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There’s no doubt that trees are essential to life on Earth. Not only are they the “lungs” of the planet, converting carbon dioxide to oxygen through photosynthesis, but they also filter groundwater, stabilize soils, and provide food and habitat for innumerable animals, fungi, and bacteria. Trees serve a countless array of ecosystem services; yes, even the ones growing in your own backyard. While most home landscapes contain at least a few trees, it’s clear that we all need to make room for more. Not everyone has the space for a stately oak or a mammoth maple, but there’s always room for a smaller specimen tree, no matter what size yard you have. Thankfully, many flowering trees are terrific choices for the job. Not only do they provide all the benefits mentioned above, but they’re beautiful, too.
If you’re looking to add a few flowering trees to your landscape, here are some of my favorite varieties.
The best flowering trees for home gardens
Serviceberry (Amalanchier species):
There are several different species of these flowering trees, each deserving of a place in the garden. Also called Juneberry and saskatoon, most serviceberry trees reach 15 to 30 feet at maturity. They easily survive winters down to -30 degrees F and are native to North America. Serviceberry trees are often multi-trunked, though they can be pruned to a single trunk. The spring flowers occur in clusters and are white and star-shaped. They’re followed by edible fruits that mature from red to a deep maroon-purple. A favorite of birds and humans alike, serviceberry is one of the finest flowering trees available.
Red buckeye (Aesculus x carnea):
Hardy to -30 degrees F and with a height of 20 to 35 feet, red buckeyes blooms in early spring. The cone-shaped, bright pink flower clusters are a magnet for hummingbirds looking for an early-season nectar source. The blooms are quite showy and are followed by hard nuts with a spiky casing. Aesculus x carnea is a hybrid between two other buckeye species, A. pavia and A. hippocastanum.
Ornamental cherries (Prunus species and cultivars): A diverse group of flowering trees
There are many different selections of flowering cherry trees to choose from; some with weeping growth habits and others that are more upright.. The flowers can be single or double. They’re typically white to pink, and borne on the bare stems before the leaves emerge in early spring. Most selections of these flowering trees are hardy to -20 degrees F with some being more or less hardy. They typically grow to 25 to 30 feet tall.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum):
A tree that deserves far more attention that it gets, sourwood is a personal favorite for its amazing fall color (see photo). Hardy to -20 degrees F with a mature height of 20-50 feet, sourwood trees have a lovely open form. Blooms are produced in early summer. The flowers are delicate panicles of creamy white blooms that resemble small lily of the valley flowers. A native of eastern North America, the nectar from sourwood flowers makes a delicious honey!
Chinese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata):
Also called Japanese tree lilacs, these flowering trees grow to 25 feet. With a terrific winter hardiness of -40 degrees F, these upright flowering trees have broad, green leaves. Flowers are produced in early summer; large, showy clumps of white flowers that look like fuzzy clouds on the branches. Pollinators are a fan of this blooming tree, but they are not a good choice for the south as they don’t tolerate heat well. Their peeling bark is attractive, too.
Virginia fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus):
Native to the eastern North America, a similar species, the Chinese fringetree (Chionanthus retusus) is a good alternative if you can’t find Virginia fringetree in the trade. Hardy to -40 degrees F with a height of 20 feet, Virginia fringetree blooms in early summer. The white lacy flowers hang from the branches like a fringe. Each tree is either male or female, so if you have a female tree and a male is nearby, blue to dark purple fruits ripen in late summer. The Asian species is hardy to -20 degrees F and grows a bit taller, to a height of 30 feet. It also blooms before virginicus. I have a fringetree next to our back patio and we always worry about it in the early spring. It’s very late to leaf out, so even if the branches are bare well into spring, don’t give up on this lovely tree; it’s just always a little late to the party.
Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia):
This Asian native produces large, camellia-like, white blooms with bright yellow center in mid summer, when few other flowering trees are strutting their stuff. Hardy down to -20 degrees F, stewartia also has a stunning fall color that’s a brilliant orange or red. Slow growing to a height of 40 feet, the exfoliating bark adds a lot of winter interest to the garden. A top-notch specimen tree!
Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus):
Producing white, bell-shaped, pendulous blooms all along the length of the branches in early summer, the snowbell is a striking tree. The fragrant flowers soon drop to the ground where they collect like snow. After the blooms drop, you’ll spy egg-shaped fruits hanging from the branches. A native of Asia that’s hardy to -20 degrees F and reaches a height of 30 feet, the Japanese snowbell is really a sight to behold when it’s in full bloom.
Peegee tree (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’):
Yes, most hydrangeas are shrubs, but this selection is more tree-like in form, especially if it’s been pruned or trained to have a single trunk. Producing large, cone-shaped clusters of white flowers, the Peegee hydrangea is hardy to -40 degrees F. The flowers age to a striking pink and they can be cut and dried for use in arrangements. Topping out at 15-25 feet in height, Peegee hydrangea trees can grow to be quite old. There’s a group of them growing in a yard near my home that are over 30 years old. They are smothered in blooms every summer. While ‘Grandiflora’ is an old cultivar, there are many newer selections of H. paniculata that can be pruned into tree forms as well.
Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa):
Dogwoods are among the most favorite of all flowering trees for good reason. Kousa dogwoods are a bit different than our North American native dogwood (which I’ll talk about in the next entry) in that they flower later and they produce their blooms after the leaves have already emerged. Kousas are Asian natives that are hardy to -20 degrees F. The white to slightly pink flowers appear in late spring. Each petal is actually a bract, much like those of a poinsettia. The true flowers are tiny, green blooms clustered together at the center of the showy bracts. Reaching a height of 30 feet, the flowers are followed by edible fruits. Kousa dogwoods have a beautiful structure, very nice fall color, and are more disease resistant than our native flowering dogwood.
American dogwood (Cornus florida):
And speaking of our native flowering dogwood… American dogwoods have buds that are shaped like onion flowers flowers (it’s one easy way to tell them apart from Kousa dogwoods when the tree is dormant). The flower buds are formed the previous season, and they open before the leaves do, putting on quite the show. Reaching a mature height of 30 feet, American dogwood flowering trees are hardy to -20 degrees F. They make a perfect understory tree for along the edge of a woodland area or beneath the canopy of larger shade trees. Like Kousa dogwoods, their petals are actually showy bracts. There are several different cultivars, primarily with white and pink flowers. The leaf-marring disease anthracnose can be problematic on American dogwoods, as can powdery mildew and a few other fungal issues, though their amazing fall color more than makes up for this shortcoming.
Wolf eyes dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’):
One of many named cultivars of the kousa dogwood, the leaves of ‘Wolf Eyes’ are variegated, making it a real garden stand-out. The flowers are creamy white and look quite stunning side-by-side with the variegated foliage. ‘Wolf Eyes’ has a beautiful shape and form. It’s hardy to -20 degrees F and makes an exceptional understory tree that’s slow growing and a nice focal point in a shade garden.
Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata):
There’s no mistaking a star magnolia. In bloom when few other flowering trees are, the large, white, star-shaped, tissue-paper-like petals open on bare branches in late winter or early spring. This Asian native reaches 20 feet and is hardy to -30 degrees F. The blooms are slightly fragrant. Site this flowering tree in full sun for optimum flowering, and select a sheltered site if possible to keep the buds from freezing out or opening too early.
Virginia magnolia (Magnolia virginiana):
This tree is native to eastern North America and is hardy down to -20 degrees F. It matures to 35 feet tall and is often a multi-stemmed specimen. White, heavily fragrant blooms open a few at a time in May and June. Virginia magnolia tolerates wet and water-logged soils and does well in full sun to partial shade. The leaves are semi-evergreen, meaning they cling to the branches through most of the winter. With silvery undersides, the green leaves are soft and velvety. Also known as sweet bay magnolia, this flowering tree has little to no disease or pest troubles.
Saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana):
With gorgeous pink-purple flowers that open early every spring, saucer magnolia stops traffic. Hardy to -30 degrees F, this hybrid magnolia has such a unique form. Even at just a few years of age, this flowering tree has character and form. Topping out at 25 feet in height, site this tree away from strong winds. Hard spring frosts can prevent the buds from opening since they are formed the season before and held on the branches all winter long. A very common flowering tree, the blooms are unmistakable. Magnolia scale can be problematic on this plant. If scale is confirmed, treat with horticultural oil in mid August when the scale is in its crawler stage and is vulnerable to treatments.
Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica):
Crape myrtles are one of the most popular warm-climate flowering trees. There are many different species and cultivars of crape myrtle, some of which are more shrub-like than others. Topping out at about 25 feet in height, these summer bloomers produce flowers in shades of pink, red, purple, or white. Hardy to -10 degrees F, though there are some cultivars that are hardier than others. If you plan to grow crape myrtle in a northern climate, site it in a protected area and mulch the roots well before winter’s arrival. The flowers of these popular flowering trees are produced on old wood, so even if the plant dies back to the ground in winter, it may still flower the same season. Native to Asia, its long bloom time, coupled with exfoliating bark and beautiful color, make it a prized plant for many gardeners.
Crab apple (Malus species and cultivars): A large group of flowering trees
There are dozens of different varieties of flowering crab apple trees, each with its own unique traits. Most reach a height of 20 feet, though shorter cultivars exist. Flowers are typically white, pink, or deep pink and appear in early spring, before the leaves emerge. Choose varieties with a natural resistance to leaf scab if you choose to plant any of these flowering trees. There are many lovely cultivars of crab apple, some of which have fruits that are as attractive as the flowers. Some can even be made into jelly and other foodstuffs.
Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha):
Native to the southeastern US, the franklinia tree is oh so lovely. Reaching just 20 feet in height, these flowering trees are in bloom at the peak of summer. White, cup-shaped flowers with yellow centers are held above drooping, elongated leaves. Hardy to -20 degrees F, franklinia will not do well in colder areas. In southern regions, afternoon shade is preferred. The flowers are fragrant and the fall color is superb. These flowering trees are not common in the trade, so you may have to seek one out from a specialty nursery.
Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina):
If I had to choose a favorite North American native flowering tree, this would be it. Carolina silverbell is hardy to -30 degrees F and grows to 40 feet in height after many years of growth. In mid-spring, clusters of white, pendulous, bell-shaped flowers cover the stems. This is an easy to grow tree, though it’s not a common one. Best grown as an understory tree with a bit of shade, the flowers are followed by winged fruits that cling to the branches into the winter. The fall color is a striking yellow.
Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus): Great flowering trees for warm climates
One of the smaller flowering trees, the chaste tree is a great choice for warmer climates. Hardy to -10 degrees F, it doesn’t usually survive in my Pennsylvania garden, but I do have a friend who has one planted in a protected site that survives our cold winters. Chaste trees produce purple-blue spires of small flowers in July and August. Reaching just 10 to 20 feet tall, this tree sometimes has a lot of winter dieback that needs to be pruned out in the early spring. Though its growth habit is often more shrub like, it can be pruned and trained into a tree starting when its young. The flowers are fragrant and favored by bees and butterflies.
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis):
This flowering tree is a member of the pea and bean family. It’s evident when you look at the flowers which are edible and resemble a tiny pink bean flower. The flowers are then followed by seed pods. hardy to -30 degrees F, this native of eastern North America is treasured by many gardeners for its small stature (30 feet max) and prolific bloom. Redbud flowers appear in early spring, clinging tightly to the branches in dense clusters. The heart-shaped leaves flutter in the wind. Sadly, redbuds are prone to several diseases that can kill the tree, including canker, verticillium wilt, and blights. Still, that’s no reason to not plant one. Avoid pruning the tree (which can open up a transmission route for disease) and keep it healthy to help stave off disease.
Selecting flowering trees for the garden
As you can see, there are so many beautiful flowering trees to select for your landscape. Don’t be afraid to plant more than one! Whether you’re looking to dress up your home’s foundation, plant a flowering street tree, accent a shady woodland area, or simply brighten your front yard, there’s a blooming tree for the job.
Do you grow another type of flowering tree in your garden? Tell us about your favorites in the comment section below!
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