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Horticulture Questions and Answers

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What are some good small trees for this area?

Space, balance and scale are important gardening concepts, and are particularly relevant in today's small home landscape design. .Examples abound of homes and gardens dwarfed by unruly giant trees, which usually ends in disaster for both the landscape design and the trees. Fortunately, there are many alternative small trees in the 15 to 30 foot range from which the gardener may choose. Here are some of the best for the St. Louis area.

The flowering dogwood, (Cornus florida) is a good place to start. Our Missouri state tree, this native has received some recent negative publicity regarding a leaf blight disease called anthracnose, which has migrated from the East Coast. For unknown reasons, the disease has not established itself in Missouri, and presents no reason to avoid planting dogwoods. Another relative, the Kousa dogwood, (Cornus kousa) is an Asian native, which grows to about 20 to 30 feet. Resistant to the anthracnose disease, this species flowers about 2 weeks later than our native dogwood. The showy blooms last for up to 6 weeks and are followed by a strawberry-like fruit. The bark turns a rich brown color and flakes with age. The Pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia) is another native tree, attaining 15 to 25 feet in height at maturity. A slow grower, it blooms in late April or early May, and carries its fragrant flowers on horizontally spreading branches which create a wonderful winter form. Tolerant of sun or shade, as well as clay soils, it also produces blue berries which are eaten by birds in late summer.

Any landscape, large or small, will be enhanced by the lovely reddish-purple flowers of the redbud tree (Cercis canadensis). At 20 to 40 feet, this native tree is widely adapted to a variety of soils, but does best in a deep loam with good drainage and moisture. It prefers a site that receives afternoon shade. There is also a white flowering redbud called 'Alba' and a purple leaf type called 'Forest Pansy'. Redbuds evolved as fast-growing, but short-lived trees (20 to 30 years longevity). Gardeners seeking permanence in their landscapes should be aware of this fact.

Another native tree is the Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus). A slow grower, to 15 or 20 feet, this species develops multiple stems and can also be classed as a large shrub. However, with judicious pruning to limit the number of trunks, it will develop a tree form. Blooming at the same time as Pagoda dogwood, the fragrant fleecy flowers are the inspiration for its country name, "Old-Man's-Beard." Its fruits are also relished by birds in late summer. The fringe tree will grow in a wide range of soils and tolerates city conditions.

The Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) is still another Missouri native. Attaining a height of 15 feet or more, it can become shrubby unless the side shoots are removed to maintain a single trunk effect. Showy, when blooming in April and May, it develops masses of edible berries which change color from pink to red or white, and then navy blue. Adaptable to any soil or exposure, the Blackhaw's finest feature may be its fall color. Bronzy-maroon to red in sun, it may turn a butter yellow in a shady site.

The Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) is unfortunately seldom seen in the landscape. Growing 25 to 30 feet in height, its upright habit allows for planting it along paths or near decks and patios. Tolerant of clay soils and partial shade, this tree's outstanding quality is its cinnamon-brown, papery bark which seems to light up in a winter landscape.

And let's not forget the Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) for small spaces. Rarely taller than 25 feet, these trees come in a great variety of leaf forms and colors. They should be grown in moist, well-drained soils. As a general rule, the cut-leaf fringe varieties, which usually grow under 10 feet, thrive only in partial sun with afternoon shade.

There are many more useful small tree species for the landscape which can be seen at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Use the Garden as the living educational laboratory which it is.