Trees that have a long-life span, like oaks, tend to grow more slowly than short-lived trees such as cherries. Please don’t plant a crepe myrtle – they are being overplanted. Monocultures are not beneficial -- diversity of plants is preferred. Following is my list of great performing, beautiful trees for the mid-Atlantic. I have listed the trees in order of their size and included a bit of information about each of my choices. Heights are estimates only since it depends where the tree is growing. This list comprises some of my favorites, most of which I have grown successfully. However, the list is by no means comprehensive.
Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), 12-20 feet tall
It is the horizontal layering habit of this dogwood that makes it so exquisite. The tiered appearance with upturned branches resulted in the name of pagoda dogwood. This plant has excellent wildlife value, lovely white flowers, gorgeous whorled leaves, and a deep red-purple color in autumn.
Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), 12-20 feet tall
During its spring bloom the fringe tree appears as a big cloud of fragrant white flowers. It needs at least 6 or more hours of sunlight per day. The flowers attract pollinators and the fruit is enjoyed by songbirds.
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), 12-20 feet tall
Known for its lemon scented, creamy white flowers and attractive leaves with a silvery underside, sweetbay can be planted near a patio. This particular magnolia is grown for its elegant, multi-stemmed habit and its compact size. It grows well with sun or partial shade and tolerates wet soils which makes it ideal for rain gardens. In autumn, the dark red fruit expose gorgeous bright red seeds.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), 20-30 feet tall
This tree is in the same family as azaleas and needs similar conditions -- an acid, well-drained soil, and is able to tolerate some shade. Sourwood is beloved for its beautiful drooping white flowers which appear in late spring. The flowers resemble the lily-of-the-valley.
Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana), 25-40 feet tall
The most striking aspect of the ironwood is the attractive pendulous fruit which is 1 ½ -2 ½ inches long and looks like dried hops fruit with inflated overlapping sacs that appear in late summer. These sacs remain on the tree through winter. Ironwood leaves resemble the birch tree. This tree has a lovely, rounded crown with fine branches.
Yellowwood, (Cladrastis kentukea), 30-50 feet tall
Sweet smelling, pendulous white flowers emerge in mid-spring followed by seed pods in the autumn. The flowers resemble those of wisteria except they are white. The vase shape of the yellowwood tree with its broad crown makes this a great street tree or garden plant.
Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), 30-70 feet tall
The tupelo tree is often planted around bodies of water because of its ability to tolerate very wet soils. Although it is slow growing, the tupelo gradually grows into a magnificent large tree. It is most famous for its fiery, brilliant autumn colors as well as its wildlife value. Birds partake of the seeds while bees love the nectar in the spring flowers.
Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), 60-80 feet tall
Described as the most noble oak, the swamp white oak makes a fine shade tree that is tolerant of a wide variety of soil conditions. It has high ecological value because it attracts songbirds, ground birds, water birds, and mammals. Many birds depend on the insect life that can be found in oak trees including our Town bird, the pileated woodpecker.
Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), 60-80 feet tall
Bald cypress is a deciduous conifer which simply means that it loses its leaves in autumn after they have turned a brilliant coppery red. It is famous for the knees that grow at its base as seen in Louisiana and other wetland areas. These plants grow quickly in a variety of settings and it has a lovely pyramidal form.
American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), 80-100 feet tall
The optimal growing conditions of fertile, wet soils is why it thrives along the Potomac River. It is considered one of the most distinctive trees in Maryland due to its mottled brownish, green-grey and white peeling outer bark that exposes the stunning white inner bark. In spring, the Baltimore orioles and many other birds seek this tree out for nesting. Bird species including purple finch, gold finch, chickadees, and dark-eyed junco eat the seeds. During a wet spring the American sycamore can get anthracnose and the leaves fall off. This is just a cosmetic issue as the leaves grow back and fully emerge by summer.
The ideal planting time for most trees is late March and April while the weather is cool and the soil is moist.
Trees grace us with their beauty, the shade they provide, and their many essential benefits. Let’s plant for a greener, healthier future.
If you find that locating these trees is difficult please refer to these two sources for reliable descriptions of nurseries selling native trees: