Five Small Trees for the All Season Garden

For seven days,
my proper maple
glowed sunshine
in the hedgerow,
served as sanctuary
to sparrow, finch, and wren.
Tonight in concert
with the wind
she’ll bend and toss
her yellow nightgown
on the lawn.

– Joan Peronto

As I write this column, an early November rainstorm is soaking the few remaining leaves on the garden’s deciduous trees and shrubs.  When the sun comes up in the morning, only the leaves of the garden’s oaks will still cling tenaciously to their branches.  For me, a storm event like this marks the end of the gardening year and serves as a cue to start planning next year’s garden.

In this light, I offer the following thoughts for those readers planning to add a new tree to their garden come spring.

The best of the garden’s small flowering trees, plants that grow to 30 feet or less in height, are focal points in the garden throughout the year.  Some announce the start of the gardening year by flowering early on leafless branches, while others wait until their leaves have unfurled before brightening a corner of the garden with their blossoms.  Some move quickly from flower to fruit, their seeds on the ground before summer, while others ripen berries slowly through the summer, offering them to migrating birds in autumn.  They all bring a spectacular display of foliage color to the fall garden and their bare branches traced with snow adorn the winter landscape.

I consider the following five small trees to be among the best in terms of year-round interest.  Four are native to the eastern United States, and the non-native species, redvein enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus), has graced North American gardens for decades without showing any evidence of invasive behavior; in fact, this Japanese plant is often recommended as a replacement for the very invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus).  Four of these small trees have been growing in Marjorie’s Garden for over a decade and we have visual ownership of two magnificent sourwoods (Oxydendrum arboreum) growing in a neighbor’s garden.

Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)

Fringetree (foreground) and Pagoda Dogwood (background) flower together in Marjorie’s Garden.

Fringetree is native to moist woodlands from eastern Texas and southern Missouri eastward to the Atlantic Coast and north to Pennsylvania and Ohio.   Throughout this region, another common name for this tree, old man’s beard, testifies to the uniqueness of its flower display.   From a distance the tree appears bearded with bright white fleecy cotton.  Up close, each of the sweetly fragrant flowers displays four very thin, drooping petals.

Fringetree is the last plant in our garden to acknowledge spring, waiting until we have given it up for dead, a victim of winter, before suddenly breaking dormancy.  And so it seems appropriate that it would be among the last of the garden’s trees to shut down, the winds of early November unable to extinguish the glow of its butter-yellow leaves at dusk.

Fringe tree is dioecious, male and female flowers on separate plants. If growing a single fringe tree in your garden, select a male plant, as they have longer, showier petals.  Female plants, on the other hand, if pollinated by a nearby male, will produce olive-shaped, dark blue berries that are relished by wildlife.

Redvein Enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus)

In winter, the dried seed capsules of redvein enkianthus are often capped with new snow.

Redvein enkianthus flowers in spring, clusters of creamy yellow bells with deep red veins hanging below the whorl of leaves at each branch tip.  The flowers are slightly larger that those of highbush blueberry but have the same drooping habit.  The fruit, which persists into winter, is a dry mahogany-colored seed capsule.

Kept in its natural shrubby form, redvein enkianthus makes a beautiful informal hedge.
We chose, however, to prune our plant, now about 8 feet all, into a small multi-trunk tree in order to highlight its layered branching habit, a striking feature in winter when the branches are traced with snow.  It may eventually grow to 12 feet in height, the perfect small garden tree.

In autumn the leaves on our plant turn to a mix of brilliant red and gold.  Fall color is variable within the species with some plants turning all red or all yellow.

Although not native to North America, redvein enkianthus flowers are a hit among the bumblebee species in our garden.  The flowers resemble those of our native blueberries and thus are adapted to the buzz pollination technique used by bumblebees.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

Sourwood’s crimson fall foliage takes center stage from early October into November.

Sourwood is native to the southeastern U.S. north to Pennsylvania and west to Illinois.  I knew it in my youth in the southern Appalachians where it would grow to 50 feet tall.  I know it now, in a mid-coast Maine garden just up the lane, as a much smaller tree.  In cultivation, sourwood typically reaches about 20 feet in height.  It is cold hardy in USDA Zones 5 through 9.

Finely-toothed, shining, yellow-green leaves provide a lovely foil for the drooping compound clusters of creamy white flowers borne at the ends of branches in early summer.  These flowers give way to silver-gray seed capsules that ripen in September and persist with the crimson autumn leaves.  After leaf drop, these seed capsules, along with the gray fissured bark, continue providing ornamental interest into winter.

As a southerner, when I see sourwood, I think about sourwood honey.  Beekeepers would move their hives into the Appalachians when sourwood was in bloom to make the finest honey imaginable.

Grow sourwood where you would grow rhododendrons, in acidic, moist, well-drained soils.  And for best fall color, grow it in full sun.  Like all ericaceous plants, sourwood is intolerant of drought.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

In early spring, before the leaves appear, purplish-pink flowers adorn the leafless branches of the redbud tree.

I grew up in Georgia where understory redbuds are native harbingers of spring and where large old specimens grow along the river banks, some 30 feet tall, their short main trunks dividing low to the ground into several stout ascending branches.  In early spring, these gray leafless branches, most spreading outward, a few curving back downward as if remembering the weight of a past winter’s ice, are covered with short-stalked pea-like flowers, rosy pink with a purplish tint,  and gray Spanish moss.  The efforts of earnest gardeners to bring pink and gray together are no match for what nature accomplishes on such fine spring days!

Redbud flower buds are often freeze-killed in Maine winters.   While the species is listed as hardy to USDA Zone 5 and, with protection, to protected areas in Zone 4, only plants derived from an Illinois population, the northern-most native range of the species, will repeatedly flower in Maine.  If you decide to plant a redbud, make sure that you purchase one that was propagated from the Illinois ecotype.

Redbud leaves are simple and heart-shaped, about 4 inches across, lustrous green in summer, lemon yellow in the fall.  The tree in Marjorie’s Garden, like many of the species, is multi-trunked and forms a lovely summer umbrella of cordate leaves.

Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

The purple-black fruits of Pagoda Dogwood ripen in late summer and are quickly taken by the birds.

Pagoda dogwood is an understory tree, best grown in the shade of taller trees.  In late May to early June, it brightens a shady corner of the garden with large flat clusters of white flowers layered on horizontal branches.  In late summer, birds feast on its purple-black berries.  Come October, its leaves are colored with a mix of yellow, red, and purple.  And through the winter, the horizontal branching habit gives the tree a picturesque pagoda-like habit.

One note of caution for gardeners growing this tree concerns a fungal disease called “golden canker”, so named for the yellow discoloration of infected stems.  The fungus attacks trees under stress, so growing pagoda dogwood in the garden must include siting the tree in the shade of taller trees and avoiding drought stress.

(Author’s Note: Joan Peronto is a resident of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  Her poetry has appeared in Crossing Paths, The Rockford Review, The Berkshire Review and Hummingbird. Her children’s poems have appeared in Cricket, Spider, and Ladybug.  And yes, Joan is Marjorie’s mother.)

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: