The clusters of tiny yellow flowers on sassafras trees light up woodland edges and native landscapes in early spring, before the dogwoods bloom. Guy Sternberg, director of Starhill Forest Arboretum of Illinois College in Petersburg, especially likes the combination of sassafras flowers with redbud blooms: "like lemon-raspberry sherbet." Sassafras is native to North America and a host plant for the larvae of spicebush swallowtail butterfly and other butterflies and moths. Stephen Kress, vice president for bird conservation at the National Audubon Society, considers sassafras an excellent tree for attracting birds because of the high fat content of its fruit, which turns from green to dark purple in late summer; the fruit is consumed quickly and eagerly by resident and migrating birds. Sassafras trees have a willowy habit and grow quite tall, 30 to 60 feet, in sun or shade. Their leaves are rounded and mitten shaped, and turn brilliant scarlet or orange in early fall. They are difficult to transplant; start with seedlings or look for small specimens at garden shops. Hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4 to 9.
"Redbuds say spring," says Andrew Bell, curator of woody plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden. When their glowing magenta flowers appear, outlining the branches, a garden seems to pulse with color. Redbud flowers last up to 3 weeks before the big, heart-shaped leaves emerge. Redbuds are native North American trees suitable for natural landscapes, but they are also striking in formal settings, as specimens, and in groves. Redbuds grow to about 25 feet tall, although they tend to stoop as they age. The seedpods are attractive, but seedlings can be hard to pull if you don't catch them when they're small. Fall foliage is bright yellow. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9.
Snow white dogwood blossoms transform the landscape. Woodland edges positively spring to life when they bloom, and a specimen of the pink-flowered form, below, is a captivating sight. Kress says flowering dogwood is "a super-attractive bird tree." Birds find shelter and nesting sites in its branches, and you can time the fall migration by watching the berries mature; bright red berries ripen at the peak of migration for thrushes, he says. The biggest challenge with dogwoods can be in deciding where to plant them--they are an understory tree, with characteristic horizontal branching in high shade, but they also develop a full, rounded crown in sun. Good drainage and air circulation are important, as healthy trees resist dogwood anthracnose. Hardy in Zones 5 to 9 (to assure hardiness, northern gardeners are advised to buy trees propagated from northern stock).
There are more than 700 named varieties of crabapples--all prodigious bloomers that cover themselves in white, pink, or red flowers in spring. They are beautiful small trees for sunny gardens, hardy and reliable. Crabapples have stately, even dramatic structure, but they benefit from occasional pruning. They are excellent wildlife trees. When they bloom, bees and other pollinators make the trees fairly buzz with life. Look for cultivars with resistance to fire blight and apple scab. Bell, an expert on crabapples, advises asking local extension agents for their recommendations for your area. The best crabapples for birds, Kress says, are small-fruited cultivars that hold their fruit into winter, including 'Bob White' and 'Donald Wyman'. Most grow 15 to 25 feet tall. Hardy in Zones 4 to 7.
It is impossible to resist caressing the wispy, tassle-like flowers of fringe trees, which hang among the branches in midspring. You'll be able to reach them: Fringe trees are typically only 10 to 20 feet tall. They bloom prolifically after the trees have leafed out to form a fine green backdrop for the feathery flowers. Native fringe trees are used to great effect in new plantings on the grounds of Mount Vernon, where they grow with serviceberry (Amelanchier) in mixed borders with other native plants. Fringe trees are old-fashioned trees that deserve to be planted more often, says Bell. They are graceful planted in groves, which increases the chances of having both male and female trees: Males are said to flower more robustly; females produce small fruits attractive to birds. Grow in sun or part shade. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9.
Southern gardeners appreciate the sweetbay magnolia's small, cream-colored, goblet-shaped flowers in early summer, but this native tree is surprisingly hardy: It grows even in the Chicago area and north of Boston. Fresh blossoms from the village that became Magnolia, Massachusetts, were once popular cut flowers in the Boston trade, according to Dennis Collins, horticultural curator at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. When the tight seedpods mature in late summer, the bright red seeds are eagerly consumed by birds. The southern form (M. virginiana var. australis) is usually evergreen and can grow quite tall. The northern form (M. virginiana) often has several trunks; it is deciduous or semi-evergreen. Sweetbay magnolia grows in sun or part shade, and tolerates moist soils and drought. The glossy leaves have silvery undersides, and the whole tree shimmers in a breeze. Bill Thomas, director at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania, recommends planting it by a path, where you can appreciate the sweet fragrance of the flowers as you come and go. Most grow 10 to 20 feet but some are taller further south. Hardy in Zones 5 to 9.
There is a lot to be said for trees that bloom in summer, "long after all the spring flash is gone," says Barbara Selemon, plant propagator at the University of Washington Botanic Garden in Seattle. Chaste tree blooms in June in the South but not until August in the Pacific Northwest, where its luminous lavender spikes of flowers are a welcome sight in verdant late-summer gardens. The flowers appear on 6-inch wands above lush, gray-green foliage, and the effect is elegant and lively. Chaste tree grows up to about 20 feet tall and wide in the South, but only to about half that size in Seattle; at the Washington Park Arboretum, it is planted near a path so its flowers can be appreciated up close. "It grows in an area where it gets almost no water," Selemon says, "and it needs almost no care." Grow in sun. Hardy in Zones 6 to 9; it grows as a dieback plant in colder areas.
Glorious drooping panicles of fragrant white flowers put on a great show in early summer; the display is especially effective against a backdrop of conifers, says Sternberg. Yellowwood is native to the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest but is now very rare in the wild. It is prized for its smooth, silvery bark, "second-best to beech," in Bell's opinion. The flowers are luxurious, and a bee magnet, but yellowwood doesn't bloom until trees are over 12 feet tall, and then the blooms are best every second or even third year. Fall foliage is a soft yellow. It grows 30 to 50 feet tall with a wider spread. Prune it from an early age to encourage a graceful mature form, Sternberg advises. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9.
For 3 months in the heat of summer, crape myrtles display dense cloudlike flower panicles in white, pink, purple, or red, and even a single tree can have the appearance of a grove since multiple trunks are the norm. Young crape myrtles are vigorous and upright, with satin-smooth bark, but the older they get, the more deeply distinguished the graceful trunks become. In summer, the paper-thin bark peels away, exposing polished, mottled trunks. Crape myrtles need hot summers to flower best. Selemon says crape myrtle cultivars planted in Seattle didn't flourish until they were moved to a parking-lot island, where the reflected heat brought them promptly into glorious bloom. Many cultivars have wonderful fall color. Most crape myrtles grow 15 to 25 feet tall. Hardy in Zones 7 to 9; grows as a dieback plant in colder areas.
There is terrific freshness in the lush, long-lasting snow white blossoms of seven-son flower, a native of China. Seven-son flower blooms in late summer through early fall. At Chanticleer, it looks spectacular with Tiger Eyes sumac (Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger'). The pinkish red calyxes, above, persist for weeks after the flowers have faded and are its most striking feature. Young trees can be a challenge, Sternberg says, because they are lanky and awkward for several years before the tree develops into an interesting specimen. "It doesn't know what it wants to be," he says, and requires "pinching and tweaking" to develop its form. Seven-son flower grows in sun or shade to 15 to 20 feet tall and is tolerant of drought and salt. It is sometimes called the crape myrtle of the North because of its exfoliating bark. Hardy in Zones 5 to 8.
Tree Advice From Our Experts
- The best time to plant a tree is "when it is starting to rain and will rain for 4 days," says Bill Thomas of Chanticleer. Otherwise, newly planted trees should be watered generously.
- Start with small specimens, which will establish quickly, catching up to larger specimens before those have had a chance to settle in and really begin to grow.
- Self-sown seedlings collected from your own neighborhood can be relied upon to transplant and take hold successfully.
- Plant new specimens fairly close to trees already on your property to avoid the spotty, aimless effect of trees dotted here and there in an expanse of lawn.
- Flowering trees look especially pretty in groves. Dennis Collins of Mount Auburn Cemetery suggests planting groups of three or more different sizes of trees for a more natural effect.
- Using native trees is the best way to impart a sense of regional identity, and they attract native pollinators and birds.
- Plant something different, says Guy Sternberg of Starhill Forest Arboretum. "If five neighbors on your street all have crabapples, enjoy theirs and do your own thing with something else."
- Perfection is not always desirable. "The more perfect a tree's leaves, the less value to birds," says Stephen Kress of the National Audubon Society. "They favor trees with damaged leaves," Kress says, "and work those trees in search of insects."
- Shop locally. Independently owned garden centers and nursery specialists are likely to have some treasures among their inventory, says Sternberg.
Chanticleer: A Garden For All Seasons
Many of the flowering trees featured here were photographed at Chanticleer, a 35-acre estate garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. The grounds around the estate home have been transformed into a lush and imaginative garden in which traditions are respected but creativity flourishes.
"I don't follow too many rules in gardening," says Bill Thomas, director of Chanticleer. "Designwise, a lot of it is taste," he says. When something doesn't work, he suggests, "compost your mistakes" and move on.