28 December 2007

top ten plants--trees

Tis the season for 'top ten lists' of hits and misses, plans and prognostications. Since I don't make New Year's Resolutions, (because they just set us up for failure) I thought I'd do a few lists; of my personal top ten favourite trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Let's start out with the biggest and most impressive--trees.

Dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides: This is one of those fascinating trees that have become popular in recent years. Long thought to be extinct, it was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1940s in China, and now is a much cherished ornamental tree in many home gardens and arboreta. It’s one of those rare deciduous conifers; similar to the larch, it drops its needles in autumn. New growth is a soft bronzy-green, the growth habit flowing and sweeping, and the bark peels attractively. What’s not to love?

Red maple Acer rubrum. Everything about this native tree is delightful; one of the first trees to flower in spring, it’s well named because its flowers, twigs, seeds, and petioles are all tinted red. Of course, its red foliage in autumn is marvelously electric, in shades that are difficult to describe. Not to be confused with the tiresome, and non-native, ‘Crimson King’ Norway maple. It’s true that I have a hate on for Norway maples (Acer platanoides) of all sorts, because they’re just not great trees, are subject to tarspot fungus, spread far too quickly, and are used by lazy landscapers and city planners far, far too often. Whoops, that was a slight rant, wasn’t it?

Catalpa or bean tree Catalpa bignonioides. I took a leap of faith this past summer and planted a catalpa, because while they can be a bit iffy in our zone, they are just such wonderful, graceful trees. Their flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds; and now, in winter, their long, slender seed pods, that do resemble string beans, cling to the branches, providing great winter interest.

Weeping Nootka falsecypress. Chamaecyparis nootkatensis. I’ve seen this plant recommended for use in hedges, which I can’t imagine; to me, it’s a perfect specimen tree. One of my gardening friends has one that’s about twenty five feet tall, and it’s one of the most lovely trees I’ve ever seen. Its cones are attractive and unique, too; taking two years to mature, they’re curious little 4-scaled structures. Just to make things interesting, the botanical name of this tree has been moved to Callitropsis, but many still refer to it as a Chamaecyparis. I actually have C.n. 'glauca', which is the blue-foliaged form.

Ginkgo or maidenhair tree Ginkgo biloba. I like having living fossils in our garden, which is why we have a small bristlecone pine (life expectancy, 4000 years), a dawn redwood, as mentioned above, and a ginkgo. I look at my small ginkgo, and imagine it growing 270 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth; that’s longevity! The common name of maidenhair tree comes from the fact that the leaves (somewhat) resemble the leaves of the maidenhair fern, although the two are not related.

Horse chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum. This is the favourite tree of my longsuffering spouse, who planted several with his grandfather decades ago on the home property. When we bought our property, I gave him a 4 foot tall horsechestnut; nearly nine years later, it’s growing into a fine tree and flowered last spring for the first time.

Paul’s Scarlet Hawthorne Crataegus 'Paul's Scarlet'. I love the wild hawthorns that naturalize around our province, in part because they’re beautiful, in part because they provide food and shelter for many different speces of birds. This particular hybrid appeals to me because it forms a nicely sized, but not overbearing, tree; about 25 feet tall at maturity. Ours has only been planted for a couple of years but it flowered for the first time this past summer; just a couple of sprays, but those rich carmine flowers get to me every time!

European Copper beech Fagus sylvatica Purpurea Group. Beeches are handsome trees with lovely smooth bark, and attractive foliage. There are numerous ornamental varieties, but my favourite is the purple, or copper beech, with purple foliage that sometimes looks coppery. A friend of mine has a weeping purple beech, but I’m content with the regular form. Recently, however, I’ve been tempted greatly by the tricolour beech, although it’s very pricy.

Red oak Quercus borealis or Q. rubra Another native tree, and one that is not for impatient gardeners. Its life expectancy can be up to 250 years, but it doesn’t take that long to get some size; they grow fairly quickly, which is good, because I just planted one this past summer, and want it to hurry up! The red oak, like the red maple, has fantastic fall colour, and I’ve noticed that many trees locally are still holding quite a few of their leaves, now a handsome bronzy colour.

Shadbush, Chuckly-pear Amelanchier, various species. As a child, I knew this as Indian pear or chuckleberries back in Newfoundland, and learned just how delicious the seedy fruit are. One of the earliest-flowering trees in spring, new foliage is a soft bronzed green, and the snowy white flowers contrast nicely. Berries are much loved by birds, and fall foliage colour is brilliant crimson. While there's currently just one tree in the butterfly garden, next spring I intend to add some Amelanchier to the native areas of our acreage, along the edges of the pasture; there's always room for more trees.

Yes, trees can be slow to grow, but you know the old saying. "The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second est time is today!"


  1. That's a good list of trees. I agree... alll of your choices do belong on a list of good trees. I also agree that that Normay maple is a "dog" and shouldn't generally be planted, along with silver maples and cottonwoods.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  2. I like them all. Didn't know you could buy the redwood, but have heard about it.

    My dad had catalpa trees at his place in Oklahoma. How long have you had yours here?

    Wishing you and your family a Happy New Year!!


  3. Great list! I agree with most of them, and the other ones I'm not that familiar with. We've got horse chestnut/buckeye, ginkgo, dawn redwood, red maple, hawthorn (although not the type you mention), and various oaks.

    My mother-in-law has a grove of catalpa trees and while they're lovely most of the year, she hates them in the spring when they drop all those pods. Very dirty trees at that time. Of course, a grove of them is quite another thing than one or two!

  4. Jodi, I shake my head in disbelief at the kinds of growth in your neck of the woods. But, good on you!! I have a few stories about the horse chestnut. I've tried really hard to grow them here, to no avail. But my Mom, 600 km south of me in Edmonton (rest her soul) was able to grow one from a seedling. I have no photos but in the spring, when I return to edmonton, I plan to ask the new owners of the house if I can take a picture of it. My mom was so proud of it. We both saw a few in Edmonton and loved those teardrop shaped 'blossoms' each spring.

    Great post, as usual.

    Diane, Sand to Glass

  5. Hello Jodi,
    what a terrifc list, my favourite tree is the Ginkgo Tree and I am going to plant one in front of our house..
    One promise for the next year:-))
    Wish you a very happy and healthy New Year.

    Just found this poem:
    "We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year's Day."
    -- Edith Lovejoy Pierce

  6. Great list of trees! I agree with it mostly.
    One is unclear to me: Crimson King maple - I have to search for more info.

    I planted Metasequoia, but when young they are frost tender and should be protected for winter - mine didn't survive first winter even if it was 1,5m tall. The kind didn't get a second chance. Maybe I will reconsider :)

    I didn't know the saying about when it is the best time to plant trees - thats a very funny one :)


  7. Jodi,
    do you know what kind of Ginkgo cultivar do you have??
    On September 3, 2007 I wrote about Ginkgo trees in my blog Guildwoodgardens.
    Another Tree for my garden is the Cornus 'venus' features large white flowers.
    Happy New Year,

  8. Jodi: Great choices! I know you had difficulty paring this list down to ten!

  9. I'm not sure I agree with you about the Catalpa, but all the rest I like. In particular, I really want a purple Beech. Gingko & Horsechesnut are trees from my childhood. One was next door & the other was across the street. I was fortunate to grow up on property that was once part of a small hunting estate with exotic trees planted in the 1920s.

  10. One more for tonight before I turn in....
    Carol, we don't have cottonwoods up here, but yes, Norway Maple is WAY overplanted. Silver maple too, but less so.
    Sandy, I just put a catalpa in this past spring, after being convinced by other gardeners that I could grow it here. You should be able to find Dawn redwood at most good nurseries now.
    Kylee, we have so many plants in common--kindred gardeners across the miles. and yes, only one catalpa is manageable--and it'll be some years before I get pods, I'm sure.
    Diane, what zone are you up there? 2? I think horse chestnuts are a bit iffy that far north, but there must be good alternatives.
    Giela, I like the quote from ELP; and here's hoping you enjoy planting a ginkgo in your yard. Happy New Year to you as well.
    Ewa, Crimson King Maple is a type of Norway maple (Acer platanoides) and much overused here. Acer rubrum is far superior. I'd say the Metasequoia is worth a little frost coddling, for sure!
    Nancy, weeping birch is nice too--weeping anything is nice, although I'm a bit iffy on birches because they are susceptible to various pests.
    Gisela, I have the straight species of Ginkgo biloba; I know there is a decorative cultivar with double/fringed leaves which I saw at International Flora Montreal last year, but I don't remember its name. And any cornus is a good choice as far as I'm concerned.
    So many trees...so little time!

  11. A great list Jodi and I see that we have a few trees in common too. Like you I have Hawthorn, Amelanchier (a big favorite of mine), Fagus sylvatica (I grow that one as a hedge) and Acer of course.

    I liked your rant about the Norway maple, we all have our pet peeves, don't we? :-) And you're right of course, city planners are not known for their original ideas on planting, generally speaking.

  12. Hi Jodi,

    Did you mention that you need a really BIG garden for some of those trees ? Living on a small urban site I'm envious of anyone who has the room for some of those larger specimens on your list.

    Working in the Tree and Shrub lot of our local garden center has given me the opportunity to get to know trees firsthand.

    The Hawthorne is one of my favorites because it has so much seasonal interest -beautiful flowers, glossy leaves, gray trunk and red berries in the winter and of course its size is good for city planting. Serviceberry, or Amelanchier, is also one that is popularly planted in the city.

    I love all of the Chamaecyparis family and consider them the most outstanding of the conifers.

    Are you familiar with the Silberlocke Fir ( Abies Koreana )? Dr. Michael Dirr declares it to be the "finest example of all firs . " It has the most incredible pink/purple cones and the needles are curved and silver underneath. Coming from Korea it's also hardy.

    Putting together such a list if not an easy task but you've done an admirable job.

  13. While I know and admire all but one of the trees you list, it's interesting to review your list with the slightly jaded eyes of an urban gardener. Many or most of the trees you list will simply grow too large in time for most available urban spaces. This leads to "infrastructure conflicts," the primary reason why trees must be destroyed and removed long before their lifetimes would otherwise dictate. As well as their ultimate size, growth habits and characteristics of trees - such as the stench of Ginkgo fruit - must be taken into account.

    Additional issues arise when we consider pests and diseases. Here in NYC, most maples cannot be planted as street trees because they are susceptible to Asian Long-Horned beetle.

    On the positive side, wildlife value - as you note for Amelanchier, Catalpa and Crataegus - is another factor to consider. There is lots of urban wildlife to be sustained and conserved, and every plant helps, especially native plants that have not been overly-selected for ornamental rather than wildlife value. Nut-bearing trees, such as the Oak and Horsechestnut you list, are just as important to wildlife as fruit-bearing ones. Sometime in the next few years, I will select and plant a new tree in the backyard to replace the ones I've had to remove because they were the wrong trees in the wrong place. The Red Oak and Serviceberry are already on my short list.

  14. Me again: I think I'll do a post on what MY garden looks like; these are my personal top tens, and I should clarify that I live in a rural setting, on seven acres, so I can GROW these big trees (or plant them for someone to enjoy in 50 years or so, hopefully my grandchildren and great grandcats).

    Carolyn Gail....the Abies koreana is on my WANT list, very much so. Those cones are to die for, and it does do well here in NS.

    Xris, that's a pain about the asian longhorned beetle and the acers; I don't know which beetle you're looking, but we've got one that arrived in NS a few years ago, the brown spruce longhorn beetle, which is doing a number on some mature spruces around Halifax. Another danger of all this so-called 'free' trade, isn't it?

  15. Great post! And those pictures are stunning!


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