There's a lot to be said for small trees. You can plant them in small yards without fear they'll take over your lot or your neighbors'. Falling leaves won't take you a whole weekend to sweep up. Roots won't lift up the sidewalk. And you can plant more than one in your average-size yard.
The Arbor Day Foundation describes a small tree as up to 30 feet (9 meters) high, while a medium tree (such as blue spruce or white oak) is 30 to 70 feet (9 to 21 meters), and large trees (such as redwood or Ponderosa pine), are more than 70 feet (21 meters) high [source: Arbor Day Foundation].
If you're looking for a focal point in a garden, some definition to a patio or deck or want to create year-round interest with several specimens, consider the following selections.
Sweet Acacia (Acacia farnesiana)
If you don't like showoffs, don't choose the sweet acacia for your yard. This small shrub-like tree has wide-spreading lacy leaves and attracts attention with nearly year-round clusters of fluffy yellow ball-like flowers that last for weeks. The flowers (which are fragrant) and subsequent fruits attract birds and other wildlife, so if you plant this tree, expect some visitors. But watch your own hands; this tree has thorns.
The sweet acacia will do best in a hot and dry desert climate like Arizona or Texas, and it's a common landscape feature in Tucson and Austin yards. You can let this multi-trunk specimen grow naturally as a shrub or prune away side limbs to create the look of a single- or multi-limb tree.
On the next page, you'll find a tree with an Asian flavor.
Japanese Red Maple (Acer palmatum atropurpureum)
The Japanese red maple can be used as a single specimen tree or in a grouping. It's striking in a rock garden and is favored by bonsai growers. The leaves are dissected with pointy tips and provide a lacy green image with a spectacular reddish-purple showing in late fall and again with new leaf growth in spring.
This deciduous tree is native to Japan, China and Korea and can get harmed with too much frost and wind. In hotter geographies, it likes some shade protection, and can grow quite nicely under the dappled canopy of larger trees. Japanese maples are useful next to sidewalks and in borders because the roots are compact and not invasive. That means the walkway won't be cracked and lifted up in a few years from massive roots. Even in winter, the tree delights; in some cultivars the bark brightens and turns colors after the leaves have fallen for the season.
If you're looking for a tree that screams "Americana," the next page may hold the answer.
American Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens)
The first planting of a boxwood in the United States was in 1653 at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, on New York's Long Island, using boxwood brought overseas from Amsterdam [source: The American Boxwood Society]. Boxwoods are often associated with colonial architectural. So, if your house has columns or shutters or other colonial stylings, a boxwood tree out front would look historically correct.
There are approximately 160 registered cultivars of boxwood in the country. Some are dwarf, growing just a few feet high, and some grow up to 20 feet (6 meters). The American boxwood typically grows 5 to 10 feet high (1.5 to 3 meters), and can be used as a shrub or pruned into a tree. The leaves are dark, shiny green on top and pale green on the underside. You can use them as a formal hedge, with pruning, or an informal accent by letting the tree go native. The American Boxwood Society calls boxwood "man's oldest garden ornament."
While ornaments are good, edible ornaments are perhaps better. The tree on the next page can provide you with some healthy snacks.
Moorpark Apricot (Prunus armeniaca)
When considering small trees, why not think about a fruit tree? Most cultivars of fruit trees tend to be on the small side, around 20 feet high (6 meters), which makes harvesting the fruit possible. After all, what good is fruit growing 100 feet above you?
The Moorpark apricot tree grows well in most of the country (some areas of south Texas, Louisiana and Florida are exceptions) [source: Arbor Day Foundation]. The tree likes full sun and will grow fairly fast to a height of 15 to 20 feet (4.5 to 6 meters). In spring, after a leafless winter, you'll see what looks like popcorn growing on the stems, and these will later grow into delicious milky fruits from July to late August. Beware, though, that birds will love your fruits just as much as you do.
If perfumed scents are more important to you than fruit, the tree on the next page will delight.
Fragrant Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
With an abundance of fragrant lavender and purple blossoms, the lilac has long been a favorite for the garden, and it's as popular as ever with its nostalgic scent signaling that spring has sprung.
Like so many small trees, the lilac tree would be happy living life as a big shrub, growing up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) high and with a 12-foot (3.6 meter) span. But with some pruning and encouragement, the lilac functions well as a single-stem tree.
The lilac will grow well in full sun or in partial shade, and it's versatile enough to use as either a specimen tree or lined up for a windbreak or privacy hedge. The flowers are long-lasting, so don't hesitate to bring them inside and toss out your chemical air freshener in favor of the real thing.
Speaking of nostalgia, the tree on the next page may remind you of Southern hospitality.
Ann Magnolia (Magnolia x 'Ann')
This delightful small tree is a sister to Betty, Jane, Judy, Pinkie, Randy, Ricki and Susan. They were all developed in the 1950s by the U.S. National Arboretum and are collectively as "The Girls" or the "Little Girl" group [source: U.S. National Arboretum].
These small magnolia trees provide a spectacular floral showing in spring, two weeks later than other magnolias, which means less chance of frost damage. The large purple-red flowers of the Ann magnolia resemble tulips, and the leaves are dark and leathery and survive well in drought or heat. This tree is hardy and will tolerate shade. But for the maximum in flowering, give it full sun. For variety, Ann's sisters flower in shades of pink, red and purple.
If you like a bunch of flowers on a tree, the next page describes one option for getting that in your yard.
Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)
This deciduous tree, also known as alternate-leaf dogwood, is native to the northeastern part of the United States. It grows to 25 feet (7.62 meters) high and its tiered branches arranged horizontally to the ground evoke the shape of a Japanese pagoda.
In the fall, the leaves turn mild shades of red and orange. In the late spring, this tree puts out flat-topped clusters of white flowers that are considered moderately showy. In short, this is a tree with good manners. The pagoda dogwood looks good in a natural setting, rather than in a formal garden, and likes cool, moist soil and even a bit of shade. And if you live in a colder climate, you and this tree should get along really well.
On the next page, you'll find a tree that can please both you and your bird friends.
Sargent Crabapple (Malus sargentii)
While some crabapple cultivars are prone to pests and diseases, this compact little tree is resistant to most of those headaches [source: University of Rhode Island Horticulture Landscape Program}.
The Sargent crabapple grows about 8 feet (2.4 meters) high and can reach more than 10 feet (3 meters) wide. It loses its leaves in winter and in spring is covered with white flowers that grow into small red fruits that are very tasty to birds. There are so many fruits, however, that the dropping of them under the tree canopy could be a problem.
This tree likes full sun and moist, well-drained soil. It grows well in the USDA Zones 4 through 8, which encompasses most of the country. To enjoy a really tiny specimen, you can turn this tree into a bonsai.
For color in the garden through part of winter, the next tree may be of interest.
Washington Hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum)
This specimen is on the big side of small trees, growing up to 30 feet (9 meters) high and 25 feet (7.62 meters) wide. What that means, though, is more white flowers in the late springtime and more glossy red fruits that can stay clear into winter, becoming especially striking in appearance after leaves drop in autumn.
And as these hawthorn fruits are delicious to songbirds, you may well have a winged choir in your yard, as well as a bevy of squirrels. Washington Hawthorns are native to most Southern and Eastern states in the country and they like full sun. This species resists fireblight, which can be a problem with other hawthorns.
Our final tree, on the next page, has a long history of medicinal and edible purposes.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
This graceful tree reaches 30 feet (9 meters) and has a narrow, rounded crown and drooping branches that fall in in a pyramid shape.
In summer, fragrant lily-of-the-valley-like flowers appear and then turn into greenish yellow seed pods.
In autumn, the glossy green leaves turn yellow, red and purple. It's the largest member of the azalea family and grows natively from southern Illinois to Louisiana and Florida. Sourwood gets it name from the sour taste of the leaves, which were once brewed up for medicinal purposes. Today, juice from its flowers is used to make sourwood jelly.
The Bradford pear tree is beautiful, but smelly. HowStuffWorks takes a whiff.
- The American Boxwood Society. http://www.boxwoodsociety.org/about_boxwood.htm
- Arbor Day Foundation. http://www.arborday.org/Trees/TreeGuide/TreeDetail.cfm?ID=99
- Begeman, John. "The Best Small Trees for Desert Landscapes." College of Agriculture and Life
- Commercial Boxwood Production. Dept. Horticultural Science, North Carolina State University. http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-407.html.
- Cornus Alternifolia Fact Sheet. Virginia Tech Dept. of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. http://www.cnr.vt.edu/DENDRO/dendrology/syllabus/factsheet.cfm?ID=146
- Crabapple, Sargent, Malus sargentii. Arbor Day Foundation. http://www.arborday.org/trees/treeGuide/TreeDetail.cfm?id=450
- Edward F. Gilman and Dennis G. Watson. "Fact Sheet ST-5."U.S. Forest Service. http://hort.ufl.edu/trees/ACAFARA.pdfhttp://web.reed.edu/trees/TreePages/ACER.html
- Hawthorn, Washington. Arbor Day Foundation. http://www.arborday.org/trees/treeGuide/TreeDetail.cfm?id=8
- Japanese Maple Fact Sheet. North Carolina State University. http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/factsheets/trees-new/acer_palmatum.html
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The University of Texas at Austin. http://wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ACFA
- Oxydendrum Arboreum Fact Sheet. North Carolina State University. http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/factsheets/trees-new/oxydendrum_arboreum.html
- Plant Database. University of Connecticut. http://www.hort.uconn.edu/plants/c/coralt/coralt1.html
- Sargent Crabapple Fact Sheet. University of Rhode Island Horticulture Landscape Program. http://www.uri.edu/ce/factsheets/sheets/sargcrabapple.html
- Sciences, the University of Arizona. Nov. 13, 2005.http://ag.arizona.edu/gardening/news/articles/17.33.html
- The United States National Arboretum. http://www.usna.usda.gov/Newintro/magnoli1.html