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Native Trees in Illinois

Submitted by: Tami Austin 
Illinois Extension Master Naturalist – Jefferson County

As we drive past millions of acres in mono-crop fields or mow our perfectly manicured yards, it may be difficult to believe that in 1820 Illinois had 22 million acres of prairie land and 14 million acres covered in forest. On these millions of acres were native grasses, flowers, legumes, sedges, bushes, and trees that developed to be perfectly adapted to Illinois climates.

Human development, first for subsistence and agricultural purposes and later for industrial, retail, and housing, brought about the demise of much of Illinois’s vast prairies and forest lands. Ironically, many of us now attempt to recreate a small portion of what we’ve lost in our yards and gardens.

Every spring, we hit the lawn and garden center at our local home improvement store or visit the nearest nursery to purchase plants, including trees for our yards. Most of the plants are non-native species, and many are or have the potential of becoming invasive. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “an invasive species is an organism (plant, animal, fungi, etc.) that causes ecological or economic harm to an environment where it is not native.”

A tree frequently serves as the focal point in a yard, whether it is a large stately oak, leafed out in its summer glory, a flashy maple in its various autumn hues, or crabapple in full, fragrant spring bloom. Planting a tree is a long-term investment, unlike annuals or even smaller perennial plants. When choosing a tree, we often base our decisions on color, size, planting location, ease of care, and what is readily available. We don’t consider growing native species equally as beautiful and as easy to care for (some much easier) as the non-native ones.

While you may not find downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) in your local garden center, a few native Illinois species are readily available. When purchasing a native tree, always check the scientific name to ensure that you get the native tree and not a hybrid or similar foreign species. For example, several varieties of crabapple trees are available, but the sweet or American crabapple (Malus coronaria) is the only native crabapple tree in Illinois.

Let’s take a look at three tree species that you should be able to find locally or order from a reputable online nursery.

The eastern redbud (Cersis canadensis) is one of the first trees to bloom in the spring. Its reddish-purple buds in the forest’s understory beckon us deeper into the woods. The relatively small, almost shrub like tree only grows to 20 - 30 feet tall, with a spread of 30 feet. The eastern redbud can add beauty to any yard with its pea-like flowers in the spring, its heart-shaped leaves in the summer that turn yellow in the fall, and its dark brown pods that stay on the tree through winter. The relatively fast-growing tree (13-24” per year) will grow in all soil types, in full or partial sun, and in hardiness zones four to nine. 

The red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) gets its name from the whitish circle or scar on the large brown seeds that resemble a deer’s eye. The buckeye loses its leaves as early as September, so it offers no fall color, but its four to eight-inch erect, red blossoms in April and May more than make up for this. It has palmately compound leaves with five to seven leaflets. Like the redbud, the buckeye is a small tree that only grows to ten to twenty feet high and spreads up to 20 feet. If you are lucky enough to know someone with a red buckeye tree, you can grow one from a seed that will begin blooming in three years. It grows best in well-drained acidic silty or loamy soils in hardiness zones six thru nine. ***The buckeye’s leaves and seeds are highly toxic, causing severe illness or death. The tree should not be planted in pastures. ***

Looking for a more substantial shade tree, then consider a river birch (Betula nigra). The river birch grows naturally along waterways and in low areas but will grow almost anywhere in the United States. It is a medium to tall, fast-growing tree, with an average height of 50 feet and a spread of 35 feet. The most noticeable feature of this tree is the cinnamon-colored bark peeling off of its multiple trunks. The tree also produces showy reddish-green male flowers (staminate) catkins and small pine-coned shaped female (pistillate) catkins that attract birds such as redpolls and pine siskins.

Other Illinois native trees to consider:

  • Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
  • Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum)
  • American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • Northern red oak (Quercus rubra)

There are many other native Illinois trees that you can add to your yard or garden that may not be as easy to find as those mentioned above but can be found with a bit of effort. For more information on planting native species, contact your local University of Illinois Extension office. They will be able to put you in touch with a horticulturist, a master gardener, or a master naturalist who can help you.