5 great shade trees

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination for me to remember my childhood on Altadena Drive and the wonder of playing outside in the shade of our mature trees. The trees lined both sides of the street and nearly met in the middle, covering us while we rode bikes, working hard to climb the hills and glide gleefully back down. I am sure my love of trees began on those carefree summer days when we romped outside for hours under the leafy canopy.

Today, I have a great view from my office window of a wooded hillside, but as I write, it is January and very cold. The wildlife in our wooded area is varied and plentiful, even in winter—in one afternoon, I am likely to see squirrels, deer, all kinds of birds, and perhaps our neighborhood hawk swooping in for a brief visit.  But the snow-covered trees are mere silhouettes, a stark reminder that the earth is sleeping.

Having trees in our landscapes is overwhelmingly positive. Trees add value to our property, help keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter, clean our air, provide food for wildlife and reduce erosion and run-off, which keeps our water supply cleaner. In this three-part series, we will look at the various sorts of trees homeowners might consider planting: shade trees, ornamental trees and evergreen trees.

Big trees with large canopies are called “shade trees” obviously because they provide shade to our houses and landscapes. Most shade trees are big, ranging from a 60-foot canopy up to a 150-foot canopy. Keep in mind, it takes a long time to grow a shade tree, so you may want to get started soon.

Before buying and planting a tree, ask yourself some basic questions; Where do you need shade? Do you want to cool the house or shade a deck or a play area? Or do you want to create visual appeal, perhaps enhancing the view of your home by providing a beautiful backdrop? Next, ask yourself what kind of shade you need: dense shade, dappled shade, or somewhere in between. What are the growing conditions in the area you have chosen? Is the area damp all the time, dry all the time or shaded by another tree? The answers to these questions will guide you in the decision you make.

Once you have answered these questions, do some research and find out the botanical name of the tree you want to buy. Plants typically have both botanical name and common names or nicknames. Using the common name can be confusing because several similar but different plants can have the same name. Knowing the specific botanical name will help you purchase the plant you want, one that will grow to the same size, produce the same blooms and require the same amount of water and type of soil as the tree you spotted in a book, on Pinterest or in someone’s yard.

Which trees do the best in our area? The following five trees—with botanical names included—are some that I have planted for shade and had success growing. Consider the questions I included above to decide if one of these is right for your yard.

Red Oak | photo: iStock-tamara_kulikova

The red oak is a Pennsylvania native. It is known to be an extremely strong and hardy tree, able to withstand wildlife, disease, weather and human interaction. Oak trees need to be planted in acidic soil and should only be pruned when dormant.

Tulip tree | photo: iStock_tatsi178999917

If you want a blooming shade tree, take a look at tulip poplar. I fell in love with this tree as a kid. A chance seedling grew beside our porch, and one summer it bloomed. I was hooked! These trees like full sun but can tolerate part shade and medium water. They are quite large, too. The trunk of this tree can reach 4–6’ in diameter, and they max out at 90–150’ tall. Just think of the shade this tree will give you!

If you have a moist low spot in your yard, the river birch might be the right plant. Called “river birch” because it loves to be near a water source, this tree is the more heat-tolerant cousin of the famous and much-loved paper bark birch. With similar peeling bark, this graceful, multi-trunked tree provides lovely dappled shade and has cool, dangling, cylindrical florets called “catkins” in the spring and has a great winter presence in the garden. It grows to about 60 feet tall and 40 feet wide. I have a birch planted next to my deck and love the dappled shade and the catkins.

A Yellow wood (Cladrastis kentukea) leaf | photo: iStock_ByMPhotos

The yellow wood tree is a gorgeous medium size tree with a fabulous wisteria-like bloom. Panicles of fragrant white flowers cover this tree in spring, giving way to very cool autumn seed pods and great yellow fall color. This tree typically grows 30-50 feet tall with upright branching and a broad, rounded crown.  If you have the patience, it is worth the wait.

The katsura tree is grown for its elegant semi-weeping habit, its shape and its attractive heart-shaped blue leaves that turn shades of gold, orange, and red in the fall. When a soft breeze comes through the garden, the leaves on this medium size tree ripple like plucked strings on a harp. The katsura likes to be near big trees that can protect it from the hot afternoon sun and is happiest in good garden soil. It typically matures to 60 feet tall and 40 feet wide.

Planting one of the fast-growing trees now could give you decent shade in several years and will become a beautiful addition to your yard.

Claire Schuchman is a local landscape designer and master gardener for Phipps Conservatory and Gardens. Her garden will be on the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Tour this year. Contact her at www.exceptionalgardens.net or claire.cs@exceptionalgardens.net