Fall Planting? Consider a smaller native tree.

A mature native dogwood approaching peak autumn color.

A mature native dogwood approaching peak autumn color.

Cooler weather is trying to creep in. Soon the persistent clouds will dissipate, replaced by crisp, cooler air and sunshine that warms but doesn’t sear weeders as we attempt to prepare our flowerbeds for their winter’s sleep.

Every experienced Piedmont gardener’s fingers get itchy this time of year. We know that this is the optimal season for planting new trees, shrubs, and many perennials to give them the best chance of flourishing in our yards. With that itch in mind, I thought I’d mention five small native trees that I believe deserve a spot in many Piedmont home landscapes.

I’ve offered tips for planting trees before, but here are a few key points.

  • Our smaller native trees are small because they evolved to be understory trees. They flourish beneath the taller canopy trees such as Tulip Poplars, Oaks, and Hickories, occurring along forest edges, where they are sheltered from searing afternoon sun by the taller canopy trees, but receive some light by being on the edges of clearings. Thus, when you plant your smaller native tree, locate it where it will be shaded from searing afternoon summer sun.
  • Our smaller native trees are forest natives. They will never flourish plunked down in the middle of a suburban lawn all by themselves. If your landscape is too small to plant them beneath canopy trees, consider grouping them with native trees and shrubs that are the same size or smaller. As the group of natives matures, you can add native wildflowers beneath them to create a more diverse and beautiful landscape that will also appeal to native wildlife.
  • Don’t dig a hole barely big enough for the root ball of your new addition, add the tree, and go your merry way. Tree roots need room to travel. A small hole carved into compacted clay soil works just like a flower pot. The roots will go round and round, never escaping the confines of their prison. Such a tree never flourishes. Ideally, your new addition should be sited in a prepared bed that you’ve tilled deeply and improved with compost or other organic materials.
  • Be sure the root ball isn’t below the surface of the surrounding soil. Tree roots need to breathe. If you bury them too deeply, the tree will never flourish. Mulch your new tree with an inch or two of an organic material such as wood chips or leaves. Pine needles are not a good choice.
  • Water your new tree during dry spells throughout the following year, even in winter, if precipitation doesn’t fall. Aim for an inch per week for that first year. Once your native is well-established, it will need less attention.
  • Don’t fertilize your new tree. Even organic fertilizers are too much for the traumatized root systems of new arrivals. Well-prepared soil, mulch, and adequate water are all they need.
  • Don’t spray herbicides near your tree. If the spray drifts onto even the bark of your new addition, your tree can be damaged.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

A Piedmont spring staple

A Piedmont spring staple

Flowering dogwood is native to all of the southeastern US, from the coast to the mountains, including the Piedmont region where I live. It is a magnificent four-season beauty. Spring, of course, covers the trees in a white cloud of long-lasting blooms. Summer brings bright green leaves, a spot of shade, and developing clusters of berries. Fall ripens those berries to red and colors the leaves in shades of maroon and crimson. Winter shows off the blocky fissured bark and the lateral arrangement of its branches, which snow accentuates in winter landscapes.

Many beautiful cultivars of this tree have been developed by horticulturalists. All local nurseries will be well-stocked with myriad choices this time of year. For the best selection, consider buying from a speciality nursery rather than a Big Box Store’s abused-plant holding area. Any difference in price will be well worth your investment, I promise.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Flowers of Redbud signal spring's arrival.

Flowers of Redbud signal spring’s arrival.

Yes, I know the blooms are not red. This confuses all non-Southeasterners when they hear natives talking about our spring Eastern Redbud flowers. I do not know how they got this name. I do know the light purple-pink flowers cover most branches in early spring, a few weeks before the Flowering Dogwoods reach peak bloom. During a rare cool spring, we often get lucky enough to see prolonged Eastern Redbud bloom — long enough to overlap with snowy Flowering Dogwood flowers. So lovely!

Eastern Redbud is another four-season beauty. After its pea-like flowers (a member of the legume plant family) fade, bean-like seed pods develop, maturing from green to dark brown as summer morphs into fall. Distinctive heart-shaped leaves make this an easy tree to identify. They turn a soft gold before dropping with the first cold winds of autumn. Twigs grow in a unique zigzag pattern that is especially noticeable when coated in snow. Horticulturalists have been busy with this species too. I’m especially fond of C. canadensis ‘Forest Pansy.’

Sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum)

Sourwood flowers are beloved by bees.

Sourwood flowers are beloved by bees.

In the Appalachian mountains, Sourwoods are often 50 feet tall. They seem to prosper there, and that is where beekeepers put their hives when they want to create sourwood honey. Here in the Piedmont, Sourwoods are typically smaller, usually not more than 30 feet tall. In our native forests, they often take on contorted shapes as their trunks bend toward holes in the canopy where they can receive sunlight. But they will grow straight, tall, and lovely if you simply site yours where it is sheltered from hot summer sun, but receives good morning sunlight.

Clusters of bell-like pure white flowers adorn the tips of branches in June and July, making this native a great way to extend the blooming period of trees in your landscape. Fall leaf color, which begins earlier for this native than most, is drop-dead gorgeous deep scarlet. Its distinctive deeply furrowed bark, plus its tendency to hold on to the dried seed head clusters until spring, make this native another potential winter interest focal point in your landscape. Taste a green leaf in early summer. They have a wonderful sour tang to them, which I imagine is the source of their common name.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

One of the first red-flowering natives to bloom in spring.

One of the first red-flowering natives to bloom in spring.

The three trees previously described are all happier growing on upland slopes, but this native occurs naturally in moist forests, often near floodplains. If you’ve got a low area in your yard that tends to remain moist, Red Buckeye is worth considering. By early April, this beauty begins opening its clusters of scarlet flowers, just in time for the arrival of native Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. The flowers occur on the ends of branches, so even as the decorative compound leaves unfurl, the flowers remain visible. Most years in my yard, blooming lasts about a month.  Its distinctive fruits — most of us think of them as nuts, although botanically they are considered to be capsules — hang in clusters as fall approaches. Eventually, they crack open to reveal distinctive buckeye fruits. The “nuts” are considered to be good luck charms by some, but they are poisonous. If you have little ones inclined to pick up and taste what they find, this tree is probably not your best option.

The outer husks crack open and drop the buckeyes to the ground.

The outer husks crack open and drop the buckeyes to the ground.

Ashe Magnolia (Magnolia ashei)

Ashe Magnolia flower bud and leaves

Ashe Magnolia flower bud and leaves

For gardeners who crave a bit of drama in their native landscapes, I recommend Ashe Magnolia. Sited correctly, this native beauty will flourish, and it is guaranteed to draw admiration from all visitors. This plant is native to cool, moist shady slopes of the western Piedmont and eastern mountains. Some botanists consider it to be a subspecies of Bigleaf Magnolia (M. macrophylla), because the leaf size and shape and the flowers are quite similar. But Bigleaf Magnolia is a vastly taller tree. Ashe Magnolia remains much smaller. Its growth habit is almost shrub-like, with a tendency for low-branching limbs, often a bit lop-sided.

So lovely

So lovely

But what it lacks in graceful branching structure, it more than makes up for with its fragrant, enormous flowers and equally large leaves. Those leaves give an almost tropical appearance to this tree’s corner of the landscape, and they turn a beautiful golden yellow before dropping to carpet the ground. This species also blooms when its young. Mine produced its first flowers only two years after I planted a tiny twig of a bare-rooted specimen that I purchased.

If you want to try this native, you’ll need a shady, moist spot with rich organic soil. Pick a low spot in your yard and improve the soil by creating a tilled bed full of compost. Be sure the spot receives little to no afternoon summer sun, but does receive good morning light. If you can do this, your rewards will be spectacular flowers and leaves unlike any other native in your landscape. I unabashedly adore Ashe Magnolia.

Get planting!

Soon I’ll offer some suggestions for native shrubs you should consider adding to your landscape this fall. Until then, take a walk around your yard with an eye to where you can tuck in some well-adapted natives to enhance your landscape. Then visit the local fall plant sales that abound at the many public gardens and nurseries in our region. I am confident that you’ll never regret going native.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

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  1. #1 by Craig on September 16, 2014 - 5:39 am

    Great! I’d love to see more sourwoods planted, and thanks for pointing me towards Ashe Magnolia. I see you have a previous post on the hornbeam, another great understory native. I’ve been thinking lately about the chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) for my yard. It is said to tolerate a good deal of sun, and I believe I’ve found a seed source in a healthy native population at Umstead park.

    • #2 by piedmontgardener on September 16, 2014 - 7:33 am

      Hi, Craig. It’s always nice to meet a fellow Sourwood fan. 🙂 As for Chalk Maple, I agree that it is a lovely, uncommon native tree. This close cousin to the larger sugar maples remains small, has spectacular bark color (hence the “chalk” in its name), and the gorgeous fall leaf color that the sugar maple clan is known for.

      As with any plant, siting it correctly will be key. Although it only needs part shade, I’d still try to put it where our afternoon summer sun can’t reach it. This tree is a native of well-drained, rocky soils, so I’d plant it on a slope, especially if you’ve got typical Carolina clay soils.

      I especially appreciate that you’re seeking a local source for this tree. As you likely know, botanists call this knowing the provenance (origin) of a plant. A nifty little-known fact about my favorite local public garden, the NC Botanical Garden, is that all the plants around the new Education Building complex have known provenances. If they don’t know the source of a native, they are not planting it in these beds. Truly, no other public garden I know of “walks the talk” the way the folks do at this garden. If you’re not a member, I encourage you to consider joining. Their fall plant sale is less than two weeks away.

      Good luck with your fall additions to your garden!

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