Most folks are not that passionate about trees, but certainly trees justify our appreciation as they enhance our surroundings, providing pleasant and economical cooling shade to our homes and towns. As a bonus, many bear colorful flowers, beautiful fall foliage, or edible fruit and nuts.
The fall and winter season is a great time of year to plant trees. It’s been estimated that in the urban forest only one tree is planted for every four that are lost due to death, construction or other causes. That means that there a lot of potential spots in our towns for more trees. And after last year’s grueling drought, many more trees have died and are under stress.
When considering the type of tree to plant, look at how much room you have for its mature dimensions. Today’s modern urban home lots are much smaller than a few decades ago, and towering shade trees may not be as appropriate for landscaping use as they once were for larger homes on bigger properties. Large trees often become overpowering, consuming and smothering the landscape and dwarfing the house.
Avoid the temptation to plant only fast-growing trees like sycamore, cottonwood or silver maple. Quick shade comes at a price. Most fast growing trees are prone to disease, insects, are weak-wooded and short-lived. While they do have a place in providing quick shade, they should be considered as temporary, and placed in such a way in the landscape for easy removal after other higher-quality trees that you also plant begin to dominate.
Instead of going for instant shade from a short-lived, towering tree, why not consider a quality small tree? They are ideal for smaller urban lots, and also good in tight locations like patios, courtyards or between houses.
Another advantage of smaller trees is that they do not have an aggressive root system that will damage sidewalks, driveways or house foundations. Plus, pruning branches interfering with power lines and the roof of your house is not needed.
Here’s a short list of some of the best small trees for the northeast Texas landscape:
Possumhaw Holly (Ilex decidua) – Also called deciduous holly because its size, shape and smooth pale-gray trunks make it look a lot like its cousin Yaupon Holly. The leaves of possumhaw are larger and lighter green than yaupon. In the winter, leafless branches of female trees are covered with dense clusters of orange-red berries. The berries of the ‘Warren’ variety are brighter red than most other varieties. Grown as a multi-trunked tree, it can reach 12 – 15 high. Birds are fond of the berries after they have ripened in late winter.
Crepe myrtle – a popular plant all across the south for very good reasons. It’s a beautiful, hardy, tough, summer-flowering tree, with smooth, sinuous trunks sporting colorful pealing bark every other year. There are many colors and varieties, including hybrids resistant to the common fungal disease powdery mildew. Growing heights range from miniature to 25 – 30 feet tall, so purchase varieties with the height needed for the location it will be planted. For maximum beauty, do not indiscriminately top this tree.
Deciduous magnolias (Magnolia soulangiana, M. stellata, and hybrids) – this is a large group of magnolias that flower in early spring on barren branches, with flower colors ranging from white to purple, followed by attractive large leaves. Generally grown as a multi-trunked, spreading tree, these make great accent plants near a home.
Dwarf southern magnolia – Smaller forms of the common large, evergreen southern magnolia are outstanding. If you have a small space, but long for the large, waxy, fragrant blooms of a magnolia, consider planting one of the dwarfs. Probably the most widely available variety is ‘Little Gem’.
Vitex – Also called lavender chaste tree, this small tree flowers in late May and June. Vitex has blue (or white) spikes of flowers on a multi-trunked branching habit that can be pruned to a small tree. Vitex was named a Texas Superstar for its easy culture and attractive blooms.
Redbud – An early flowering tree, it blooms before its heart-shaped leaves appear. There are many forms and varieties of redbud available, including eastern, Texas, Oklahoma and Mexican redbud. There are also white redbuds, a variety with purple foliage called ‘Forest Pansy’, and weeping forms.
White Fringetree – Also known as Grancy Greybeard (Chionanthus virginicus) (and not to be confused with the popular Loropetalum FringeS with burgundy foliage), this wonderful, small East Texas native tree should be planted more in the home landscape. It blooms in late April and May with clouds of lacy, fringe-like white blooms, giving an ethereal appearance. It is hardy, and though it tolerates full sun, prefers some protection from the hot afternoon sun. The Chinese Fringetree (Chionanthus retusus) is a related tree from the orient which also does well in our area.
Dogwood – What list of small trees for east Texas would be complete without including dogwoods? Blooming in concert with azaleas in late March and April, the pure white flower-like bracts light up a shady yard. Pink forms are also available. Dogwoods continue to enhance the landscape in the fall with colorful fall foliage and bright red clusters of berries. Dogwoods need similar conditions as azaleas – partial shade and acidic, moist, yet excellent draining soils. Poor soil, drought and stress can lead to gradual decline and eventual death.
If you’re a Tylerite and plant one or more trees, be sure to report it on the Mayor’s Tree Tyler Initiative web site at: treetyler.com.