Trees with Something Special

Trees with Something Special

Marianne C. Ophardt
Washington State University Extension
Area Horticulture Specialist

Not all trees are the same.  There are some trees with that “something special” that makes you want to plant them in your yard.  It might be beautiful flowers in the spring or summer, a different shape or overall form, brilliant color in the fall, or even outstanding bark.

When you plant trees and shrubs in your landscape, you’re painting a picture.  Good landscape designers, photographers, and artists all know that there should be a focal point in a picture.  The focal point directs the viewer where to look, creating a sense of depth and space. In landscape designs that focal point is often a tree with that “something special”.  Other landscape plants are used for balance and harmony in the picture.  No picture or front landscape design should have two focal points at one time.  It’s unsettling to the eye and creates disharmony.

In formal landscapes the focal point is often centered with the other elements of the design placed symmetrically to the left and right, mirroring each other.  While it’s easy to balance these types of landscape designs, they tend to be stiff and lack originality.  However, they work well with very formal styles of architecture. 

Asymmetrical landscape designs are informal and have more room for creativity and diversity in plant selection. Focal points are positioned off-center and other plants are carefully selected and placed to create balance.  Most home landscape designs are asymmetrical informal designs.

Knowing that the tree you plant with “something special” will be the focal point of your landscape, special care should be taken with its selection.  It’s easy to fall in love with a tree at the nursery or in a catalog, but you also need to make sure it’s suitable for your design and landscape conditions.  Here are some questions you should ask before planting a tree with something special.

What’s the Mature Size?

Find out its ultimate mature size.  It may look small and cute in the nursery, but just how big will it be when it grows up?  Will it fit where you want to put it in your design?  A focal point tree can grow to a size that’s out of balance with the rest of the landscape.

Is it Hardy Here?

Is it hardy in this region?   This region is generally considered to be located in Zone 6 on the USDA Hardiness Map. Plants hardy in Zones 7 or higher may grow well and survive our milder winters, only to die several years or more after planting when we experience colder winter temperatures that can be expected from time to time in this region.

Is it Suitable for Our Climate and Soils?

Will it withstand local soil and climate conditions? Most home landscape soils in this region are somewhat to very alkaline.  Some trees prefer acid soils rich in organic matter.  If a plant has to struggle to grow, it won’t likely become the attractive focal point you had anticipated.

Are there Any Troublesome Insect or Disease Problems?

Does it have any major pest or disease problems that could lead to continual maintenance problems or a short life expectancy?  A sick plant detracts from the landscape “picture” and may well be an unattractive focal point.

Is Suitable for the Site & Exposure?

Does your design meet the tree’s exposure needs?  Does it need protection from full exposure to sun and wind?  Does it need full sun or partial shade?  Select a tree suitable for the location where it will be planted.

Does It Create A Mess?

Does it create a litter problem with leaves, seed pods, fruit, or flowers?  If you want your landscape to be as “pretty as picture”, a tree that creates a lot of litter can detract from the picture you have created.

There are many trees available from local garden centers, nurseries, and mail-order catalogs that might catch your eye as that tree with some special characteristic that makes you want to take it home and use it as a focal point in your landscape design.  Here are a some trees you might run across on your search.

Weeping Trees

Weeping trees have a pendulous form that contrasts with the many other upright and spreading forms in a landscape design.  Their graceful hanging branches are poetry in motion.  There are both large and small weeping trees... be sure you know how tall and how wide the weeping tree you select will grow.

Double Weeping Cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula Plena Rosea’) (25' x 25'). In addition to a graceful weeping form, the multi-seasonal interest of double pink flowers in the spring and yellow to bronze leaf color in the fall make this tree a wonderful focal point specimen.  This species of flowering cherry is longer-lived,  hardier and more heat and stress tolerant than many of the other flowering cherry species.  Two other weeping cherries are also worth consideration.  Weeping Yoshino Cherry (Prunus x yeodensis ‘Shidare Yoshino’) (12' x 15') with pink tinged white flowers and Snow Fountains Cherry (Prunus x ‘Snofozam’(12' x 12') with white flowers are smaller, but equally as graceful weeping flowering cherries.

Weeping Katsura Tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘Pendulum’) (25+’ x 20') Katsura trees are one of the most beautiful trees you can plant, especially in the weeping form.  The heart-shaped leaves are bluish-green during the summer and turn an outstanding yellow-orange in the fall.  The branches cascade to the ground evocative of a waterfall.  The bark of this tree is susceptible to sunburn if drought stressed or planted in high heat situations.

Young’s Weeping Birch (Betula pendula ‘Youngii’) (15' x 20') Many gardeners can’t resist a birch, especially one with white bark.  This weeping form is perfect as a focal point for gardeners with smaller landscapes that must have a birch.  It tends to grow asymmetrically giving it an interesting overall form.  It’s often grafted onto a standard stem creating a “mop-head” type of appearance.  Gardeners should be aware that it is susceptible to the bronze birch borer that decimates birch trees and is a serious problem in this region.

Weeping Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’) (50' x 60+') A large weeping tree that has an ascending trunk and is slow growing.  Weeping Purple Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea Pendula’) (10' x 15') is a much smaller tree with purple leaves and a dome-like crown.

Other weeping trees to consider include Emerald Cascade Honeylocust ‘Emerald Cascade’ (16' x 16') a honeylocust with dark green, fine textured leaves that turn butter-yellow in the fall; Chaparral Weeping Mulberry (Morus alba ‘Chaparral’) (12' x 16') a non-fruiting mulberry that’stolerant of heat and alkaline soils; Weeping Pagoda Tree (Sophora japonica ‘Pendula’) (15' - 25' x 15') unlike the species it produces few flowers; and Weeping Willowleaf Pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’) (15' x15') a weeping pear with gray-green, willow-like leaves.  There are also numerous glorious weeping crab apple trees, but they should not be grown here because they can become infested with codling moth and require regular spraying to help protect local commercial apple orchards.

Flowering Trees

Flowers, especially early spring flowers, can lead to love at first sight when the trees are in bloom.  However, blooms don’t last very long and it’s advisable that the tree have other characteristics that will make it the focal point of your design at other times during the year... such as fruit, fall leaf color, form, texture, or bark characteristics. The list of noteworthy flowering trees is very long. Here are a few you might want to consider.

Mt. Fuji Cherry (Prunus serrulata ‘Shirotae’) (15' x 20') You can’t wrong with a Japanese flowering cherry.  This one has a spreading form and pink flower buds that open to large double white flowers.

Kwanzan Cherry (Prunus serrulata ‘Kwanzan’) (30' x 20') The most popular of the double flower types of Japanese cherry.  It has rosy pink flowers borne in clusters, plus the leaves turn a nice bronze to orange color in the fall.  A very showy tree, but it’s susceptible to borers and cankers.

Vossii Goldenchain Tree (Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’) ( 25' x 20') This tree has an interesting vase shape and produces a spectacular display of rich yellow flowers in hanging clusters.  However, the tree is not very attractive when it’s not in bloom. Beware, the seeds are poisonous. 

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) There are many cultivated varieties of flowering dogwood and hybrids with kousa dogwood or the Pacific dogwood.  The flowers range from pure white to creamy white to pink, deep pink, and ruby red.  The shape and size also vary from cultivar to cultivar, but all are relatively small trees less than 25 feet tall.  Flowering dogwoods prefer soil that is high in organic matter and acidic.  While these conditions are not found in most area landscapes, the trees will do quite well here if provided with adequate moisture, acidifying fertilizer, and organic mulch.  Many local gardeners find that flowering dogwoods perform best in a protected location and need pampering for the first several years before they become well established.

There are many other flowering trees, but none so durable and versatile as flowering crab apple trees and the flowering pears.  However, they’re not recommended for local landscapes because of the problem with codling moth.

Trees with Attractive Fall Color, Bark, or Leaves

As the growing season ends, the fall color of the leaves, the silhouette of the tree,  and the pattern of the bark are all characteristics that can maintain a tree’s position as a focal point. 

Here are some more trees to consider for fall color, form, or bark characteristics:

Red Maple (Acer rubrum) (40' -  45') The true red maples (not to be confused with Norway maples with purple leaves) just can’t be beat for their riotous display of brilliant orange to bright red leaves in the fall.  October Glory, Red Sunset, and Autumn Flame have some of the best fall color you can find.  October Glory is better adapted to areas like ours with hot summer temperatures.  During the spring and summer the leaves of red maple are green.

Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) (40 '- 50' x 40' - 50') While this is a large, very messy tree, many gardeners who see it fall in love with its unique form, flowers, big leaves, and large seed capsules.  It’s a coarse tree with a dense rounded crown.  The pale violet flowers are produced in May.  In the fall the tree is covered with unique one to two inch persistent capsules.

Heritage River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Cully’) (40' x 30') Many local white-barked birches are succumbing to bronze birch borer, so if local gardeners want to grow a birch with interesting bark, this is one to try.  The peeling bark is a mottled mosaic of cream, orange, and tan colors. The leaves are large, glossy, and light green. 

Red Oak (Quercus rubra) (50' x 45') If you want an oak, pick this one. It tolerates local alkaline soil conditions and grows relatively fast, plus it’s dark green leaves turn a beautiful rich red in the fall.  This is a bit large as a focal point tree, but worth considering for larger homes and landscapes. 

RotundilobaSweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Rotundiloba’) (45' x 25') If you’re looking for good fall color, the sweetgum will deliver.   The fall colors of the different cultivars range from spectacular burgundy red to orange to purple.  Rotundiloba has bright green glossy leaves with distinctive rounded lobes and it’s also fruitless.

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) The Japanese maple is a prized maple for creating focal points, especially in smaller yards.  This much appreciated and valued tree varies greatly in mature size and form.  While there are many weeping forms, there are also numerous upright cultivars.  Summer leaf colors vary from green to purple to red.  Many forms have lacy leaves.  Japanese maples are lovely specimen trees, but most won’t tolerate dry soil, low humidity, wind, intense sun, and high temperatures.  In this region Japanese maples need to be placed in a protected location, away from wind and hot afternoon sun.  They should be mulched with organic mulch and the soil must be kept moderately moist.