Extension Educator, Horticulture
I can't imagine a spring without the glorious show of flowering trees. How nice it is that they are also at nose level so we may take in every molecule of fragrance. Many of these trees reach heights less than 40 feet and can be tucked into many spots in the landscape. Illinois offers some lovely small native trees, which are hardy and ornamental.
Carolina silverbell, Halesia carolina, was a favorite of the famous landscape architect Jens Jensen. He established a grove of silverbells in Lincoln Memorial Garden in Springfield in the 1930‚s. Silverbells are seldom troubled with insects or diseases. The flowers are the most ornamental part and are borne in late April or early May. Their white bell shape is 1/2 to 3/4 inches long.
Silverbells tolerate sun to semi shade and are found as an understory tree in the wild. They do prefer moist, acidic soils with high organic matter. They make a lovely addition to a rhododendron bed. They will get 30 to 40 feet tall with a spread of 20 to 35 feet. Silverbells are native to southern Illinois, but seem to do just fine here given a proper site.
Blackhaw, Viburnum prunifolium, is one of my favorite plants. It can reach 12 to 15 feet tall. It transplants well and is adaptable to many soil types. It may be found as a small tree or commonly in the wild as a multi-stemmed shrub. It will thrive in sun or shade. Blackhaw viburnums are found in the wild as an understory tree, but also do well in full sun. It, as well as many plants grown in shade, will form a more open airy plant in the shade. Denser branching occurs in the sun.
Blackhaws have full season interest. In the spring the new leaves are maroon. The white flowers are borne in May as flat topped two- to four-inch diameter clusters of tiny flowers. The leaves are glossy green and remain attractive through the summer until they turn red to bronze in the fall. The fruit turns from rosy-pink to bluish-black in September. The fruit is edible if you can beat the birds to them. The small berries have been used in preserves since colonial times.
Another great small tree with four-season appeal is serviceberry, Amelanchier spp. The graceful branches arch with white flowers that appear now as the leaves emerge. The blue fruits are tasty when ripe but are usually snatched up quickly by the birds. The smooth gray bark is very ornamental with its interruptions of long fissures.
Serviceberries are one of the finest small trees for fall color that ranges through orange and red. There are several species of serviceberries and many cultivars so do your homework to get the size and fall color you wish. The story goes serviceberries got their name from their spring flowers that heralded the resumption of the traveling preacher's schedule. It was time to schedule funerals, baptisms and weddings.
If you would like to see a serviceberry "in action," stop by our office or the city of Champaign public works office for the new University Avenue Tree Walk Guide. In just three short blocks of Champaign you can see over forty different tree species including ironwood, 'Tricolor'beech, blue ash, hardy rubber tree and many more common and not so common trees. The guide identifies trees by address and provides a short description and illustration.
Also if you want a guided tour of the tree walk, join Bill VanderWeit, City Forester for the City of Champaign and author of the guide, and me on Saturday, May 11 at 10:00 a.m. We will start the tour on the corner of Victor and University Avenue in Champaign.