Since switching from a public garden to a commercial landscaping industry, I’ve had a chance to pay more attention to what plants are being used by landscapers in my area. Most of these landscape designs are for normal people who want a low care, great looking landscape.
Just because a plant looks great may make it one of landscapers favorite trees. We however can be a little more picky.
Do your landscaping goals include helping wildlife? (and why shouldn’t it?)
If so, some of these popular plants are:
- Invasive no no’s
- Neither helpful or harmful
Since it is still prime time for tree planting, we will start there. Over the next few posts we will also cover shrubs and the area I am learning the most new info about, the perennials.
Since I have my own strong opinions on these, I’ll get add more of my own rambling commentary about landscapers favorite trees. They are sorted by Latin name.
Landscapers favorite trees #1 Autumn Blaze Maple
(Acer × freemanii ‘Jeffersred’ AUTUMN BLAZE)
While I sorted this list by Latin name, this tree would have been at the top if I sorted it by most used also. This tree is planted by just about everybody and for good reasons, it is a great tree by many criteria.
This hybrid of the native silver maple (Acer saccharinum) and the red maple (Acer rubrum) is a very fast growing specimen. This fast growth has made this tree an absolute favorite of nurseries and impatient customers. Nurseries get to sell you a bigger tree years quicker and customers get the shade they want sooner.
I remember seeing a display at a Minnesota arboretum years ago that showed how over a five year period Autumn blaze maples with a trunk diameter of 1 inch were larger then 3″ diameter sized ones. They were so fast growing that the couple of years of slower growth due to transplant shock on the larger trees allowed the smaller ones to catch up.
It also does not hurt that this tree has a great red fall color.
Now the bad news.
This tree, along with one of it’s parents which we will cover in a bit, is way over planted. There is probably not a subdivision in my state where you can’t find this tree. When trees are very common, they are more susceptible to spreading diseases and pests among themselves, think Dutch Elm Disease.
Besides being over planted, there are other reasons to be concerned about this and in fact all of our native maples.
I thoroughly expect an exotic insect or disease to ravage our native maples soon. It may be the Asian long horned beetle or it might be something else. But I firmly believe we will see it soon.
I expect this one to be one of the major casualties.
Wildlife value: As a hybrid of two native trees, you can expect this tree to provide some of the same wildlife benefits of it’s parents. All Autumn Blaze maples are genetic clones of each other. This means they add very little to the genetic diversity of our landscapes.
Verdict: BAD. Not recommended as a long term tree. If you need a quick growing tree to provide shade then this tree might work for you. I would also recommend you consider planting a slower growing, hopefully longer lived non maple tree, not far from it. If you have already, I would keep it and enjoy it today.
#2 Red sunset Maple
(Acer rubrum ‘Franksred’ RED SUNSET)
This falls in the same category as the Autumn Blaze maple, except it is not a hybrid.
It is over planted because of it’s great fall color (even better then the Autumn Blaze). It is slower growing and tends to have more issues with alkaline soil causing chlorosis (yellowing of leaf).
Red maples are often called Swamp maples for a reason. If that describes where you are going to be planting this tree, then this may be a good choice for you. If, however you are like most people and are planting in in front yards that are usually more doughty then wet, this is probably not the best tree for you.
Wildlife value: Good for river bed areas it is native to, although it is a genetic clone, so it provides little genetic diversity.
Verdict: BAD. Recommended only for acidic wet soil conditions with the realization that it may end up being subject to invasive pest soon.
#3 Laceleaf Japanese Maples
(Acer palmatum var. dissectum)
Whether we consider this a tree or a shrub, it would make our lists. As a specimen often in a bed of evergreen ground cover, few top the lace leaf Japanese Maples.
These are usually seen as purple leaf forms in my area. There are green leaf forms, but they tend to only be hardy to zone 6. In my colder area near Chicago (zone 5), the purple forms tend to do better. Although they do appreciate protection from the cold winter winds and a bit of shade in afternoon in the summer months.
My favorite is the Crimson Queen Japanese maple, mainly because it is one of the faster growing ones. There are many that do well in zone 5 and look great in all seasons.
Wildlife value: Zilch, zippo, nada! OK, maybe a bird might nest in one or a rabbit or deer may chew on one. Other then that, these plants are really just for the people in the garden.
The good news, is in most areas they are not considered invasive. In New Jersey and the surrounding areas, they are considered invasive. They certainly are NOT in my area.
Verdict: GOOD! A great specimen plant for the landscape although it does not help wildlife.
#4 Autumn Brilliance Service Berry
(Amelanchier × grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’)
I’ve written about this tree before. It’s a winner for sure. It only grows to about 25 feet and is usually multiple stemmed.
Great winter bark, beautiful white spring blooms, attractive and delicious fruit in the summer, and excellent orange fall color.
Wildlife value: Good. Yes it is a cultivar (genetic clone) and a hybrid of two native trees, like the Autumn Blaze maple. It however provides abundant edible fruit that birds adore during the early summer. It is also a hybrid that occurs in nature, so some of our native bugs don’t mind taking a nibble here and there (don’t worry you probably won’t even notice).
Verdict: GOOD! One of the best trees that landscapers use frequently. Don’t forget to look at other service berry too.
#5 River birch
This is another North American native of wet areas like the Red Maple. It has two very commonly used cultivars. Heritage (Betula nigra ‘Cully’) and Dura-Heat (Betula nigra ‘BNMTF’).
They both have excellent creamy rich exfoliating bark that looks better then the straight species. The main difference between the two is the size. Heritage tends to grow 40-70′ tall and Dura-Heat grows 30-40′. Heat resistance is another difference as the Dura-Heat does much better in warmer areas (say south of the Mason-Dixon line) then the Heritage.
No matter which one, you choose, landscapers tend to love to use them. And hey, why not? Bark that looks great in the winter and a nice light dappled shade in the summer coupled with fast growth makes them staple of the landscapers trade.
I started off this whole blogging thing with a post about another great river birch, the much less frequently used Fox Valley® River birch (Betula nigra ‘Little King’). This dwarf is more of a shrub than a tree for it’s first decade or so of life in the yard. After that it can be pruned into a nice dwarf sized tree.
Wildlife value: River birches have high wildlife value. They are a host plant for many moths as well as the Mourning Cloak and Dreamy Duskywing butterflies. Seeds are eaten by birds. Birds and squirrels eat the male catkins in early spring.
Verdict: GOOD! As long as the soil is not too dry or alkaline, River birch is a fine tree for many landscapes. I especially like the smaller medium sized Dura-Heat as a shade tree as it fit’s into smaller sites better then the species or Heritage, which are both good where a larger tree is wanted. Note is does have a tendency to shed twigs and small branches so they are a little bit messy sometimes.
#6 Flowering Crabapples
Flowering crab apples are one of the staple flowering trees used by landscapers all over the US but especially in the Midwest. (We will talk about another one is a minute). There is good reason for this. Crabapples are among the showiest spring flowering trees for full sun conditions.
Not only do they have great blooms, many have persistent colorful winter fruit. This not only adds to the winter landscape scene but also attracts birds in late winter when the fruit is one of the few foods available to them.
Some also have good fall color.
Now the bad news. Apple trees are susceptible to a number of diseases and this includes crab apples. How susceptible depends on the weather that year and which cultivar it is. The worst of them turn ugly with leaf diseases and drop messy, slippery fruit right onto your new patio. If you have had one of these older non disease resistant cultivars, you may refuse to consider planting another crab apple ever again.
However, plant breeders have created crab apples that grow in all sizes and shapes, resist diseases and have fruit of different size and color. Some are even fruitless.
For instance, a great crab apple I see for sale at the my Home Depot every spring is Sugar Tyme®. It has excellent disease resistance, fragrant white flowers in spring and persistent red fruits to provide a nice fall and winter display.
For more info on Crabapples, see this great info sheet from the wholesale nursery JF Schmidt.
Wildlife Value: Virtually all ornamental crab apples are NOT native to the US and the natives are not that ornamental. That being said, some of these non natives are still excellent trees for wildlife. Many types of birds, butterflies, and other insects flock to the pollen of their flowers.
If you want to attract birds choose a cultivar that has small fruit. Fruit that is less than three-fourths of an inch in diameter is ideal. Some good ones include: ‘Sargent’, ‘Sargent Tina’, ‘Snowdrift’ and ‘Adirondack’. Also choose fruit that is persistent, which means it does not fall to the ground and stays on the tree for a winter meal for birds such as cedar waxwings,
Birds won’t eat the fruit of a some crab apples. They don’t like the fruit of ‘Adams,’ ‘Donald Wyman,’ and Red Jewel.
Verdict: GOOD! Crabapples with excellent disease resistance are among the best flowering trees for the landscape. There are so many types, that there is one for almost every circumstance. Except for shade, these are Full Sun trees!.
#7 Cleveland Select Pears
(Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’)
The Callery Pear usually seen is still the Bradford Pear. That tree tends to break apart during storms as it ages. Landscapers have grown a bit smarter and are now planting trees with better branch structure such as the Cleveland Select pear. These still have the formal upright structure of the Bradford but resist storm damage better as they age.
Their formal shape and their spring blooms (which stink bad!) are why most people plant these. I personally like the fact they hold their leaves late into Fall before turning nice shades of red, yellow and orange.
Now the bad news.
In the past, the potential for self-fruiting from these Pears had been small because cultivars of Pyrus calleryanna were unable to self pollinate. However, it has become apparent that many cultivars have unexpectedly begun to interbreed fairly readily.
This hybrid fruit is then eaten by birds and dispersed into nearby fields or natural open areas. These seedlings are now aggressively invading fields and other open areas, much like other introduced exotic plants, like the Buckthorn and Amur honeysuckle. Many of these seedlings also have the thorns that had been bred out of their parent cultivars and make them a pain to remove.
Wildlife Value: Very negative due to being so invasive.
Verdict: UGLY. Do not plant. I would recommend removal of existing trees if these are an invasive problem in your area. In Chicago these are considered trees that should be phased out according to the Chicago Botanic garden’s Invasive Plants in the Chicago Region page.
I personally, would remove because I am sure there is a better tree that could be using that space! If you really want white spring blooms, look at the crab apple or service berry mentioned above.
Next time, I will write about landscapers favorite shrubs. See you then.
Jim, I have dozens of hours of research on arboretum, college horticulture department and nursery sites. I desperately need help choosing the right tree, if that is possible. I literally have a list 30 trees that I’m contemplating for one reason or another, but non of them check every box. I offer this challenge to you, if you’re up for it.
I’m replacing at 45′ spruce that has provided a lot of southwestern summer shade, which will be dearly missed for our deck and sun room. I park my car under this tree on a slab that doubles as a brick paver patio, so I don’t want sap dripping on the car. We’re in Milwaukee, zone 5, clay soil about a 1/2 mile from Lake Michigan.
A replacement tree that would check all the boxes would be:
1) Fast/moderately fast growing shade tree, so that we can enjoy it within 5-10 years if possible.
2) Will be planted 4-5′ away from brick patio so roots need to play nice. Have about 6′ total grassy area to plant before fence line or patio.
3) No mess or dropping seeds/fruit/sap, dog friendly
4) 35-50′ tall and no wider than 30′ at maturity
5) Full sun from 10am to an hour before sunset.
6) Leader stem that can be trained at least 9-10′ high or higher before canopy begins so people can walk under it and can clear garage gutters.
Ideally, the Autumn Gold Ginkgo checks all my boxes except it is a slow grower. I’d love the high column leader, higher canopy and would have it pruned to increase full branching, rather than the leggy limbs you sometimes see.
I was considering Cleveland Select Flowering Pear, which I have in the front yard. I was told this could be trained that high over time. I was also considering the new Chastity cultivar that is supposed to be over 99% sterile. I don’t want to be surprised with a high uptick in cross pollination between the trees causing more fruiting. I believe that can happen when there are different cultivars closely planted.
I’ve crossed off the following due to one reason or another. Change my mind if you think I’m wrong.
Any cultivar of seedless Freeman’s maple (invasive roots for the brick patio)
Wildfire Black Gum tree (drops fruit)
Quaking Aspen (spreading volunteers through yard)
Tulip Poplar ‘Little Volunteer’ (drops sap)
Single stem River or Paper birch (lot of twigs and roots could be invasive on patio)
Linden (sap on cars)
Japanese Tree Lilac (not tall enough to give shade to home/deck)
European Hornbeam (to slow)
Magnolia – Merrill or Butterflies (
Japanese Maple – Bloodgood/Coral Bark/Emperor – (not tall enough and drops seeds)
I could go on, but you can clearly see I’m perseverating. I wish I could post a photo so you’d see the specific detailed location.
The fast growing Swamp white oak or if you are worried about it growing more than 30′ wide in your lifetime, get a Burr Oak, they will slow down growing after reaching 20′ tall.
Thanks for all the info! Curious to know what you think of the, rather new, cultivator the red pointe maple? Looks similar to the autumn blaze but supposedly sturdier to bugs, heat, alkaline soil etc
I think Red Pointe is probably a better overall tree.
Aileen deamer says
Is it safe to plant autumn blaze near b
He stone patio? I need a shade tree or two so I an actually use the patio. Thank you.
This excellent article is now four years old so the comments may no longer be monitored. But just in case, what are your thoughts on the Sienna Glen maple? It seems like it does not have most of the negative characteristics of either Autumn Blaze or Red Sunset.
No personal experience. North Point Red maple looks interesting to me.
I planted a 20-25′ crabapple tree last Sunday. I’ve watered it 3 times (about every other day) and today I noticed that it’s leaves are drooping. 🙁 Please tell me it will be ok. I just gave it a boiled (cooled) sugar mixed in gallon of water. It’s not changing color “yet” but I don’t want it to. What else can I do?? Thanks
It sounds like typical drought stress/transplant shock. Just keep watering it (regular water is fine) and allowing it is dry out a bit between waterings. Maybe take it down two times a week unless it is really hot.
Steve Curtis says
Hi Jim, love your website! I have two tree questions:
1) we moved from Evanston, IL to a western suburb and some elm tree seedlings came along in a large flowerpot. I planted one and it’s now 20ft tall. There aren’t other elms with Dutch elm disease that I know of out here… Should I cut this elm down now while it’s easy, or let it grow and hope it never gets Dutch elm disease?
2) we have about 10 ash trees that are all dead or dying from the ash borer (and they will be cut down), but we have one big beauty that still looks healthy. We’d love to keep it… Is it worth spending money for treatments to try to keep it alive for another 5-10 years? Would that even work or is it too late? I’d be willing to spend $150 /year if it would keep that tree healthy.
Yeah, I would probably axe the elm while its easy and cheap. You can certainly keep large ashes alive if you are willing to treat your tree and I would recommend it, a large tree is worth a lot more than you think). If your tree looks healthy still, but have other ones in your yard dying, there is a good chance your tree already has beetles feeding on it.
You may want to have an arborist check it out and perhaps do a trunk injection of one of the restricted use pesticides (such as emamectin benzoate whose trade name is TREE-Age®) if they already feeding on the tree.
Spring soil drenches of imidacloprid are about the only treatment that I would recommend a homeowner try themselves and these are less effective the larger the tree gets or if the beetles are already feeding on the tree.
Here is a good resource is you really want to geek out about your options.
Thanks Jim! I will have an arborist check it out and if we can keep it alive for a while longer it’s worth it. And I guess Mr. Elm Tree will have to go away.
John Heckmueller says
Jim, you should warn your clients that River Birch should not be planted within 25′ of any hardscaping as their aggressive near surface roots will push up even 4 inches of concrete pavement.
They do have surface roots as well as being big trees so I would agree the father away the better, 15 to 20 feet should be sufficient in most cases. I have seen way too many planted 5 to 10 feet away from front sidewalks and even foundations 30 to 40 years ago that have not caused problems to be overally concerned unless there was specific issues with the site or soil. They are not as bad as Norway maples for instance.