ornamental trees

Redbuds’ striking blossoms are a spring showpiece.

One day, a very long time ago, the school bell rang, and I was out like a shot into the misty rain of a warm spring day. As I walked home from the middle school, every now and again a ray of sun pierced the clouds and the tiny droplets of water glistened like crystals hanging from a chandelier.

It was in one of those magical moments, as I passed by a particularly pretty red brick house, that the sun came out and spotlighted a small tree in the front yard. It was perfectly placed to the left of the arched front door; the bright red leaves were like nothing I had ever seen. I stopped and stared at this tree. Tiny clusters of miniature red maple seedlings dangled and fluttered in the breeze from every branch and twig. I walked closer, bravely disobeying explicit instructions from my mother to stay off the neighbors’ grass. But that absolutely didn’t matter; I had to examine those irresistible leaves as they unfurled. After some time, I took a step back and gazed at the rest of the tree. I saw low, nearly horizontal branches, that formed an elegant, multi-stemmed, small tree. I later learned that tree was a Japanese maple.

That Japanese maple on Cedar Boulevard was planted years before the current owner ever lived there. And it lives on to this day, more beautiful than ever, enhancing the front of that home and becoming a striking presence in that garden. In this world of disposable everything, planting a tree is counter-cultural, because planting a tree is a long-term commitment.

In fact, it is an investment in the future of the next generation and even beyond that. My dad always said to leave a place better than we found it. I can’t think of anything better than planting a tree, or two or three, to better the world.

Ornamental trees with three seasons of interest—blooms, leafy green and fall color—can be the focal point of a garden space.

An ornamental tree like a Japanese maple betters the world by adding beauty. The term “ornamental” refers to the idea that these trees are meant to adorn or beautify your garden or landscape. Ornamentals are generally smaller and often have characteristics like unusual leaves, gorgeous flowers, peeling bark, or unusual twisty stems.

Ornamental trees are of high value in the garden, especially if they have at least three seasons of interest. For instance, in spring, they bloom, followed by beautiful unusual leaves in the summer, and finally in fall, the leaves blaze gloriously. Now, just imagine if a tree does all that and it has interesting peeling bark, evident in the winter. Rock star status!  Since most ornamentals are small, they can be used near a front door or walkway. Ornamentals be draw your attention to a certain area of the garden and are often used as a focal point.

Ornamental trees were not common in the day I admired the Japanese maple on Cedar Boulevard.  But today, we have a myriad to choose from because the world of ornamental trees has exploded in the last 25 years.

I have about a dozen ornamental trees growing in the shaded understory of the urban forest in my garden. Most ornamental trees prefer some shade. They also prefer compost-enriched, well-drained but moist soil. If you give them what they need, in return, they will add color, texture, scent, whimsy and charm to your landscape.

Here are several newer cultivars of some of my favorite ornamental trees. I have personal experience with nearly all of them.

JAPANESE MAPLE (Acer palmatum)—beautiful shape, unusual leaves

Japanese maple

GWEN’S ROSE DELIGHT is a knock out. New leaf growth emerges with hues of striking crimson red to scarlet with white margins. A vigorous, upright grower at first; branches become gracefully arching, displaying the uniquely toned foliage to perfection. 12–15’ tall and 10–15’ wide.

ORANGE DREAM is another really pretty tree. The leaves emerge golden-yellow with pink edges. It’s small with an upright habit. Perfect for next to a front door or near a path. 8–10’ tall and 5–6’ wide.

SHISHIGASHIRA has heavily curled leaves on an upright habit, giving an interesting texture to this compact shrubby tree. Foliage becomes purple-red with orange-red patterns in the fall. It needs some sun during the day to achieve its best fall color. 12–15’ tall 8–10’ wide.

NATIVE REDBUD (Cercis canadensis)—early blooming, giving way to beautiful heart-shaped leaves. Three new varieties are worth mentioning.

Native redbud on Beadling

FOREST PANSY is known for its bright burgundy foliage, appearing after it blooms in rosy pink blossoms in early spring on bare branches. 25’ tall and wide.

LAVENDER TWIST is a weeping version, barely 6’ tall at maturity. It blooms in early spring on bare branches.

RISING SUN has beautiful pea-like blooms that cover bare branches in spring. Heart-shaped foliage emerges in deep apricot, maturing to shades of orange, gold and yellow. 8–12’ tall and 8’wide.

KOREAN DOGWOOD  (Cornus kousa)—a hardy alternative to our native dogwood, which is susceptible to disease

WOLF EYES has stunning gray-green leaves accented with ivory along wavy margins, making this dogwood a beautiful specimen. Autumn color does not disappoint as leaves fade into a pink-red hue. White star-shaped flowers are followed by bright red berries. 15’ tall and wide.

SATOMI is a truly beautiful specimen for the home landscape with large showy deep pink flowers in the spring and a strongly horizontal habit of growth. It prefers rich, well-drained acidic soil. 15’ tall and 12’ wide.

BLACK LOCUST (Robinia pseudoacacia), a new concept, is the wild card.

TWISTY BABY is a black locust you will love. Best used as a focal point, this small tree has a contorted habit. Its foliage is always fresh apple green, and when leaflets curl, they show a grayish underside. Mature leaves turn deep blue-green.

Any of these ornamental trees would make a lovely focal point for your yard or garden. With so many different sizes, shapes and colors you’re bound to fall in love with at least one.

Photography by Claire Schuchman