The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Small Native Trees for A Spring Flower Show

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

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 pink flowered weed covering 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.

We don't always have a chance to plant a large tree, but just about any landscape has a spot for a small flowering tree. Redbud flowers add a pink blush to the spring landscape. Redbud, Cercis canadensis, grows as a native under story tree throughout the forests of the eastern US. It can grow to 30 feet tall and a bit wider at maturity. The heart shaped leaves emerge with a reddish tinge. Although it is generally not a long lived tree in comparison to oaks, it is fast growing when given a bit of water and fertilizer. Redbud also blooms at an early age of 4-7 years. The trunks of older trees will often bear flowers.

I would rank Flowering Dogwood as the tree most often killed, then replanted, then killed again by well-meaning home gardeners. We love its large white bracts (those actually aren't the petals) of Flowering Dogwood in spring. Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida is native to a large range of the eastern US. We are about as far north as it is found in Illinois. Because of its wide range, southern plant sources are not reliably hardy here. Ask the garden center personnel where the trees were grown. Also Flowering Dogwoods need special attention for them to thrive. They are understory trees so they like afternoon shade, wood mulch, plenty of organic matter and moist well-drained acidic soil.

In my experience the Illinois native Pagoda Dogwood, Cornus alternifolia is much better adapted to our landscapes. The small white flowers are held in clusters along horizontal branches. It has a pretty fruit show with red to black berries held on red stalks. Birds love the berries. Pagoda Dogwood also prefers some shade and mulching. If you have killed too many flowering dogwoods, consider the Pagoda Dogwood.

Another small native tree is the Carolina Silverbell, Halesia tetraptera (H. carolina). It is not as well known, but is probably one of the nicest small trees for shady sites. The white bell shaped flowers appear in clusters in late April. Carolina Silverbell has very few insects and diseases, but does need a slightly acidic soil. It makes a nice companion with rhododendrons and azaleas. The cultivar 'Arnold Pink' has rose pink flowers. 'Wedding Bells' bears larger flowers.

Few flowers rival the 4-8 inch long panicles of red flowers of Red Buckeye, Aesculus pavia. As a large shrub or small tree it can grow to 10 to 20 feet tall. Even though it flowers in dense shade, a partial shady site with plenty of organic matter and mulch is best. Keep in mind Red Buckeye does produce the poisonous buckeye nuts.

Another small buckeye is the Bottlebrush Buckeye, Aesculus parviflora. Its 12 foot tall thickets make a lovely transition from landscape to forest. Its white one-half-inch flowers are held in huge 8-12 inch upright panicles. A large mass of Bottlebrush Buckeye is a spectacular sight. It blooms later than most trees and shrubs in June into July. Even later blooming is the cultivar 'Rogers' which was introduced by the late U of I Professor Joe McDaniel.

Uncommon, Unusual and Underrated Landscape Plants Program. May 2 at 1:00 PM and repeated May 4 at 7:00 PM at the U of I Extension office at 801 North Country Fair Drive in Champaign using the University of Illinois Extension telenet distance learning system.

No charge, but please register by calling 217-333-7672 or email

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