Choose the Best Small Trees
Well-behaved trees that won't take over your yard -- or your neighbor's.
Threadleaf Japanese Maple
(Acer palmatum var. dissectum)
Ahhh, the pleasure of owning a shade tree that understands boundaries. No more tangles with power lines, no more exhibitionist straying into the skies and neighbors' yards, no more dwarfing your house. Instead, each of these diminutive trees will grace your home and garden, not overwhelm it. Some make excellent patio trees, others soften the corners of a house and make it seem larger, still others provide year-round interest with colorful bark, flowers, leaves or fruit.
15-20 feet high, 15-25 feet wide
An exquisite little spreading shade tree to loll beneath on a summer's day, the amur maple has a full, broad crown atop a multi-stemmed trunk. One of the first trees to leaf out in the spring, it has lightly fragrant but subtle yellow-white flowers. Winged fruits (called samara) develop in abundance, turning red in mid- to late summer. This choice patio tree produces variable fall color in tones of yellow, orange and red, the best occurring in full-sun locations. Adapts well to almost any soil and is exceptionally cold hardy.
20-40 feet high and wide
Zones (4) 5-7
Considering this lovely tree's four-season usefulness, it's a wonder that it's not better known. Magnificently hued bark dresses up the winter garden, white flowers appear in July when few other woody plants are blooming and fall foliage can be a soft reddish-purple, red and orange. A cousin, Korean stewartia (S. koreana), is a bit smaller, and its slightly larger flowers bloom for a longer period of time. Supply stewartias with acid, peaty soil and a little afternoon shade.
15-25 feet high and wide; the subgroup Dissectum is 6-12 feet high and wide
Few trees enhance the landscape like the Japanese maple, and few species come in so many silhouettes — from the contorted, shrubby A. palmatum var. dissectum atropurpureum to 10- to 15-foot weeping forms to the full-sized species. No matter their size and shape, Japanese maples offer fine textural effects and outstanding fall color. Among the non-shrubby types, "Ozakazuki" (15-20) has bright green leaves that turn crimson in fall; the leaves of "Oshio beni" open fiery orange-red, age to reddish-green and turn bright red in fall.
25-30 feet high, 20 feet wide
Gardeners of the Southeast may know this ridgetop native for its drooping, longlasting sprays of fragrant flowers in June and July and its luminescent, soft red, maroon and yellow foliage in autumn. Add the pyramidal shape, drooping branches, chunky bark, reddish new wood and shimmery spring leaves, and you have an exquisite four-season tree. Thrives in acidic, richly organic soil.
20-30 feet high and wide
The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) deserves its accolades, but here's a dogwood that's just as beautiful with far less susceptibility to disease. The flowers (bracts, actually) appear after the leaves emerge. Red fruits persist through fall as the leaves turn reddish-purple. Exfoliating brown, gray and tan bark and a pronounced horizontal branching pattern on older trees strike a dramatic winter pose. Selected cultivars extend winter hardiness to -20 degrees, add weeping forms or produce exceptionally large flowers or fruit.
Weeping Higan Cherry
(Prunus subhirtella 'Pendula')
20-40 feet high and wide
The sight of a cherry tree in bloom can help you forget winter, but pick the variety carefully. Diseases and insects have caused many an early demise. The indomitable Sargent cherry (Prunus sargentii) (Zones 4-7) reaches 20-30 feet high and wide, bearing clusters of 1-1/2-inch pink flowers, and later, purplish-black fruit. Leaves open reddish, become shiny dark green, then turn maroon in fall. The weeping Higan cherry may have pink or white blooms; to be certain of color, buy the tree when it is in bloom. In colder climes (Zones 2-6) try the Amur chokeberry (P. maackii), which grows 35-45 feet high and wide and produces its frothy white flowers after the leaves appear. Fruit is red, turning black in late summer. Its glossy red-brown bark looks stunning in the snow.
25-35 feet high, 15-25 feet wide
Zones 5-8 (9)
Excellent small-lawn tree. A rounded, tidy canopy, three-lobed leaves that turn yellow, orange and red in fall and exfoliating, multi-colored bark. New leaves open bronzy to purple in spring, maturing to glossy, dark green. Usually pest-free. Check out variegated forms.
30-50 feet high, 40-55 feet wide
Not a small tree, but no giant either. Panicles of fragrant, white flowers in late spring and bright green foliage that turns yellow in fall. A pink-flowered form, "Rosea," is also available.