The Top 5 Native Trees for Your Garden Landscape

August 22, 2019

By Matt

The Top 5 Native Trees for Your Garden Landscape

Planting native trees in your landscape creates sustainability in your garden by supporting the ecosystem and wildlife! The beauty that trees bring into our gardens not only provide a function such as shade but also contribute to the overall aesthetic of a landscape.

When choosing a tree for your garden landscape, one of the first considerations should be what species to plant, and whether or not to plant a native or non-native tree.

A non-native is classified as a tree that has been planted/introduced by humans and does not grow naturally in the area. Some non-native species can be weedy or invasive with the ability to disrupt the natural habitat by displacing other native trees in a variety of ways. Not all non-natives are bad, but it can be more beneficial to plant native plants when possible.

Non-native trees planted in gardens impact the ecological balance. One such example is the oak tree vs. the ginkgo tree. Let’s take a native insect as an example- in this case, caterpillars.

The ginkgo is native to Asia and hosts only 5 species of caterpillars here in America, whereas native oaks host over 500 species of caterpillars. This upset in the natural balance of native vs. non-native is significant and this example does not even take into account the other species of wildlife that this imbalance affects, such as birds, mammals, and other wildlife.

Benefits of Native Plants   

Choosing a native tree for your landscape influences the survival of birds, insects, small animals, and pollinators. Planting a diversity of native trees in a landscape helps to restore the loss of natural habitat in an urban environment. As urbanization increases, the natural habitat of plants and wildlife is shrinking. Planting native plants provide shelter and food for wildlife without damaging local plant communities. 

Gardens and landscapes in the U.S. feature mainly non-native plants offering little benefit to the natural habitat or wildlife. Surprisingly, there are about 20-million acres of cultivated lawn acreage in the U.S. that have little benefit for native wildlife! With natural landscaping, the establishment of native plants promotes a stewardship towards our natural heritage.

Native plants live in sync with the climate, soil conditions, and wildlife. Both plants and wildlife evolved together in their native environments making them dependent upon one another for survival. This intricate example of dependence between plants and wildlife is known as our ecosystem. 

A Few More Benefits Of Native Plants

Native plants create a life support system for flora and fauna with habitat and food. They adapt to conditions in which they evolved in. However, they struggle to adapt to new environments. For millions of years, plants have managed to evolve with/in particular ecosystems. Once those ecosystems are broken, some native plants will tend to struggle. It is important to ensure that the right plant be planted in the proper place so they will thrive.

  • Attracts and Sustains Wildlife
    • Native plants naturally provide capable shelter and food for native wildlife whereas alien plants may not.
      • Birds
      • Insects
      • Small Animals
      • Large Animals
      • Pollinators
  • Naturally Adapted To The Environment
    • Native plants can withstand the climate, soil, and conditions of the environment.
  • Requires Little to Maintain
  • Reduces Air Pollution
  • Increases The Soil’s Ability to Store Water
    • The deep root system helps the soil to store water reducing water runoff and/or flooding.
  • Reduces Noise Pollution
  • Fertilizer Needs are Minimal 
  • Largely Available at Local Garden Centers and Plant Nurseries

Desired Characteristics In Native Trees For Landscapes    

Planting the right tree in the right place is important. Certain characteristics and considerations be taken into account before choosing a native tree to plant in your landscape. 

Function Of The Native Tree

When considering planting a native tree, you must first think about what function the tree will serve.

  • Shade
  • Understory
  • Aesthetics
  • Erosion/Soil Control
  • Ornamental

Planting Site

  • Hardiness Zones
    • Native trees should be planted in their intended hardiness zone. Do not plant warmer climate trees in colder regions because the tree may not fully tolerate the conditions.
  • Space Restriction
    • When planting native trees, forethought should be given to the area the tree will be planted in. 
      • Will the spot be big enough for the tree to grow in height and width? 
      • Will the roots or branching of the tree affect the integrity of any structure(s?)
  • Soil Conditions
    • Are soil conditions ideal for the native tree in the spot you want to plant? 
      • Moist, well-drained soils do not mean wet and saturated. 
      • Dry-soil natives cannot be planted in moist soils and vice versa. 
  • Sun Exposure
    • Will the native tree be exposed to the right amount of sun and/or shade? You do not want to plant a full-sun native in a fully-shaded area or vice versa. 

Shape And Size Of Tree

When choosing a native tree, size and form are important as this will affect where you will be able to plant it.

  • Globose
  • Oval
  • Pyramidal
  • Weeping
  • Broad
  • Vase
  • Upright
  • Columnar
  • Multi-stemmed

Something to consider as well is if the tree has a suckering habit as this affects the amount of room the tree will need to spread in.

Flowering And/Or Fruit Bearing

Many native trees are known for prolific flowering and producing fruit that attracts wildlife. Birds, insects, small animals, and pollinators will bring life to your landscape if you select a flowering/fruited native tree.

Maintenance

How much maintenance do you want to do with a native tree? Becoming familiar with what a specific native tree produces helps in choosing what to plant.

  • Leaf litter requiring raking
  • Fruit litter that can be messy if planted near high-trafficked areas
  • Not all natives are disease/pest resistant and may require treatment
  • Pruning

Our Picks: Top 5 Native Landscape Trees

#5 Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

Red maple is native to the eastern half of the U.S. where it grows naturally in dry and wet soils of hillsides, bottomlands, and river floodplains. Its dense canopy provides ample shade as well as a nice show of fall colors.  This tree is hardy and fast-growing with blooming in early spring. Cold climates and disease/pests are no problem for the red maple because of its hardiness and resistance.

Family: Sapindaceae (soapberry family, Latin for ‘soap’ and ‘indian’) 
Genus:  Acer (maple genus)
Species:  rubrum (means ‘red-colored’ referring to buds and occasional fall color)
Height: 40-70 feet
Width: 30-50 feet
Zone:  3-9
Growth Rate:  Rapid
Sun:  Full sun to partial shade

Image result for range map acer rubrum wikipedia usda
Distribution of Red Maple


Strengths Weaknesses
  • Fast-growing
  • Great for shade
  • Beautiful fall foliage
  • Attracts wildlife

#4 Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Flowering dogwood is native to the eastern half of the U.S. and is found growing in a natural habitat of dry wooded areas as an understory.  This lovely tree is an early bloomer in spring and produces a profuse canopy of white flowers. 

Its small size makes it ideal for planting in smaller areas. Wildlife flock to the tree to feast on the fruit and also to pollinate the blossoms. Flowering dogwood is an early bloomer in spring with beautiful white flowers that emerge before the leaves do. This tree is great for planting in cold climates because of its overall hardiness to winter conditions. 

This tree was a source of medicine for both the Civil War era and Native Americans.

Family: Cornaceae  
Genus: Cornus (Latin for ‘horn’)
Species: florida (epithet Latin ‘flos” for flower)
Height: 15-30 feet
Width: 15-30 feet
Zone:  5-9
Growth Rate: Slow/Medium
Sun: Partial Shade
See the source image
Distribution of Flowering Dogwood

Strengths Weaknesses
  • Beautiful flowering
  • Smaller in size
  • Attracts wildlife 
  • Overall hardiness
  • Susceptible to disease/pests
  • Prefers shade

#3 American Holly (Ilex opaca)

American holly is reminiscent of Christmas with its beautiful red berries and evergreen leaves. It grows naturally in the eastern regions of the U.S. as an understory plant in lightly shaded woods. The berries are persistent through winter.  It is a cold-hardy tree and is disease/pest resistant. 

American holly was George Washington’s favorite evergreen tree and is found planted throughout his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Stately in appearance, American holly is long-lived and a classic favorite!

Family: Aquifoliaceae (holly family)
Genus: Ilex (Latin for ‘holly’ genus)
Species: opaca (means ‘opaque/dull’)
Height: 35-50 feet
Width: 15-25 feet
Zone: 5-9
Growth Rate: Slow
Sun: Partial Shade to Full Sun
Distribution of American Holly

Strengths Weaknesses
  • Produces bright red berries that persist through winter
  • Evergreen foliage is beautiful
  • Attracts wildlife
  • Resistant to most diseases/pests
  • Slow-growing
  • Berries are poisonous to pets and humans
  • Leaves are sharp and spiky

#2 Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)

Pin oak is a large statuesque tree that exudes a stately presence in a landscape. It is native to the northeastern regions of the U.S. and is found growing naturally in lowlands and bottomlands. Because of its enormous size, proper placement should be given to allow a lot of room for this tree to grow. Its acorns attract small animals while birds find shelter among its sprawling branches. 

Family: Fagaceae (beech family)
Genus: Quercus (Latin for ‘oak’ genus’) 
Species: palustris (means ‘loves marshes’)
Height: 50-70 feet
Width: 40-60 feet
Zone: 4-8
Growth Rate: Rapid
Sun: Full Sun
Quercus palustris range map 1.png
Image Courtesy Of Elbert L. Little, Jr., U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service
Distribution of Pin Oak

Strengths Weaknesses
  • Fast-growing
  • Statuesque/large
  • Pyramidal
  • Attracts wildlife
  • Resistant to disease/pests
  • When mature, it’s enormous in size

#1 Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

This beautiful tree is perhaps one of the most beautiful in spring with profuse blooming of pink and lavender flowers. These flowers emerge before the leaves do! Small and compact in size, the redbud is perfect for planting in areas that are otherwise confining for other trees. It grows natively in the southern half of the U.S. and is found growing as an understory in wooded areas and along hillsides.

If you need a small tree that packs a punch with profuse blooms, this is the perfect tree!

Family:  Fabaceae (pea family)
Genus:  Cercis (means ‘weaver’s shuttle’)
Species: canadensis (refers to Canada)
Height: 20-30 feet
Width:  25-25 feet
Zone: 4-8
Growth Rate: Moderate
Sun: Full sun to partial shade
Image result for redbud cercis canadensis range map
Distribution of Red Bud

StrengthsWeaknesses
  • Fast-growing
  • Beautiful flowers that emerge before the leaves
  • Small size
  • Heart-shaped leaves
  • Attracts wildlife
  • Cold-hardy
  • Short-lived
  • Susceptible to disease/pests

Which To Choose…

The symbiotic relationship between native plants and wildlife is something that man should strive to preserve. Filling your outdoor sanctuary with native trees provides a place for birds to recharge if they are passing through. Overwintering birds and small wildlife will find shelter and food in native trees.

There are many more worthy native trees not mentioned that will make a great addition to a garden landscape. If you are up to some interesting reading, find out what native trees do best in your region and state as well as what might fit into your landscape. Before choosing a native tree to plant, make sure you do your homework.
Lastly, remember the best horticultural maxim of all to ensure the growth requirements are met and not hindered: right plant, right place!

References

(n.d.) Why Native Plants Matter, Audubon, Retrieved from:

https://www.audubon.org/content/why-native-plants-matter

(n.d.) What’s so great about native plants? East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, Retrieved from: https://emswcd.org/native-plants/native-plant-benefits/

(n.d.) Quercus palustris, Missouri Botanical Garden, Retrieved from:

http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=a904

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