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The Garden Scoop

Recommended Replacements for Problem Trees

Native hawthorn trees are in full bloom this week with a canopy filled with tiny white flowers.

A properly planted and well located tree can last longer than a human lifetime, so tree selection is an important decision. Last week I talked about a few commonly available trees to avoid due to their poor performance in tree plantings.  This week I would like to explore some recommended alternative trees which provide similar ornamental value and have a much better track record.

As a non-native, Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) does poorly when planted in Illinois. I typically recommend an Illinois-native conifer as the best alternative since they are well adapted to our climate and soils. 

White pine (Pinus strobus) tops my list of native replacement species.  It is tolerant of a wide range of urban conditions (other than very poor drainage) and grows well in full sun or partial shade.  The beautiful dark green needles are arranged in 5-needle bundles, giving the canopy somewhat of a tufted appearance that sets it aside from other pines.  It maintains a symmetrical and pyramidal habitat at maturity which fits nicely into the landscape as a specimen tree.  Its biggest weakness is breakage from wind or ice storms, so it may not be the best tree for a windy spot.

For a native that does well in harsher conditions, like windy areas, I usually look to eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).  While it doesn’t always have a symmetrical mature habit, its interesting branching pattern may be a draw.  You can expect a good crop of berry-like fruits each year that are a favorite of birds.

If you are looking for something a bit different, the fine-textured foliage of bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is unmatched.  This tree is actually a deciduous conifer with a spectacular, bright orange fall display before dropping its needles in fall.  It tops my list as one of my most highly recommended trees to plant due to is adaptability to a wide range of site conditions from poor drainage and soil compaction to extremely dry and harsh sites.  While this tree is only native to very southern portion of Illinois, it is hardy from Zone 4 to 11. 

As discussed last week, Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) has many short comings as an urban tree, but its ornamental beauty and great spring flower display cannot be questioned. 

Most of our native tree alternatives will not flower as early, but offer similarly great displays.  One of my favorites in this category is redbud (Cercis canadensis).  Along with flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), these smaller native trees offer a few of the best flowering displays that are the earliest among our natives.  However, neither of these trees will reach the same size and shape as Callery pear.

For a larger native tree with an excellent flowering display, I often look to several of the native hawthorn species.  Washington hawthorn (Crateagus phaenopyrum) is one of the most commonly available trees with four seasons of ornamental value.  This tree is in full bloom this week, hosting a canopy full of tiny white flowers that are just buzzing with activity from pollinators.   The numerous flowers give way to bright red berries that provide some great winter interest when combined with the unique, exfoliating and multicolored bark as it matures.

There are a number of other native hawthorn species that do really well in our area, but are a little more difficult to find at nurseries.  One caution with all hawthorn species is their large thorns that tend to blend in with foliage in the summer time. I actually view the thorns as some additional winter interest, especially when combined with the bright red berries.  However, it may not be the best tree for kids to climb or to overhang a high traffic areas such as a sidewalk.

As with any investment, it always pays to do your homework and the time spent learning about a new tree ahead of planting time is certainly well worth it.  My best recommendation is to seek out native alternatives for some of our ornamental favorites because they are adapted to Illinois and offer huge wildlife benefits to many species in need of help, such as our native pollinators.