, considering the mature height of a tree or woody plant when planting it near paths, structures or recreation areas is key to minimizing risk. Our warmer winters are bringing in wet, heavy snow that puts too much weight on branches, leading to broken limbs or uprooting. Careful placement and the right species can reduce that damage. 

I’ve thought a lot about which trees have more resilience against the changing conditions and the extreme storms that are occurring. Here are some suggestions for native species. 

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)
This spring-blooming understory tree tops out at 20 to 30 feet. Plant it in full sun to part shade in soil with medium moisture levels. It has bright pink flowers in April and May that pop against its dark bark. It’s an important nectar source for honeybees and native bees that don’t have a lot of options in early spring. The heart-shaped leaves are easy to identify. There are many cultivars of redbud but the straight species is so lovely, there is no reason to choose different leaf colors, etc. 

Dogwoods (flowering, gray and red twig)
Smaller trees in the Cornus genera — flowering dogwood is Cornus florida, gray dogwood is Cornus racemosa and red twig dogwood is Cornus sericea, to name a few — can suit many sites. Flowering dogwood is already a popular yard tree known for its long-blooming range later in spring. While many flowering dogwoods are shorter, it can grow up to 40 feet and is quite majestic. 

Gray dogwood is an excellent choice for shadier sites and has delicate white flowers. 

Red twig dogwood looks beautiful when grouped or on its own. This is the shortest of the three and has a multi-stemmed shrub form topping out at 10 feet. It’s a great choice for all seasons — with white umbel flowers in summer and bright fall color — and the red bark is a nice contrast in snow. 

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
If you’ve noticed a flowering tree in the forest during a late fall or winter hike, it is probably witchhazel. Its small, yellow flowers stand out among the bare branches around it. It is typically multi-stemmed, growing 10 to 20 feet tall and wide, in part-to full-sun conditions. Many wildlife, birds and pollinators use it. 

Black willow (Salix nigra) or Pussy willow (Salix discolor)
For areas that have wetter soil, consider one of the native willows. These fast-growing trees will accept moderate to heavy moisture in soils. Black willow can top out at 30 to 60 feet in the right setting and pussy willow stays smaller, under 20 feet. Both can be pruned for smaller spaces but why bother with maintenance, just give them space. Native willows are huge sources of food for birds because of all the insects that use them. If bird-watching is on your bucket list, then add a few willows and oaks to your yard. 

Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)
For a shadier spot, consider American bladdernut. This fast-growing tree is not picky about soil and moisture conditions. It can look more like a shrub with a bushy form and top out at 10 to 15 feet or grow up to 25 feet. After it flowers in the spring, it forms seedpods which dry out and cling to the branches as an interesting feature. 

Juneberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) and shadbush (Amelanchier genera)
This is one of my favorite Latin names to pronounce — am-eh-lank-ear — and each of these options has its unique glories. Juneberry can grow up to 30 feet but is usually shorter. Its berries can be enjoyed by both people and wildlife. Shadbush or shadblow (Amelanchier arborea) gets its common name because its white flowers in early spring coincide with the timing of the run of shad fish upstream to spawn. While both species have declined, consider this for a site with afternoon shade and enjoy the berries or leave them for the birds and let it reach its full size of 15 to 25 feet. 

September and October are excellent times to plant trees. Cooler temperatures lead to less transplant shock and watering can wind down after dormancy.

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