In the Garden:
Upper South
May, 2005
Regional Report

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Yellowwood offers a refined beauty with its chains of white flowers and mottled bark.

A Propensity for Trees

Here's an idea for you: The next time you get together with gardening friends, ask them to complete the sentence, "Real gardeners ..." Near the top of my list of answers would be: "Real gardeners plant trees." And not just one or two ubiquitous ones at each corner of the front of the house, but lots of trees all over the property. Real gardeners also start with little trees. They believe in the future. They enjoy watching the process.

What started this train of thought? The yellowwood finally bloomed in all its magnificence. I'm not sure how old it is, but my guess is about twenty years. Oh, there have been a few blooms up to now, spotty here and there among the branches, but this year it's finally covered in pendulous clusters of white, pea-like, fragrant flowers.

My mother was a tree planter, and the yellowwood was her doing. It was her pride and joy. No one she knew had a yellowwood. She liked the rare and unusual, especially native trees, and, fortunately, several nearby nurseries carried plants that satisfied the proclivity. Following are descriptions of several trees that were not only some of her favorites, but also are on my list. Each of these deserves to be used more widely in gardens. They'll provide a lifetime of joy watching them grow, and leave a legacy for those who next inhabit the garden.

Our Favorites
Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentuckea) - Smooth gray bark marked with harmless decorative lichens give the vase-shaped yellowwood winter interest, while the 12-inch chains of white flowers make it spectacular in late spring. Leaves turn bright yellow or gold-orange in the fall. Plants grow slowly to 50 feet or more.

Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus) - This tree is unusual in that the leaves are doubly compound, so although each leaflet is only about 2 inches long, the entire leaf may be up to 3 feet long, giving the tree a ferny, almost tropical appearance. Trees grow to more than 50 feet tall with a somewhat narrow to rounded, open, airy crown.

Ruby Horse Chestnut (Aesculus x carnea) - A hybrid between the native red buckeye (A. pavia), which is an excellent small tree as well, and the European horse chestnut, the ruby horse chestnut is spectacular in mid-spring when the 8- to 10-inch clusters of rose-red flowers open. The rounded growth usually tops out at about 25 to 30 feet. Plants have the five-parted leaves typical of the genus.

Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina) - This and related species, H. monticola and H. diptera, bear 1-inch-long, bell-shaped white flowers in mid to late April. Mature height and shape varies, but is usually 30 to 40 feet with a rounded form.

Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina 'Laciniata') - This was a little too avant garde for my mother's taste, but I love its sculptural quality. Plant it where it can sucker and spread, reaching a height and spread of 15 to 25 feet. The densely velvet stems are a definite kid-magnet, as are the low, undulating branches, which are easy to climb. The compound leaves turn a bright red in the fall. A recent introduction getting acclaim is 'Tiger Eyes', with golden to lime-green foliage and red leaf stems.

Carolina Buckthorn (Rhamnus caroliniana) - Also called Indian cherry, this small, 15- to 25-foot tree has handsome, dark green leaves and small fruits that change from red to black in the fall.

Besides the familiar dogwood and redbud, a few of the many other native trees suited to small yards include black haw, wahoo, the various serviceberries, sweet bay magnolia, witch hazel, hop tree, ashe magnolia, pawpaw, franklinia, and sourwood.


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