The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Small Native Trees for the Landscape

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Most landscapes have room for just a couple large trees. However, small trees less than 40 feet can be tucked into many spots and certainly are more reasonable near power lines. Illinois has some lovely small native trees that 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 1930s. 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.

Hop horn beam, Ostrya virginiana, gets it name from the nutlets that look similar to hops. The nutlets are a favorite food of wild turkeys. It's a graceful tree with small leaves similar to its relatives the birches. Once it is established it gets good growth and may reach 40 feet tall. In the wild it is found in dry upland forested areas.

Bladdernut, Staphylea trifolia, is not a glamorous tree. They have no dramatic flowers or neon leaves. Its most distinctive feature is the papery seed capsules. When they ripen the seeds rattle in their papery shell. I've been told the seed capsules make great cat toys. Bladdernuts are amazingly free of insects and diseases. It is a nice, small sedate tree for a shady spot.

Blackhaw, Viburnum prunifolium, 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 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.

Some native tree can be difficult to purchase but well worth the search.

Prairie Conference

The fifth east central Illinois Prairie Conference - People and Prairies will be held at Parkland College Saturday and Sunday, September 18-19. The conference includes exhibits, field trips, presentations and workshops. Using native species, producing plant dyes, developing volunteer opportunities and planning wildlife habitats will be just some of the exhibits. Explore Illinois prairies natural areas during field trips to Midewin Tallgrass Prairie, Coneflower Hill Prairie, school yard prairie gardens and wetlands. Learn about the prairie and available resources during workshops on grass identification, organizing volunteers, internet resources and parent-educator kid activities. The conference program is co-sponsored by Grand Prairie Friends, Parkland College and The Champaign County Forest Preserve District. For a complete conference program or registration information, contact Kristina Hubert at 217-896-2455. Also check out their website at

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