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Outdoor Growing zone
Full Sun, Partial Sun
Yellowwood is widely seen as one of the most beautiful of our native trees. It becomes a broad specimen over 30 feet tall and wide, with bright green leaves that turn beautiful clear yellow in fall. In early summer it is covered with long, hanging bunches of white or pale pink flowers, a lot like wisteria blooms. It is naturally multi-stemmed, but it can be trained into a shade tree with a single trunk, if you wish. Grow it on a lawn, on slopes and banks, or along the edges of woods.
Plant your Yellowwood tree in full sun or partial shade, in well-drained soil that is not too dry. Clay and alkaline soils are suitable, but it will also grow in acidic soils. It is hardy all the way into Minnesota and Maine, and throughout most of the country. It rarely suffers from pests or diseases and beyond some formative pruning when young it needs no special attention. A beautiful native tree that is often overlooked for less attractive but more familiar trees.
If you are looking for a beautiful and decorative tree for a specimen, or background in your garden, look no further than the strangely-neglected Yellowwood. This beautiful native tree is happy in urban conditions, and easy to grow, but it is rarely seen, despite glowing recommendations (like this one). Stunning when smothered in its hanging clusters of snow-white flowers, and striking in fall when it turns glowing yellow, this lovely tree grows wild only in restricted areas of the south-east, but grows happily in gardens across most of the country. Its broad, rounded crown looks splendid on a large lawn, or at the edge of a wooded area, and if you want to grow a striking tree and also protect a rare native species, plant a Yellowwood this season.
Yellowwood is a deciduous tree native to North America, which grows at a moderate rate – no more than a foot a year – into a broad specimen between 30 and 50 feet tall and wide. It has a natural tendency to branch low-down, making a multi-trunk tree, but that can be modified by early pruning. The smooth, light-gray bark is attractive, especially in winter, with a silvery look that reminds us of beech, although the two trees are not related. The foliage is very attractive – one of the most beautiful of all our native trees – with 7 to 9 individual leaflets arranged alternating along a short central stalk. The leaflets are broad ovals, 2 to 3 inches long, with a smooth edge and a slightly glossy surface. New leaves in spring are bright, yellow-green, maturing to a bright, clear green, and then turning beautiful shades of yellow in fall.
This tree is one of our most beautiful native flowering trees, blooming in May and June. The tree can be completely smothered in blossoms, making a glorious display. The individual flowers are arranged in long, hanging racemes, similar to wisteria, about 14 inches long, with many small, fragrant, white or pale-pink flowers that look like pea blossoms. These are followed by hanging green pods, 2 to 4 inches long, with up to 6 large seeds inside them. Trees will take several years to begin to bloom.
With its broad crown and low branching, this tree is perfect for a lawn specimen, planting on a slope, or edging a wood. With some training it could be raised enough to make a valuable shade tree for a large lawn. When planting, consider the final size, and plant at least 25 feet from a building, roadway or boundary, and don’t plant beneath overhead wires. It does not have a particularly invasive or aggressive root system.
Despite only growing naturally further south, Yellowwood has proven to be hardy in zone 4, in Minnesota and Maine, and grows well all the way through zone 8, if not subject to too much drought in hot zones.
Full sun is best for the Yellowwood tree, and its strong development, but it will adapt successfully to a little partial shade. It is not particular about soil type, as long as it is well-drained, and it performs well on moist, alkaline clay soils, but not in wet ground. It also tolerates more acidic soils. It has moderate drought tolerance, but may suffer some leaf scorch during extended dry spells in hot zones.
Very little seasonal maintenance is needed, and pests or diseases don’t normally cause problems for this tree. It’s one defect is the tendency to form broad branch angles that can lead to breakage, but this can be controlled with early pruning and training. Decide if you want a multi-stem tree with low branches – the typical form of this tree – and if you want a taller single trunk, stake the main stem and gradually remove lower branches as it grows until you reach the height you want. Do this when young, and don’t wait for stems to become large before removing them. Remove stems that sprout out at wide angles, and favor those that are narrower.
Yellowwood, Cladrastis kentukea, is the only North American species in a small group of just 9 species. It used to be called Cladrastis lutea. The others grow in Asia, and are difficult to grow in gardens. Yellowwood grows, always in limited numbers, on mountains, cliffs and ridges in thirteen states from North Carolina to Alabaman and Oklahoma, with larger numbers in Tennessee. Trees live for many years, and it is endangered as a wild species in several states. Although the wood is yellow, hard and close-grained, it doesn’t seem to have been used as a lumber tree to any extent, perhaps because it rarely has long clean trunks.
We love being able to offer you wonderful native trees like the Yellowwood, and hope that everyone will choose to grow some native plants in their garden. We can enjoy their beauty and help preserve their abundance in our country. This beautiful tree is never in good supply, because few people have learned about it, despite it being made Urban Tree of the Year by the Society of Urban Arborists, and winning a Gold Medal at the prestigious annual show of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, in 1994. Order one or more now, and plant for a better future.