Everyone recognizes Flowering Dogwood, Maples, Oaks and the various other commonly-used trees that grow wild here or are planted in many of our gardens and streets. There are many trees, though, that are just as lovely and deserving of more widespread use. Here are some of the underdogs that you should consider next time you want a tree to accent the garden or shade the house and would like something a bit more unique than what’s in the rest of the neighborhood.
Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)
These flowering trees are cousins of Camellias and have a flower resembling a single white Camellia in early to mid-summer. They’ll continue to add interest to the garden with a variety of fall leaf colors (usually plum-red, scarlet, or gold) and peeling bark. Japanese Stewartia is the most commonly-used species in this uncommon group. Give them full sun or, if in a hot area or near reflective surfaces, midday shade. Soil should be moist and acidic. Mid-sized trees, they’re neither canopy trees nor smaller understory trees but somewhere in between. Growth is slow but they’re generally not bothered by pests and diseases.
Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus)
Not limited to Kentucky by any means (they’re found in most of the U.S. east of the Mississippi), they’re almost tropical in appearance due to their large compound leaves. Flowers appear in early summer and can have a light fragrance, though the tree grows tall enough that they may be hard to spot. If pollinated, female trees can produce the large, flat bean pods that give the tree its name: Native Americans and early settlers – especially in Kentucky – used to roast the ground seeds to produce a caffeine-free coffee-like drink. (Seeds are not safe to eat raw.) The genus name in Greek means “naked branch” due to their habit of leafing-out late and dropping leaves early in autumn. This isn’t a bad thing, though, since it will give extra light to early- and late-blooming perennials. Not picky about light or soil (the ideals are sun and rich, moist soil), they are tolerant of salt, city pollution, drought, and are not prone to insect or disease attack. Although large-statured, the trees don’t cast a heavy shade because of the smaller leaves, so if you’d like to grow lawn grass or semi-shade perennials underneath, they should succeed.
Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
Cousins of our native Baldcypress and more closely related to the Coast Redwood and Giant Sequoia, these conifers have delicate, soft needles that shed in autumn after turning a lovely coppery-orange. Rapid growth and tall, narrow canopies make them great shade trees, and their appreciation for soil moisture make them great choices for decorating garden water features, streams, and pond edges. Despite their speed, they are sturdy trees, and their attractive trunks look fantastic when surrounded by a groundcover like creeping ferns, Mondo Grass, or Sweetbox. Add a brilliant beacon of light to the garden with the golden form named ‘Gold Rush’ (a.k.a. ‘Ogon’), whose foliage is a bright lemon to yellow-green.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
This flowering tree is another one of those mid-sized species that isn’t a huge shade tree but isn’t a dainty dogwood-sized understory tree either. Native to the southeast (it just barely reaches Maryland but doesn’t occur much, if at all, in the wild here), it can be found in forests with Oaks and other acid-loving trees and shrubs. Flowers are easy to spot because they appear on the branch tips in early to mid-summer, and the dry seeds are similar in size and color to the blooms, making the tree look like it’s in bloom longer than it actually is. Delicate ivory bells, they resemble a drooping cluster of Lily-of-the-Valley flowers. Leaves are reliably beautiful in the fall, showing colors of plum-red, scarlet, orange and/or gold, though brilliant red is the most common color. Beekeepers love it for the nectar that gives prized honey, but some of our smaller butterflies will visit it as well. While not edible, leaves apparently have a sour taste, which led to its common name; even the Oxys part of the genus name is derived from Greek for “acid.” Give them average soil moisture (but good drainage) and acidic conditions in full or partial sun. Companion plants include our native woodland relatives of Azalea and Rhododendron along with groundcovers like Wintergreen and Lowbush Blueberry.
Seven-Son Flower (Heptacodium miconioides)
More of a large shrub or small tree, these members of the diverse honeysuckle family can be used just like Crepemyrtle. Multiple trunks have peeling bark that reveals a golden-tan base color, and flowers appear in late summer or early fall. Flowers appear in clusters of (typically) seven, and are fragrant, white, and mature to a rich pink (well, the sepals behind them do, just like on Abelia). They’re great for late-season interest and go well with other plants that are late-flowering if you want to encourage pollinator visits (and garden visits!) at the “end” of the season. Full sun gives the best show, and they are not picky as to soil type so long as it’s not extremely wet or dry. Companion plants with late-season flowers include shrubs like Bluebeard, Camellia, and Osmanthus (also fragrant!), and perennials like Anemone, Sedum, Aster, Toad Lilies, and Hardy Plumbago.
Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha)
A small, open tree or large multi-stemmed shrub, this former denizen of Georgia is thought to be extinct in the wild for the past 200 years. A Camellia cousin, their single white flowers are lightly fragrant and appear in mid- to late summer. Like their Stewartia relatives, fall foliage is spectacular and can range from shades of red and orange. Older bark can develop vertical stripes of tan on a darker background. Although they have the reputation of being difficult to grow, they can be placated with partial shade and well-drained soil. Roots resent disturbance, so keep these trees where you first plant them and put in companion plants while they’re young and still getting established. Since they do not tolerate waterlogged soil, a raised planting bed would be a good solution to a heavy clay soil or low-lying area. Despite being native much further south, cold is typically not an issue here, and specimens are growing locally at Brookside Gardens and Longwood Gardens. Franklin tree would make a lovely understory addition to a semi-shade garden, underplanted with Hosta, ferns, and sedges for foliage contrast or short re-blooming azaleas, hydrangeas, and Wood Asters.