A big trend in gardening is growing native plants. This began with wildflowers, but it has spread to trees and shrubs too, especially with all the alarming stories of invasive species escaping gardens and interfering with the natural ecology of wild areas. These plants can cause significant problems, so many gardeners want to grow native plants, making their gardening fit in more closely with the environment. They want to feel more in tune with the natural world around them. When you are thinking of planting a tree – or several – making a choice from a selection of native trees is especially important, since trees live so long, become large, and make a significant contribution for good or bad to the local environment.
What then, would be a suitable native tree for your area? Is it enough to just plant a tree that grows somewhere in North America? Probably not, yet that would satisfy the ‘native tree’ rule. A tree from Texas might feel out of place in New Hampshire, and it makes a lot of sense to grow something more suitable. A more local tree will be better adapted to your climate, soil, and rainfall pattern, so it is more likely to succeed. For every alien plant that escapes and takes over, there are a dozen that grow poorly in any given place, because the climate and conditions don’t suit them.
With all that in mind, let’s look at some trees that come from the four corners of the country – the north-east, south-east, south-west and north-west. Whatever area you live in, there are going to be local trees that will grow well for you. It makes sense to choose trees that grow in your area, even if not growing exactly where you are. That way you will be respecting the local ecology of your region much more.
Native Trees for the North-east
When we think of this area, our minds automatically turn to the tree that brings millions every year to admire its beauty – the Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum. Not only spectacular in fall, with its stunning shades of golds and oranges, this tree is also useful, as the source of maple syrup. You may not decide to tap your own tree for that natural bounty, but you can certainly add to the spectacle in fall by growing this grand tree. It is a large tree, so remember not to plant it too close to a building and give it plenty of room to show off its great beauty.
For something native and beautiful for the other end of the growing season, look no further than the White Dogwood, Cornus florida. Native through all but the coldest parts of the east, this choice tree is a real highlight of spring. At that time it is covered with large white ‘blossoms’ that are in reality modified leaves surrounding the tiny true flowers. These make a wonderful show on a tree that usually grows 15 to 30 feet tall in a garden environment, but can grow a lot taller in the wild, after enough years have passed. With its bright red fall colors too, this tree certainly gives the lie to those who say that native trees are boring compared to alien species.
Native Trees for the South-east
Another place to look for native trees in the east generally is among the oaks. These symbols of longevity make wonderful shade trees, and among the best is the native Willow Oak, (Quercus phellos), a tree that grows from New Jersey to northern Florida, so could reasonably be grown anywhere along the east coast. This magnificent tree can grow to 80 feet tall, and it makes a great shade tree for a large lawn. In fall it turns lovely shades of golden yellow, with some red tones as well. Although it won’t grow in standing water, it loves areas that are damp, so if you have a damp garden, this is a wonderful choice from among our native trees.
We can’t mention the South without considering the Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. This iconic tree is a true native child, stunning the early explorers with its enormous pure white and fragrant flowers. An evergreen, as many trees from warmer places are, it is the perfect native choice all through the southern states, into Florida and along the Gulf. This is a tree that can be very variable, so it pays to choose a selected variety. That way you get reliable size and structure, with good flowering even on younger plants. Of the larger forms, the one known as ‘Claudia Wannamaker’ is considered the best.
Native Trees for the South-west
Climate conditions in the South-west are very variable, ranging from the balmy climate of San Diego and southern California, to the arid conditions of New Mexico, and the cold of Colorado.
A tree that will span all those conditions is the Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis. This flowering tree will reach 15 feet in time, and every spring it is covered in the most spectacular display of pink-purple blooms, all over the bare branches. Unlike its Eastern relative, this redbud is drought-resistant and heat-resistant too. The lovely heart shaped leaves make it a charming tree in summer, and the fall colors are often brilliant red and golds – an ideal all-season flowering tree for smaller spaces.
Native Trees for the North-east
Conditions further north tend to be cooler, and sometimes wetter, although in many parts dryness is still normal. A good group to look at for useful native plants are the junipers. These tough evergreens survive cold, heat and drought, always looking good. They thrive in hot sun too, so if you are looking for tough plants, look no further. Many of the junipers grown in gardens are not native, but one that is would be the Rocky Mountain Juniper, Juniperus scopulorum. This upright conifer can reach 10 or 15 feet in height, but stays much narrower, perhaps 4 to 6 feet wide. That makes it ideal for screening, or as a specimen. With these trees foliage color is important, and a top variety, with brilliant blue leaves, is ‘Moonglow’. Just as tough as the wild tree, it survives right down into zone 3, but also takes moderate heat and it is very drought resistant. For low-maintenance native plants in dry areas, Moonglow Juniper is a top pick.
Make Your Choice
These are just a sample of the native trees available, that are wonderful choices for the environmentally conscious, without giving up on beauty and top growth. All of them are easy to grow. They are also adaptable enough that if you aren’t a purist, and don’t care where exactly your native trees come from, you can grow them all across this fine country of ours, from sea to shining sea.