march landscape

An Amur corktree surrounds the Victory statue at the Garden.

New Planting Opportunities

After last summer’s brutal heat and drought, local gardeners mourned the passing of thousands of trees in our community. They succumbed slowly over a season or in one sweltering day, and we will not know the true extent of the damage from last year until spring leafing shows viability or the lack thereof. We should take to heart the advice of Carl Linnaeus, the ‘father of botany,’ who guides us with this 18th century quote: If a tree dies, plant another in its place. This is an instruction to inventory the losses and dream of new beginnings.

There are many considerations to take into account when selecting a new tree variety for your garden. When planting a tree, one must think about the future. Our normal questions have always been: How tall and wide will it grow? Does it bloom or have good fall color? Will it hit the power lines or block the view? Will it provide shade in the summer on the hot side of the house? There is a different set of questions to be asking now: Is there a foreign pest that will kill it (think Emerald Ash Borer or Chestnut Blight)? Is there a cultivar that will perform better in the landscape (think of shattered Bradford pears)? The biggest new worry: Will the climate become too warm or dry for it to mature properly?


Longevity is one of the best qualities for new trees. Happy the gardener who plants a tree that would last that long; but most oaks, respected as ancient and lasting trees elsewhere, fail to perform well in our Missouri conditions. Our soils contribute to the problems with oaks here, with high pH-reducing iron availability. Commonly planted, pin oak may be the worst choice for us. Burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is the only oak native to Missouri, that regularly lives more than 100 years and is one of the best choices for us.

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Short List of Tall Trees for Estate Gardens

1. American holly (Ilex opaca plus many hybrid selections)

Be sure to select a cultivar with good evergreen leaves and heavy fruiting

2. Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum, native)

Consider the knees before planting; needs lots of room

3. Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica, native, new cultivars)

Great form, beautiful fall color, takes wet feet

4. Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Raven’)

Ancient fossil to living beauty, similar to bald cypress but without knees

5. Katsuratree (Cercidiphylumjaponicum)

Elegant cool blue-green leaves, needs a wet spot, smells like cotton candy

6. Lindens (Tilia americana, T. heterophylla both with many cultivars)

All bloom sweetly, but T. petiolaris makes a spectacular lawn specimen

7. Pecan and hickory (Carya illinoiensis, C. ovata)

Wonderful open form with nuts, the shagbark has great winter texture

8. Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii, native)

Majestic native black oak, drought tolerant, russet-red fall color

9. Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora with many cultivars)

Beautiful foliage and fragrant flowers and winter hardy

10. Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis, native)

Messy, but worth it for the stark


Long List of Small Trees for Cottage Gardens

1. American smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus, native)

Puffy 'smoke' bloom in the spring and great fall color

2. Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera cv. ‘Wedding Bells’)

Heavenly white bells on a tree smaller than the wild species

3. Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica, many new hybrids and cultivars)

Perfect year-round with bark, summer flowers, new cultivars more hardy

4. Japanese maples (Acer japonicum, A. palmatum many, many cultivars)

Hundreds of cultivars. Take a look in the Japanese Garden!

5. Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus ‘Emerald Pagoda’)

Dangling, delicate white bell flowers in the spring, heat-tolerant

6. Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana)

Evergreen with year-round interest with dappled, confetti bark pattern

7. Longstalk holly (Ilex pedunculosa)

Graceful evergreen, handsome and very hardy, single red berries

8. Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)

Small maple with excellent peeling, cinnamon bark that is showy all year

8. Paw-paw (Asimina triloba, native)

Perfect for damp wood edges, maroon flowers and edible fruit

9. Redbud (Cercis canadensis, native plus many selections)

My favorite Missouri native flowering tree, perfect for small spaces

10. Redbud, white flowered (Cercis canadensis ‘Royal White’, ‘Dwarf White’)

White version of stunning orchid pink native. Plant both!

11. Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, A. arborea, A. x grandiflora)

Many new cultivars with great fall color and very early spring bloom

12. Snakebark maple (Acer capillipes)

Elegant green and white streaked bark, great in the shaded garden

13. Sparkleberry (Ilex verticillata x Ilex serrata ‘Sparkleberry’)

Deciduous holly with brilliant red berries, can be trained as small tree

14. Umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala)

Big leaves bring a wonderfully tropical look to a small area, short-lived

15. Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia, many hybrids)

Best February color, choose copper for close view or yellow for distance


Lovely for Missouri

Dogwood is the Missouri state tree. The commonly grown native white dogwood (Cornus florida) is one of many amazing Cornus species. There are dozens of named cultivars within C. florida, so read up on them to find the best fit for your landscape. Also numerous are the cultivars of the Asian kousa dogwood (C. kousa), fabulous for late season bloom and red strawberry-like fruits. The earliest bloom in the spring is from the golden corneliancherry (C. mas), a very small tree suitable for the tiniest courtyards. The flowers look like yellow cotton puffs, very showy against the stark winter landscape. I adore the broad-spreading giant dogwood (Cornus controversa), perfect for sweeping the edge of a big lawn.

Anne Lamitola, director of public works for the City of Ladue, also recommends other small- to medium-sized trees, including Japanese maple, crabapple, Kentucky coffee and weeping cherry. And Larry Johnson, head of Ladue Parks, advises newer pear cultivars like ‘Aristocrat’ or ‘Cleveland Select’ instead of the brittle Bradford pear. Both city staffers are worried about the loss of ash trees anticipated when the Emerald Ash Borer hits town in a year or two. And, please, no sweet gums! The gumballs jam up the composting process mulch sites.

Tomorrow’s Treasures

Choosing what tree to plant is a very hard task and worthy of much consideration. An excellent selection will last your lifetime and beyond. A poor choice is a waste of time, effort, money and lost growing seasons. For me, walking through the gates of the Missouri Botanical Garden is like sending a kid into a candy store. No matter the season, there always is a tree to admire. The sprawling octopus of the Amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense) from China looks great at any moment, quite at home embracing the striking white stone case surrounding the marble statue The Victory of Science  Over Ignorance. Another Chinese transplant is my husband, Peter, born in Shanghai. He always likes to share this old Chinese proverb, Keep a green tree in your heart and a singing bird may come. So get your shovels ready, tree planting season is just around the corner.

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