Extension Educator, Horticulture
It is that time of year when we are reminded of some of the true mysteries of life. Why aren't redbud trees called "pinkbuds"? Why is that purplish pink flowering weed carpeting fields right now called "henbit" and not "turkey chew"? Why aren't male lady bugs called "gentleman bugs"? For now we will leave these questions to the great thinkers of the world.
Our spring weather fuels frustration at times. However it also brings the glorious show of flowering trees with their flowers conveniently borne at nose level so we may inhale every molecule of fragrance. Many of these trees reach heights less than 40 feet and can be tucked into numerous spots in the landscape. Illinois has its share of charming small native trees that offer good looks and good temper.
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 white bell shaped flowers ring in spring in late April or early May.
As an understory tree in the wild, silverbells tolerate sun to semi-shade. They snuggle well in a rhododendron and azalea bed, since they prefer moist, acidic soils with high organic matter.
At 30 to 40 feet tall with a spread of 20 to 35 feet silverbells are fine additions to home landscapes. They are native to southern Illinois, but seem to do just fine here given a proper site.
Blackhaw, Viburnum prunifolium, falls into my list of favorite plants. At 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. Blackhaw viburnums are found in the wild in shady woodland sites as an understory tree, but also do well in full sun landscapes. 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 flushed with maroon. The white flowers are borne in May as flat topped 2 to 4 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 snatched up quickly by the birds. The smooth gray bark invites a caress from lusty tree huggers. Serviceberries are one of the finest small trees for fall color when the leaves turn to orange and red.
With several species of serviceberries and many cultivars available, 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. The flowers of serviceberries were a sure sign it was time for burying and marrying.
For an up-close and personal look at small trees check out Urbana Park District's Timpone Family Ornamental Tree Grove at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, south of Windsor Road on south Race Street. Or to enjoy the spring beauty of many other trees, stop by our office for City of Urbana's State Street Tree Trail Guide and City of Champaign's University Avenue Tree Walk Guide. Also visit University of Illinois Extension's website http://urbanext.illinois.edu/treeselect