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Great Native Trees

Some Great Native Trees for Washington DC Area Gardens

Given that most of us have small gardens, I have selected several native trees for you to consider planting that won’t outgrow your space. These trees are unusual natives and are, therefore, a nice change from the more common dogwood, redbud, or shad bush. My recommendations are tried and true plants for our region and they combine incredible beauty with an attraction for wildlife. If you are considering one of these trees, go to one of our excellent public gardens in the area such as the U.S. Botanic Garden, U.S. National Arboretum,  or Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland.

The white fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) will delight you with its fragrant, feathery, showy white cloud of flowers in spring.  Birds love perching along the horizontal branches so be sure to place your fringe tree where you can enjoy viewing it from inside. These plants grow to roughly 12 to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide and grow as both single or multi-stemmed trunk. It can tolerate a bit of shade as well as a wide range of conditions. In autumn, the blue-purple olive-like fruit are loved by songbirds.

A beloved native tree which shows well in every season is the American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). In spring, the flowers have lovely pendulous catkins that develop into distinctive winged fruit. Another name for this tree is muscle wood because of the muscle-like fluting of the attractive blue-gray bark. In autumn, brilliant colors appear with rich shades of yellow, orange, and red. Plants will reach a height of roughly 20 to 30 feet tall and about the same width, and they grow best in full sun. Songbirds will hungrily eat the seeds and buds of American hornbeam. Also, it is the host plant for both the eastern tiger swallowtail and red-spotted purple butterflies.

Sugar maples are famous in New England for their fabulous fall color and as a primary source of maple syrup. But the sugar maple tends to be too large for most of our gardens, so the chalkbark or whitebark  maple (Acer leucoderme) is a fine alternative. Considered a southern version of sugar maple, it grows to a height of approximately 25 feet and about the same width. Brilliant colors of gold, orange, and red are a highlight of this plant in autumn. For winter interest, the chalky whitish bark is a beautiful feature.

A smallish native tree, the wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata) is not well known nor is it a true ash (Fraxinus ssp.).  Surprisingly, it is a member of the citrus family and most plants in this family grow further south. It is often referred to as common hop tree since the seeds were once used by German immigrants in the 19th century as a substitute for hops to make beer. In nature, these plants grow on the rocky slopes of river valleys in sun to light shade. The wafer ash tree has crooked trunks with an irregular rounded crown reaching a height of up to 20 feet. Wafer ash is a host plant to the giant swallowtail caterpillar which will lay its eggs on the plant.  It produces greenish-white fragrant flowers which are attractive to bees, and the lovely wafer-like fruit are a highlight of the fall garden. 

For a slightly larger, more medium size tree, I recommend the stunning yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea). In spring, the breathtaking fragrant, drooping clusters of white flowers put on a great show. Their flowers are reminiscent of wisteria blooms with pendulant clusters ranging from 8 to 14 inches long.  It will reach a height of 30 to 50 feet. The framework of the gray trunk and branches makes this vase-shaped tree quite statuesque. Some years, the rich yellow color of the leaves will turn a beautiful gold. There is a cultivar `Rosea’ that has pink flowers but it is hard to locate at nurseries. The heartwood of yellowwood is a bright yellow, hence the name The yellow root was the source of yellow dye in early American times in Southern Appalachia.

These small and medium size native trees may not be easy to find. Some of our most interesting garden plants are not always available at our local nurseries. My suggestion is to ask the nursery to order them for you. It is worth the effort!


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