For years I had a favorite old crabapple tree at the entry to my house. In spring, soft-pink blossoms covered the tree, and in summer the limbs were heavy with tiny red fruits. Last summer, however, I reluctantly decided the crabapple had to go. It dropped so many fruits that I could hardly mow under the tree or walk on the sidewalk. So down came the tree, and off to a nursery I went to find a cleaner replacement-a small ornamental tree that would provide interest and screening at our entry without all the mess. It turns out that there were plenty of selections to choose from, depending on how and where I might use them. A flowering magnolia now stands about 10 feet from where the old crabapple tree stood, and its delicate springtime flowers and clean habit get rave reviews from both the neighbors and me.
Effective Uses for Small Trees
Many small trees that reach only 25 to 30 feet tall have interesting flowering, foliage, bark, berries, or form. They are especially effective in areas where other trees or plants wouldn't work: in a limited space such as a courtyard, in a spot where you need screening, in a nook where a flowering tree would be welcome, or anywhere you want a unique focal point.
If you live on a small city lot where a towering shade tree would overwhelm house and lawn, consider a small ornamental tree. For example, threeflower maple (Acer triflorum, Zones 5 to 7) grows to 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide, has unusual peeling bark, and orange-to-red foliage in autumn.
Courtyards are perfect spots for small trees. They soften harsh corners and shade hot brick or concrete surfaces. Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel' has light pink flowers in spring, grows to 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide, and is hardy in Zones 5 to 9. When choosing a tree for an enclosed area like a courtyard, avoid one with messy fruit or seeds-it can be a chore to clean up after them (as I learned with my crabapple).
Small trees are a prime choice for areas under or near utility lines. Their size reduces the need for heavy pruning to prevent power-line damage. Apple serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora, Zones 5 to 8) is a GreatPlants selection from the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum for this type of site. The cultivar ‘Forest Prince' has outstanding white flowers, edible red berries, and red-orange fall color. It grows 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
If your neighbors have a terrible-looking shed you would love to hide from view, but building a fence would deliver the wrong message, think about a small tree. Crabapple (Malus spp.) ‘Donald Wyman' has a dense, spreading form, white spring flowers, and red fruit that stays on the tree all winter. It grows to 20 feet tall and 25 feet wide, and is hardy in Zones 5 to 8. Many newer crabapples hold their fruit into the winter and are not as messy as the older varieties. Each region has local cultivars of crabapple trees and unique soil conditions, so it's best to consult local nurseries for the best selections for your area. Another tree good for screening is katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum f. pendulum, Zones 5 to 8). The cultivar ‘Amazing Grace' has layered, weeping branches and grows to 25 feet tall and 30 feet wide.
Some lucky gardeners have flowers blooming all year, but most live in cooler climates where flowers are seasonal. Enduring a long winter is easier when you can look forward to spring-flowering shrubs and trees. Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis, Zones 5 to 9) is listed by the Chicago Botanic Garden as one of the best flowering trees for Illinois. It has deep-red, pink, or white flowers in early spring (depending on the cultivar) and grows to 30 feet tall and wide with a spreading form. Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem', Zones 7 to 10) is evergreen in the South and is generally considered one of the best for humid, southern climates.
If you live in a dry, warm climate, consider two small trees that Wade Roitsch, propagator at Yucca Do Nursery in Hempstead, Texas, recommends. One is a redbud from Mexico (Cercis canadensis-Mexico form, Zones 7 to 10). Its leaves are smaller than the Eastern redbud, and the flowers are purple. It grows to 15 feet tall and 20 feet wide. The other is Eve's necklace (Sophora affinis, Zones 8 to 9), a delicate-looking but tough tree that grows to 20 feet tall with an umbrella-like shape. It has blooms of pale-pink pea-like flowers and seed pods that resemble black-eyed peas.
Many of the maples, including amur maple (Acer ginnala, Zones 3 to 7) have outstanding autumn color. The amur maple grows to 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide. Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood', Zones 6 to 8) has interesting features all season with purple-red leaves in summer and bright-red foliage and fruit in autumn. It grows to 15 feet tall and wide.
Outstanding Ornamental Trees
While spring has the largest selection of small trees, in the autumn your local nursery may have some excellent bargains. Otherwise, explore local botanical gardens and arboreta, and collect catalogs and earmark some fascinating smaller trees to grace your landscape next summer:
Bottlebrush Callistemon viminalis, Zones 10 to 11): Large shrub or small tree with bright red flowers in spring and summer. Grows 30 feet tall and 12 feet wide.
Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas ‘Golden Glory', Zones 5 to 8): Yellow flowers in spring, edible red fruit, often multi-stemmed. Grows 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide.
Crabapple (Malus ‘Adirondack', Zones 5 to 8): White flowers, red fruit. Grows 18 feet tall and 10 feet wide.
Crabapple (Malus ‘Pink Spires', Zones 3 to 8): Grows 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide, fruit doesn't persist in winter.
English hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata ‘Crimson Cloud', Zones 5 to 8): Red flowers and fruit. Grows 20 feet tall and wide.
Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus, Zones 5 to 9): Large shrub or small tree with fragrant flowers, dark blue fruit. Grows 10 feet tall and wide.
Golden-rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata, Zones 6 to 9): Yellow flowers, pink-red fruit capsules. Grows 30 feet tall and wide.
Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva', Zones 4 to 8): Large shrub or small tree with white flowers in midautumn. Grows 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide.
Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood', Zones 6 to 8): Grows 15 feet tall and wide, excellent foliage and bark.
Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk', Zones 4 to 7): Creamy white flowers. Grows 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa, Zones 5 to 8): Green flowers with white bracts. Grows 22 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
Magnolia (Magnolia ‘Butterflies', Zones 5 to 9): Yellow flowers, likes moist site. Grows 15 feet tall and 11 feet wide
Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago, Zones 2 to 8): Large shrub or small tree with arching branches, white flowers, pink fruit that ripens to deep blue-black, grows 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide.
River birch (Betula nigra ‘Litte King', Zones 4 to 9): Compact habit, interesting bark, multi-stemmed. Grows 10 feet tall, 12 feet wide.
Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora, Zones 7 to 10): Large shrub or small tree with fragrant violet flowers. Grows 35 feet tall and 20 feet wide.
Showy mountain ash (Sorbus decora, Zones 3 to 8): White flowers, orange-red fruit. Grows to 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
White Geiger (Cordia boissier, Zones 10 to 11): White flowers. Grows 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide.