ecoscapes blog

Native Trees to Fit Your Needs

Two Redbud trees in full bloom surrounded by lawn. Shrubs and taller grasses can be seen in the background.
Happy Arbor Day! Time to celebrate trees and the important role they play in our lives.

Held the last Friday in April, Arbor Day tends to be overshadowed by the highly publicized Earth Day on the 22nd. Yet conservation-minded individuals saw the immense value of trees long before Earth Day came along. The first Arbor Day was celebrated nearly 100 years before the first Earth Day.

Maybe Arbor Day isn’t such a big deal because people pass by trees every day without giving a second thought to the many benefits they provide. Much less understand the added value of native trees in their surroundings.

In honor of Arbor Day, I’m focusing this blog on native trees. More specifically, small native trees that many gardeners can find a home for in their yards. ‘Small’ is defined by the National Arbor Day Foundation as trees under 30 feet high.

First, the benefit of native trees overall:

  • A whole host of native pollinating insects, birds and other wildlife rely on native trees for food and shelter.

  • Native trees frequently don’t have as many issues with pests as non-natives.

  • Native trees have been here for the long haul. So they have a better chance of surviving our plunging and soaring temperatures.

As an added benefit, many smaller native trees flower in the early spring. They provide a ready food source for emerging pollinators.

Below are descriptions of some small native trees to consider for Chicago area residents*:

  • Common Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)—Unlike other small natives described here, Common Witch-Hazel blooms in late fall or early winter, producing fragrant, yellow flowers with ribbon-like petals. Witch Hazel can come in the form of a small tree or large shrub; it typically grows between 15 and 20 feet tall and wide. Other attributes of this tree are a broad, rounded form and attractive, wavy-edged leaves that turn a rich golden-yellow in the fall.

  • Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)—This tree is known for its vibrant pink or purple flowers that bloom in early spring. It has a spreading form and heart-shaped leaves that turn yellow in the fall. With a height of 15-20 feet and width of 20-25 feet, this is a great tree for small gardens. Properly placed, it can make a stunning focal point in your garden.

  • Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)— Like the similarly-sized Redbud, the Flowering Dogwood blooms profusely each spring with its showy white to sometimes pink flowers. Besides its spring appeal, the tree features a rounded crown with horizontal branching. In the fall, its dark green leaves turn a beautiful shade of red-purple.

  • Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)--This is a fast-growing tree with a unique horizontal, tiered branching structure. Clusters of beautiful white flowers appear in spring followed by blue-black berries in the summer—a draw for many species of birds. Come fall, the tree’s dark green foliage turns a striking burgundy-red. Pagoda Dogwoods grow to 15 to 25 feet high and wide.

  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)—Serviceberries offer excellent interest from spring through fall. They produce delicate white flowers in the spring, followed by edible purplish-black berries in the summer. The berries are tasty, but you’ll have to beat the birds to them! Serviceberries’ green leaves turn vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and red in the fall. Three native varieties of this species are Downy (Juneberry) (Amelanchier arborea), Inland Shadblow (Amelanchier interior) and Allegheny (Amelanchier laevis). Height and width depend on the variety.

  • Wild Plum (Prunus americana)—The Wild or American Plum produces a stunning display of white, fragrant flowers in March and April, followed by edible fruit in late summer. This tree has a spreading, rounded form and dark green leaves that turn yellow or red in the fall. Growing to a height of 15-25 feet and a width of 15-20 feet, it is a source of fruit for wildlife and people.

Inclined to purchase a small native tree? Spring is a great time to do it. Nurseries that carry these trees have their largest stock on hand. And many organizations are holding native plant sales. Check out this comprehensive listing from Chicago Living Corridors to find a source near you.

* A few caveats when thinking about selecting a small (or large) native tree to ensure it will thrive in your yard. Take note of the amount of space you have (don’t underestimate its mature size!), soil type (clay, loam, etc.), soil moisture and sunlight. Keep in mind that structures such as houses and large shade trees may influence how much sun your tree receives.

Also, try to select a tree that is native to your locale or as close by as possible. Just because a tree is labeled as ‘native’ doesn’t mean it is endemic to northeastern Illinois, for example. ‘Native’ might mean native to the Midwest or Eastern United States.

Not a Chicago area resident? Besides local plant nurseries, arboretums and botanic gardens, the National Wildlife Federation Native Plant Finder can help you identify small native trees appropriate for your local. It allows you to search by zip code.