Trees for Oklahoma Gardens

By John Smelser

Quercus virginiana
live oak
Broadleaf evergreen

This is the fabled oak of “southern plantation fame.” Strong horizontal limbs, evergreen foliage, and an exceptional life-span make it a valuable addition to the landscape and garden. Central Oklahoma is about as far north as this tree will reliably grow. Gardeners in the southern half of our state will find this to be an exceptionally durable tree…tolerant of drought and poor soils.
Malus sargentii
Sargent crabapple
Deciduous shrub

This is an exotically beautiful small tree! I say exotic because it will, without any pruning on your part, develop a distinctly ‘oriental’ appearance. Wider than tall…. with a slightly windswept look… this is an excellent tree for planting under power lines because it will never require butchering by the power line tree police. In spring this tree is smothered in small, cherry red flower buds. These open to very pretty, pure white blooms with bright yellow stamens. The spring blooms are followed by development of cherry red persistent fruit. [‘Persistent’ means they stay on the tree instead of littering the lawn.] Please pick a site that allows this tree to achieve its full height and spread… pruning can destroy its beauty. Sargent’s Crabapple is seldom prone to any crabapple problems in our area as long as it is planted in full sun with good air circulation.
Cedrus atlantica (Glauca Group)
blue atlas cedar
Needled evergreen

There are some elegant and enormous blue atlas cedars in the lawns of our older neighborhoods. Two come to mind. One was planted well out into a large lawn, had lots of room to spread, and now has a huge, striking crown. The other has been too closely flanked by two shade trees, and looks strangely unbalanced & odd in it’s search for sunlight. What’s my point? Give this very beautiful, noble, and long-lived conifer plenty of room to grow. Do not plant it up against the chimney or right next to a small front porch. It will begin to engulf either one and you will frustrate yourself for years with the pruning you will do. Not to mention the incredible damage to the tree’s overall appearance. If you are willing to give it the space it needs, you could not ask for a more beautiful needle evergreen tree.
Cedrus deodara
Himalayan cedar
Needled evergreen

There is no doubt this is a beautiful conifer. It would be the preeminent tree in any landscape or garden. It is not, however, appreciative of the temperature fluctuations & drought Oklahoma gardens often experience in the winter. Historically, some large mature trees in Oklahoma City have died suddenly because they could not tolerate these fluctuations. So be aware of that when selecting a conifer for gardens in this part of the country. The comments made about size & siting in the review of atlas cedars applies equally to this tree. Protection from predominantly northwest winter winds will improve chance for long-term reliability. Having said all that, this tree really does look like a lot of people’s “ideal” Christmas tree. It is a beautiful addition to any large lawn with good sun and well-drained soil.
Cedrus libani
cedar of Lebanon
Needled evergreen

PlantFinder says this is the hardiest of the true cedars for the Saint Louis area. The same is true for Oklahoma City and surrounding areas. The need for well-drained soil and full sun also applies to us. And, as is true of the other 2 cedars, this tree needs plenty of room. It retains lower branches until it gets closer to maturity. These semi-mature cedars are very handsome trees on large expanses of lawn. Mature specimens are still rare in Oklahoma City, but they do exist.
Xanthocyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula'
nootka cypress
Needled evergreen

Weeping Alaskan cypress……growing in Oklahoma City? That just does not seem logical. Well, it might not be logical…but it certainly is nice. This tree will not begin to approach it’s defined potential height or breadth out here on the “Great Plains.” But it will grow successfully and well. Provide it with good, well-drained soil….and some shade & supplemental water on hot summer afternoons. It will reward you with a beauty unmatched by any other conifer that grows well in our part of the country. One thing you can count on….it is decidedly winter hardy here….as long as the soil is not perpetually wet. Do I think you should grow one? If you have the right site……and the temperament of a true gardener….yes, I most assuredly do. Oklahoma gardeners have planted weeping mulberry’s for years. In the past 10 years more and more Oklahoma City gardeners have begun planting weeping blue atlas cedar. This Cypress extends the “plant palette” in a strikingly beautiful way.
Juniperus virginiana 'Canaertii'
red cedar
Needled evergreen

Many trees have a tendency to develop a windswept look in central Oklahoma. Eastern redcedar is no exception. The more I see striking old windswept specimens, the more I like this Oklahoma native. The trunk, limbs, and bark bespeak a rugged durability. It is the most drought tolerant of eastern conifers. Spraying with Bacillus thurengiensis once or twice in early June effectively controls bagworms for the season. ‘Canaertii’ is a desirable cultivar because it consistently provides crops of showy blue cones [they look like berries] in winter. These are attractants to several bird species. Should be planted more.
Picea pungens
Colorado spruce
Needled evergreen

This powder blue conifer has been popular in Oklahoma gardens since early in the last century. [It’s kind of fun to be able to say things like “the last century.”] Anyway, they grow quite well here as long as a few rules are followed. Give it good, well-drained soil. Giving it a little summer afternoon shade while young helps. Be consistent about watering while it is young [while avoiding wet soil]… drought tolerance comes with age. You’ll note PlantFinder lists 3 cultivars suitable for Saint Louis. Cultivars recommended for Oklahoma gardens include ‘Hoopsii’, ‘R.H. Montgomery’, ‘Globosa’, ‘Blue Totem’, ‘Thompsenii’, ‘Glauca’, and ‘Prostrata.’ Of these, ‘Hoopsii’, ‘R.H. Montgomery’, and ‘Thompsenii’ seem to maintain the best year-round blue foliage. They also seem to tolerate our humid summers better than many cultivars.
Pinus densiflora 'Umbraculifera'
Japanese red pine
Needled evergreen

Dr. Carl Whitcomb introduced me to this conifer in a class at OSU years ago. He was very enthusiastic about its beauty, and so am I. My favorite specimen grows next to the entrance to the Civic Center Music Hall in downtown Oklahoma City. It was planted in the 1930’s when the hall was built. A large undulating, shallow dome of bright green needles serves as the crown. This is held up by multiple limbs spreading from one low-limbed trunk – a decidedly “multi-trunked” effect. All of these exposed limbs are covered with flaky red-orange to orange-brown bark that is exceptionally good looking. Two more nice specimens flank the west side of the Bishop Angie Smith Chapel at OCU. Younger, very recently pruned specimens decorate the east wall of Gordon’s Jewelers, just across from Penn Square. If you see these plants, please note how much space they are given. Crowding this conifer among other plants will cripple its potential…. So give it room to spread. The size comments on PlantFinder apply in our area as well. Take a look at Compact Tanyosho Pine [P.d. ‘Umbraculifera Nana’] if your garden requires a smaller specimen. Underplanting it with perennials works well….. burnt orange, deep red, & blue blooms are great complimentary colors. The bark stands out best against an underplanting with dark green foliage. Annuals are not the best underplanting, because repeated root disturbance and heavy feeding can damage the pine’s roots. If you choose to underplant, respect the pine’s fibrous root system while digging. Don’t smother roots with additional layers of soil. Well drained soils and full sun provide the best results. If you have the right site, Tanyosho Pine would be a beautiful and unique addition to your garden.
Pinus strobus
eastern white pine
Needled evergreen

Much as it pains me to do it, I have to say this is far from the best pine for central Oklahoma gardens. It can be and is being grown here, and it will succeed here. I just want “plant-it-and-forget-it” gardeners to save their money. If this is the pine you want, help it out by giving it good, well-drained soil & light shade on summer afternoons. As the pine gets larger and the shade becomes denser, you will want to selectively prune the shade tree to allow consistent light on the pine. It will decline & die in too much shade. For these reasons, some of the compact, dwarf, and weeping forms of white pine seem best suited for our gardens. Planting these on the east side of a single story building works well here. If you plant on the north side, don’t let the overhang shade it too much.
Pinus thunbergii
Japanese black pine
Needled evergreen

This pine performs beautifully on the south central Great Plains. It tolerates a wide range of growing conditions. Full sun is very necessary for success with pines in our area. One note of caution: do not plant Japanese Black Pines in areas where herbicides are used …. it is susceptible to decline and death if you do a lot of spraying for weeds. Other than that, Japanese black pine does not have the problems in Oklahoma it seems to have in Saint Louis. This is not a “lumber” pine. It’s trunk and branches have a decidedly windswept habit…. giving this conifer a very graceful, ‘oriental’ look in Oklahoma gardens. ‘Angelica’s Thunderhead’ is a beautiful, compact cultivar. ‘Mount Hood’ is an unusual and beautiful prostrate form, growing 1-2 feet high and up to 10 feet across. These last two are harder to find, but worth the effort.
Thuja occidentalis 'Degroot's Spire'
American arborvitae
Needled evergreen

Plant this irregularly columnar conifer in average to good soil that drains, but also stays moist. Give it some light shade on summer afternoons. Too much shade makes it leggy. This is a great small conifer, with twisting undulating new growth that adds texture and good color to gardens. Mulching is more important here than in Saint Louis. Water consistently without waterlogging during periods of high summer heat.

X Cupressocyparis leylandii
Leyland cypress
Needled evergreen

Plantfinder’s Noteworthy Characteristics for this evergreen are well worth reading. This plant had excellent parents who passed their best traits on in a very attractive form. Well-drained soil and good sun are as important here as there. Leyland Cypress is an excellent selection for people who need a fast-growing specimen. It responds well to pruning, and this makes it a lush, full hedging plant if that is your need. Please remember to prune hedges widest at the ground, and narrowest at the top. This gives each side of the hedge good exposure to light from the ground up. And that, more than any other factor, will provide you with dense foliage all the way to the ground. This conifer has very good resistance to bagworms.

Acer buergerianum
trident maple

This small tree is hard to find in the trade around here…but is infinitely worth the search. It stays under 20-25 feet in Oklahoma City…so it is suited to smaller gardens. Very appealing orange-red fall color gives best results if the tree is watered thoroughly during periods of high summer heat & wind. The bark & silhouette of trident maple stand out well in winter gardens.
Acer griseum
paperbark maple

Give this small tree the same conditions you would a Japanese maple…and pay attention to summer & winter watering. If you do, you will be rewarded with one of the most beautiful little trees gardeners can plant. All elements of this tree…tri-lobed leaves, fall color, delicate branching habit, exfoliating orange cinnamon bark…are highly ornamental. For best viewing, plant close to entries or patios…but only if culturally practical.
Acer palmatum
Japanese maple

The single most beautiful small tree in Oklahoma gardens. Successful and beautiful specimens of this species around this area are [1] planted on the east or north sides of buildings and/or under other trees [2] receive some protection from the southwest summer wind [3] get supplemental water during hot summers [4] and receive attention greater than that paid the average garden tree or shrub. Having said that…there are thousands of beautiful Japanese maples in Oklahoma City…and well-grown specimens are highly valued here. Not for the “plant-it-&-forget-it” gardener….but then what good plant is? After several seasons of evaluating Japanese maple performance in Oklahoma City…….I can strongly recommend ‘Fireglow’ as the best upright, vase-shaped Japanese maple for our area. ‘Sharp’s Pygmy’ is recommended as a compact, almost dwarf cultivar. And ‘Red Dragon’ is a strong recommendation should you wish a compact, weeping form.
Acer saccharum
sugar maple

‘Caddo’ is a naturally occurring cultivar of sugar maple that was found growing in southwest Oklahoma [in Caddo county, of course.] To quote Dr. Carl Whitcomb in Know It & Grow It III, it is “By far the best variety for the Great Plains.” Brilliant yellow to red-orange fall color begins at the top of the tree….and appears to “drip” slowly onto lower and lower leaves. This tree is a real pleasure to watch closely in the fall.
Acer tataricum subsp. ginnala 'Flame'
Amur maple

This is an exceptionally good small tree for Oklahoma gardeners. A mature height under 15-20 feet allows it to be planted under power lines. The multi-trunk “look” and vase shape makes it a great shade tree for smaller patios and entrances. The “samaras”, or winged fruit, are very showy…and not particularly prone to germinating around here. The fall color is an excellent red and considered reliable. Altogether an excellent little tree.
Acer truncatum
shantung maple

This durable, attractive, and seldom planted maple is an excellent selection for Oklahoma gardeners. It tolerates “wet and dry” conditions, heat, and drying winds better than most other species of maple. WARNING: This maple is very sensitive to 2,4-D herbicides. If you are a devotee of chemically-induced weed-free lawns you should look elsewhere for a shade tree.
Betula nigra
river birch

This birch is native to the eastern and southern parts of our state, and adapts quite well to growing further out on the plains. It’s one request is a “wet spot” to grow in. Heavy clay is perfectly ok, and low spots where water accumulates and drains more slowly is ideal. The vase-shape, delicate foliage, and flaking exfoliating cinnamon bark make it an exceptionally attractive tree. Please note: even here 30-35 feet is not uncommon…so give it room to grow and spread. This species is far superior to the “white” birches for Great Plains gardens. The white birches, though beautiful, tend to succumb to borers and drought very easily this far out on the plains.
Carpinus betulus
common hornbeam

There are several reasons to consider this fine tree for your garden. Here’s one you might not have thought about. Many Oklahoma gardeners seem to love the naturally formal appearance of ‘Bradford’ pears. Unfortunately, their branch structure and wood make them susceptible to trunk splitting and branch loss in our strong winds. European hornbeam has a similar formal appearance. It also has very strong wood that is resistant to wind and ice. You might, therefore, consider it a good alternative to Bradford pear when planning & planting a formal garden. Please note: European hornbeam tolerates central Oklahoma growing conditions much better than its American relative, Carpinus caroliniana.
Castanea mollissima
Chinese chestnut

Chinese chesnut’s is seldom seen in Oklahoma gardens. That’s a shame. This is a good looking tree. The low, spreading crown, shiny dark green foliage, lack of pest & disease problems, and adaptability to various growing conditions make it well worth using in our area. The low crown and winter leaf retention make it worth considering for screening purposes. And the nuts are tasty & very desirable in a time when canned chesnuts sell for $9.00 a pound.
Cercis canadensis
eastern redbud

If your heart is set on a flowering redbud, please plant Cercis reniformis ‘Oklahoma’ instead of this native species. I am linking to eastern redbud because I want to mention the relatively recent availability of weeping, or pendulous, cultivars. These “new” trees have a lot of visual appeal. I would certainly plant one of these as an alternative to weeping mulberry or weeping yaupon. Some of the weeping cultivars are also suitable for smaller gardens. Just remember that you might consider spraying a fungicide in spring-early summer to prevent leaf spot in august and the fall.
Cercis reniformis 'Oklahoma'

Oklahoma’s state tree is Cercis canadensis, or eastern redbud. Cercis reniformis is also native to Oklahoma, having been discovered here. It is recommended above the state tree because: [1] It is slightly more drought tolerant. [2] It has darker and brighter wine red buds and flowers. [3] It has a glossy cuticle on its leaves that is highly attractive and helps the tree resist leaf spot and leaf rollers. These attributes also apply to the white flowering form, Cercis reniformis ‘Texas.’
Cotinus obovatus
American smoke tree

PlantFinder tells you enough to know that this medium sized tree will grow successfully in Oklahoma. I like this native American because It has rich, warm pumpkin-orange fall color… and that coloring can be relied on to appear most falls in our area. The “smoke” effect that gives this tree its name is not as ornamental as it is on the purple smokebush. That’s ok only because I look at this tree more for its shade and fall color. Smoketree performs satisfactorily in poor soils and is drought tolerant once established. Lovers of fall color might consider small groves planted with this smoketree for orange, redbuds for yellow, and sumac for red. Not only would it be beautiful, it would require very little maintenance.
Euonymus bungeanus


Consider winterberry for planting under power lines. You’ll experience a fully mature tree that will never be threatened by the dread “power line tree police.” Even better, you’ll introduce highly ornamental fruit to your garden. Fruit remains attractive well after pink to red fall foliage has dropped away. Oklahomans will be pleased to know this euonymus is rarely infested with scale… a common problem for evergreen species here. This small tree is tolerant of a very wide range of growing conditions and performs very well on the southern great plains. ‘Pendula’ has attractive weeping branches, but will be harder to find in the trade.
Ginkgo biloba
maidenhair tree

This tree is sadly underappreciated and rarely planted on the plains of central and western Oklahoma. Nonetheless, there are some spectacular specimens growing here. PlantFinder notes more than adequately describe the tree and it’s needs. So I will only add one comment: Make sure the tree you buy is container grown. This will pretty much eliminate the transplant shock gardeners experience with ‘ball & burlap’ field grown specimens.
Koelreuteria paniculata
golden rain tree

This attractive flowering tree is highly respected in central Oklahoma for it’s drought tolerance and willingness to grow in heavy clay soils. For those reasons it is well suited to commercial landscape and street-tree applications. It does, however, attract boxelder bugs. These bugs don’t damage the tree, but they seem to make home gardeners somewhat nuts…..because they come onto the patio and into the home. So…..plant it by all means…..but locate it away from people and residences…preferably toward the edges of your property.
Liquidambar styraciflua 'Rotundiloba'
sweet gum

Yes, you’re reading that correctly. A seedless Sweetgum. For those who just cannot stand those sweetgum seedpods littering their lawn and endangering their step. Rounded leaf lobes give this tree a distinct and attractive look. The foliage colors beautifully in the fall. This is an excellent selection for garden areas with moisture retentive soil. Be aware that sweetgums actively compete with underplantings for moisture. Lawns or plants under sweetgums need extra water in the high heat of summer to counter that competition.
Magnolia grandiflora
southern magnolia

'Little Gem' is a superb evergreen magnolia for central Oklahoma gardens. It deserves to be planted far more frequently here for several reasons. [1] The old-fashioned southern magnolia drops lots of winter damaged leaves in spring and early summer. 'Little Gem' does not. [2] southern magnolia blooms once in late spring or early summer. 'Little Gem' blooms throughout the growing season. [3] 'Little Gem' has smaller, more attractive leaves than it’s larger parent. They clothe the tree densely….resulting in a full, lush look in the garden. [4] 'Little Gem' is a compact, almost dwarf, form of southern magnolia…making it suitable for smaller gardens.
Malus 'Prairifire'
flowering crabapple

These three cultivars of flowering crabapple are excellent selections for Oklahoma gardeners. ‘Prairifire’ has purplish new foliage and pinkish red blooms. ‘Snowdrift’ has white blooms and orange persistent fruit. ‘Sugar Tyme’ has pink flower buds opening to white blooms and bright red persistent fruit. All have excellent disease resistance. Each tree matures in the range of 15-20 feet tall and wide.
Malus 'Snowdrift'
flowering crabapple

See Malus 'Prairifire'
Malus 'Sutyzam' SUGAR TYME
flowering crabapple

See Malus 'Prairifire'
Metasequoia glyptostroboides
dawn redwood

Dawn redwood was introduced to American gardeners by the Missouri Botanical Garden and it is a tree well worth growing. It’s heritage alone is fascinating; make sure you read the PlantFinder description of it’s ‘discovery’ in China. Its appearance out here on the plains is that of a tall, narrow conifer in summer, and a bare silhouette in winter. One specimen in Oklahoma City exceeds 50 feet in height, but is only about 15 feet wide. You won’t see many of these beautiful trees in our area. Not because it’s a problem to grow….. rather because most gardeners are either unaware of it or of sources for it. Ask your favorite nurseryman… it isn’t hard for him to acquire one for you.
Quercus acutissima
sawtooth oak

Sawtooth oaks are noteworthy in our area because they generally grow faster than other oaks & because they are tolerant of our alkaline soils. The insect & disease problems listed on the MBG plantfinder page are usually not considered serious this far out on the plains. Please note, however, that sawtooth oaks have no fall color and their dried leaves stay on the tree through most of the winter months.
Quercus alba
white oak

White oaks are valuable because they tolerate moist soils better than some oak species. They also display good red to red-orange fall colors in our state. This is a beautiful and majestic oak for large lawn areas containing good soil. It should not be wasted on poor soils or sites where it’s root system will be restricted or contained.
Quercus macrocarpa
bur oak

This species is considered to be the best of the ornamental oaks for sites with poor soil. Once established it is an exceptionally drought tolerant oak. An unfortunate “trade-off” is a general lack of fall color.
Quercus muehlenbergii
chinkapin oak

Chinquapin oak tolerates drought, alkaline soils, and windswept sites. It should not, however, be planted in our heaviest clay soils. This species can usually be counted on for good crimson to orange-yellow fall color.
Quercus rubra
red oak

Stately, strong-limbed, long-lived and very attractive. Need I say more? OK, northern red oaks are wonderful shade trees when given room to spread and reasonably good soils. Red-orange fall foliage is generally reliable & very attractive. This is a true garden “aristocrat” and should be planted more frequently in our area.
Quercus shumardii
shumard oak

Shumard is another “aristocratic” member of the oak family. It looks remarkably like northern red oak...being distinguished by leaves with fewer and deeper lobes. This species also seems to be more tolerant of heavy clay soils than northern red oak. It, too, has very attractive red to red-orange fall foliage.
Quercus stellata
post oak

This is another of the oaks noted for their tolerance of poor soils and dry conditions. It is a good selection for homeowners in our newer housing subdivisions. Fall color is usually yellow-brown.
Sassafras albidum

I’m stepping out on a limb recommending this small tree to central Oklahoma gardeners. So I’ll qualify it by saying you should plant in locations that are protected from drying southwest summer winds. You should give it rich, moisture retentive soil. You should mulch it heavily. You should water well in periods of high heat. Having said all that, this is a good understory tree for woodlands. It is a good alternative to sumac for moisture retentive soils and light summer shade. I like it because it has good looking leaves that turn spectacular shades of orange and red in the fall. 
Syringa reticulata 'Ivory Silk'
Japanese tree lilac

Yes, this is a lilac. Yes, this is a tree. Yes, it will & does grow successfully in Oklahoma City and points north. Unfortunately, Oklahomans in the southern half of the state won’t get much bloom due to the chilling requirement of the flower buds. Give it full sun. Heavy clay soils are satisfactory if you topdress each fall with soil sulphur [aluminum sulphate]. This will lower the pH and allow more micronutrients to be absorbed by the tree. As the tree matures, the need to do this will become less crucial. Late frosts don’t bother this tree in the northern half of the state, because it doesn’t bloom until June. Give it some protection from the predominantly southwest summer winds. Pay attention to the PlantFinder comment on spent flower removal The biggest problem you might have is simply finding one. Your local nurseryman might be willing to find one for you. Googling online will show you several mail order nurseries that stock it. No, this does not sound like the easiest tree in the world to grow. It is, nonetheless, a beautiful tree… and deserves serious consideration for deserving gardens You should see the ones in Saint Louis at MBG & Tower Grove Park. That would clear up any doubts.
Ulmus parvifolia
Chinese elm

All of the attributes mentioned on the PlantFinder page for this tree easily apply to it’s use in Oklahoma City. “Generally tolerant of urban conditions” is an understatement. Lacebark elm’s deep root system, tolerance of drought, and acceptance of tight planting sites [i.e. street medians] make it particularly valuable on the Great Plains. It’s “jigsaw puzzle piece” bark-of-many-colors makes it a superb addition to the winter landscape. The cultivar 'Golden Rey' has golden yellow foliage during the growing season making this an exceptional tree for the landscape. You may find it sold under the name of 'Golden lacebark elm'.