Small Trees to Consider

Gardeners’ Corner | Questions and Answers with Local Experts 

By Dan Songster, 2016 July

This column is a regular newsletter feature offering chapter members and local experts a chance to briefly share information on many things related to gardening with natives. The request for this edition of the newsletter is: “Which native do you really enjoy as a small tree and why?”

Christiane Shannon: “In my mature garden, there is only one native plant that answers to your question: Chilopsis linearis or Desert Willow. I planted the pink blossoms type in the fall 2002; it has grown to a beautiful mature specimen not quite 20 feet tall that needs only a light pruning once a year for style and space purposes. Being native of our Southern California deserts, it is at home in my rocky/sandy soil. When in bloom, it attracts different species of bees and the local hummingbirds. My only regret is not to have the space for another, the one with the burgundy flowers.”

Ron Vanderhoff: “I have two Western Redbuds. These are small-growing trees with truly year-round interest, including a beautiful branching habit that shows well in the winter months. A  relatively new selection called ‘Claremont’ (from the RSA Botanic Garden) may even be better, with more flowers and even better color. It’s on my wish list.”

John Gossett: “As a couple, my wife and I like the Ceanothus ‘Sierra Blue’ trees in our no-water back yard because the rich, dark green leaves and beautiful flower spikes make a great background to the desert plants with sharp textures and brilliant flowers. For myself (and the birds), we love the tall, willowy Sambucus mexicana for its huge umbrels of tiny gold stars and the masses of purple elderberries they turn into. My wife is not fond of it because the elderberries cover the driveway, and the birds leave traces as well.”

Bart O’Brien: “There are so many!! But the one that I think gets overlooked way too often is Chilopsis linearis and its many cultivars. Loves heat, drought tolerant when established, easy to grow. Flowers in waves all summer long and well into fall, as long as it gets some summer deep irrigation (about 2-3 times a month should do). Nice dappled shade to garden under.

Last holiday season, I wreathed one of mine [Chilopsis linearis] in gold garlands, added big outdoor gold ornaments, and put a strong solar spotlight on it. That was the extent of my decorating, but my neighbors got a kick out of it!”

Thea Gavin: “I love our Chilopsis linearis; it’s not too tall at maturity (maybe 15 feet?), deciduous, with an interesting branch structure (and seems to take pruning/shaping well) as well as large purplish blossoms that attract hummingbirds.”

Alan Lindsay: “I really enjoy the Santa Cruz Island Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus subsp. asplenifolius) with its open structure and bark. (I have had some difficulty keeping them alive during hot spells.) They are relatively fast growing and when in bloom they are beautiful and I like the open structure and the bark.  My second choice is the Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), the island version from Tree of Life Nursery. It’s also a fast grower and as everyone knows has abundant white flowers that produce a red fruit that birds love.  Lastly, I love oaks so I have 5 species in my garden. All but one is considered a shrub, but several of those can reach 15 feet, a small tree. The only real tree is the Island Oak (Q. tomentella) which I plan on pruning to a small tree.”

Mark Sugars: “Rhus integrifolia; it’s tough, evergreen, tolerant of pruning, and a good feeder of birds.”

Leon Baginski: “That’s an easy one. Any manzanita will do. Love the gorgeous red bark and the pale green leaves in contrast.”

Helen Smisko: “Cercis occidentalis (western redbud) is a deciduous, multi-trunk tree that grows in most soils, including clay. It can take some watering but is also drought tolerant. Requires winter frost for dark-pink flower display in spring. Heart-shaped leaves appear in summer that turn yellow/red in fall. Seed pods and geometric branching are winter interest. A dynamic plant.”

Dan Songster: “Just to be contrary I will praise two trees that may not always get a lot of thought. Ceanothus ‘Snow Flurry’ is a white flowering form of C. thrysiflorus that gets taller than ‘Ray Hartman’ around 12-20 feet, looks best as a low branching tree and has green bark. Another favorite has been mentioned but for those needing a very quick-growing large shrub or small tree, Mexican Elderberry (now named Blue Elderberry-Sambucus nigra ssp. Caerulea). Birds love it and while it can get crowded with crossing and suckering branches, with a little work it can be a very shapely tree. It is deciduous, which is a good time to clearly see what needs pruning and do the work.”


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