Overlooked Trees for Landscape Planting

By Mark Grueber | January 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2002

We often curse the fickle Missouri climate and complain about our difficult soils, but we are blessed with an ecosystem that provides for a terrific variety of plants and animals. Hundreds of tree species can thrive in Missouri.

That makes it all the harder to understand why so many landscaping projects take a cookie-cutter approach to tree selection. The predictability of the plantings may stem from the limited selection of trees available at local nurseries, or perhaps folks just don't know all the possibilities that are available.

Actually, there are far too many potential landscaping tree species to introduce in one article, but we've compiled a selection of good ones to consider. Other possibilities can be found throughout Missouri. Look for attractive trees in your neighborhood, shopping mall, park, botanical garden or forest.

You can see how tall they grow, how they perform in marginal sites, the beauty of their flowers and their appearance in all seasons. Choose wisely, and a tree planting will give you a lifetime of pleasure and joy to generations that follow.


Conifers aren't necessarily evergreen. Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), for example, is a conifer that sheds its needles in autumn.

Though usually identified with the so-called "cypress swamps" of the Deep South, the baldcypress is also native to Missouri's Bootheel. However, baldcypress tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, so it doesn't have to be planted in a wet site.

It can grow quickly in its youth, but it has a moderate growth rate overall. A recent study showed an average growth rate of about 2.5 feet per year over a nine-year period. It will eventually grow into a large shade tree at least 50 feet high and 20 feet wide, so give it plenty of room.

Baldcypress is a great substitute for pines where the soils are heavy clay. Most conifers require good drainage, but that can be difficult to find, especially in urban areas. It can be used for screening, if the lower limbs are not pruned because the branches form a fairly dense canopy, even in winter. The fall color can be soft brown, but its small fruit, which resembles tiny pine cones, can be a nuisance.

Because of its stately appearance, baldcypress can stand alone or in a group. It can be planted throughout most of Missouri but may be a little tender for the northern third of the state. If you plant baldcypress in that area, be sure that the tree was grown in a local nursery from local stock.

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is a close relative of the familiar coastal redwood, except it doesn't grow as big. The tree is similar to baldcypress in height and spread and grows in a neat, conical shape that rarely requires pruning. It also loses its needles in the fall. The dawn redwood has a tiny cone that isn't nearly as messy as those of the baldcypress.

Its growth rate is similar to baldcypress, but dawn redwood may continue to grow late into summer and not "harden off" before the first frost. This will cause some die-back of young shoots or the loss of a bud, but it shouldn't damage the tree as a whole.

Overall, dawn redwood is not quite as cold-tolerant as baldcypress, so it is more suitable for the southern two-thirds of the state. You can grow it farther north, but choose a protected site that's exposed to the south or west.

The only pine native to Missouri is shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata). It's an important forest tree in southern Missouri, but it is difficult to use for landscaping because it doesn't transplant well. However, Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) shows some promise for landscape use, especially as a substitute for Austrian, Scotch or eastern white pines-all of which have difficulties when used as landscape trees.

Like most evergreens, limber pine likes well-drained soil that is kept moist. However, the roots like standing water or "wet feet." Limber pine is adaptable and probably tolerates clay soils better than other pines, except shortleaf.

I have not personally seen a mature limber pine in Missouri, but they reportedly grow up to 50 feet tall with a spread of up to 35 feet.

"Vanderwolf's Pyramid," or "Vanderwulf's," is a cultivated variety commonly found at nurseries. The Vanderwulf's cultivar grows vigorously, about 25 inches per year (17 feet over eight years) and has blue-green foliage. Limber pine can withstand Missouri's cold winters and is a good selection for landscaping.

Small Ornamental Trees

Everyone enjoys the beautiful flowers of the flowering crabapple or Bradford pear, but because they are so common, their exposure to insects and disease may be much higher. It's much healthier to have a diversity of trees.

Ornamental trees are relatively short-lived. Many species have maximum lifespans of 15 to 25 years.

One ornamental tree that many people overlook for landscaping is the Common pawpaw (Asimina triloba). It lives in rich woods throughout most of Missouri, except in a few counties in the extreme northern part of the state. Both people and animals love to eat the fruit.

Its flower is purplish. Flowers are singular and fairly large (1-2 inches). Pawpaw leaves are between 6 and 12 inches long. When crushed, they smell like cucumbers to some people.

Pawpaw grows where forest soils are rich and moist. If your soils are chalky, you should pick another species. Pawpaw can spread by root suckers and can form thickets, so it should be planted in natural, rather than formal, settings. Its maximum height is usually 15-20 feet, but it will sometimes form a large, multi-stemmed shrub. It can be difficult to transplant and is best moved as a seedling. Many mail order catalogs sell small pawpaw seedlings, but you'll probably have to search hard to find them at a nursery.

Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), sometimes called Sarvis-tree, Shadbush or Juneberry, grows throughout Missouri and is one of the first native trees to bloom in the spring. This Missouri native's prolific, small white flowers look like a white cloud in the forest understory during late March and early April. In the fall, the leaves can vary from yellow to orange to deep red.

Serviceberry also grows as a multi-stemmed shrub and reaches heights of 15-25 feet. Its spread can equal its height. On a good site, you can expect it to grow to 9-10 feet in five to eight years. Serviceberry tolerates full sun or partial shade, but more sun will provide more flowers. Choose a site that has some drainage and can be kept moist.

Serviceberry fruit doesn't stay on the tree long enough to create a mess on your sidewalks or deck. Birds love them, and serviceberries make excellent pies, jams, and jellies.

Serviceberry bark is smooth and gray, with long pinkish streaks. Trees with attractive bark can be a wonderful asset to the winter landscape, especially when planted in front of a backdrop of evergreens.

Another native tree with spectacular bark is the American Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea). Yellowwood is native to the southwestern corner of Missouri but can grow throughout the state.

Because of its size, yellowwood can be used as an ornamental or shade tree. It grows to heights of 30-50 feet, with spreads of 40-55 feet. It grows very quickly if planted on a good site with ample water and nutrients. Overall, it grows 9-12 feet over a 10-year period.

Yellowwood flowers are white and fragrant, and they droop in bunches from the ends of the branches in mid to late spring. The bark is smooth and gray like the bark of American beech.

Yellowwood can be planted in a wide range of soils and will tolerate rocky sites. It should be pruned in the summer because it may bleed profusely if pruned during the winter or early spring. While this does not damage the tree, it can be unsightly.

Shade Trees

Turkish Filbert, or Turkish Hazel, (Corylus colurna) is not native to Missouri, but is very adaptable to our climate and our wide range of soil types.

The Turkish Filbert is related to our native American filbert (Corylus americana) which grows as a shrub throughout the state and provides us with many wonderful flavorings and treats. Turkish filbert grows into a formal-shaped, medium-size shade tree with a an average height of 40 to 50 feet and a spread of 20 to 30 feet.

When young, the bark is light and leaves a white powder on your fingers when touched. The leaves are deep, dark green and may become yellow to purple in the fall.

The tree produces small nuts that could be bothersome, but the specimens I've seen had very little litter beneath them. Squirrels probably keep the ground nut-free. Turkish filberts are drought-tolerant when established, but they require thorough watering during their first several summers. Growth reaches 35 feet over 20 years, and 50 feet in 50 years.

I have seen Turkish filberts sold by mail as seedlings and in small containers. You may have to surf the web to find a source.

Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica), also known as black tupelo, sour gum and pepperidge, is native to southern Missouri but will grow throughout the state. Select a locally grown tree because trees from the southern states will probably suffer some winter damage in northern Missouri.

Black gum has been gaining popularity because of its impressive, scarlet fall color. During the growing season, leaves are dark green and shiny. The drawback is that it grows slowly, averaging six inches to one foot per year. If the site is good, and if you water and fertilize the tree properly, you should be able to increase this rate.

Black gum tends to grow into irregular shapes, so it is important to select a tree with a good straight leader. If the leader is lost, select a quick substitute and stake it in an upright position (if necessary) to avoid total deformation.

Black gum tolerates wet soils but not prolonged flooding. It should not be planted where the soils are chalky, but it is somewhat drought-tolerant. Planting in full sun produces the best summer and fall leaf color, but black gum also tolerates partial shade.

Black gum is not related to American sweetgum and does not form the same fruit that many people consider a nuisance. The female form of black gum produces a small, bluish-black fruit that birds and some mammals enjoy. A nursery located in Holt, Missouri, has produced a cultivar known as 'Miss Scarlet' that is known for its brilliant red fall color and ornamental blue fruit.

The American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), also known as musclewood, ironwood or blue beech, has thin, smooth, bluish-gray bark that is really attractive. It is also fluted and has a sinewy appearance, hence the name musclewood.

American hornbeam usually grows no larger than 30 feet in height and spread. In Missouri's forests, American hornbeam grows as a multi-stem shrub or twisted single stem tree, but nursery-grown stock is typically single stem and uniform in appearance.

If the tree is healthy, the leaves are dark green during the summer and may change from yellow to purple in the fall. The tree grows less than one foot per year but will do better in good sites with uniform moisture and fertility.

It's hard to list landscaping trees without including an oak. Missouri's forests harbor more than 20 different oak species. Each has its own wonderful, unique characteristics. One of my favorites is Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa).

Oaks are probably too big for most city yards because they'll shade not only your yard, but several of your neighbors' yards, as well. You may have to eventually disfigure or destroy the tree to maintain peace in the neighborhood.

Although it will take many years, bur oak will attain heights of 80 feet or more with an equal or greater spread. It grows one foot or less per year. The young twigs may form corky ridges, giving the tree a coarse, but attractive appearance. Bur oak has the largest acorns of any oak species. Most are at least one inch in diameter.

Most literature describes bur oak as difficult to transplant, but it moves well in containers. Bur oak can be found in a wide range of sites throughout Missouri, from bottomlands in the south to the drier prairies of the central and northern regions, so it is quite adaptable to many moisture levels and soil types.triangle image

Landscaping Soul Searching

Some of our trees can only grow in certain climates or soil types. Before you plant a tree, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I want from this tree? (fall color, flowers, shade, fast growth, etc.)
  • How much maintenance am I willing to provide? (No tree is maintenance free.)
  • Where am I going to plant this tree and what kind of site do I have? For example, is the site wet, dry, sunny or shady? Is the soil loose or is it heavy clay?
  • How much room do I have, and how big is this tree going to get?
  • Are there any underground or overhead utilities that could interfere with the tree or that the tree will threaten?

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer