What Kinds of Ornamental Trees Are Available, Suitable?

Factors That Go Into Deciding What Types to Plant, With Examples

Sugar maple tree with leaves on ground and white fence in background.
Sugar maple gives great fall color but requires lots of space. Adria Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Landscaping newbies unfamiliar with purchasing plants sometimes have questions regarding what kinds of ornamental trees (or shrubs or perennials, etc.) are widely available to the homeowner shopping for plants, whether at local garden centers or through online catalogs. For example, reader, DarrinLinzy, wrote: 

"I would like to learn more about all of the different ornamental trees available." Implied in the question was the need for some advice on choosing a suitable specimen for the yard. Many other newbies no doubt have similar questions. Consult the following FAQ for help in shopping for a tree for the first time in your landscaping life.

Kinds of Ornamental Trees: Availability, Suitability

The information that follows focuses on types of ornamental trees that are commonly available at garden centers or, failing that, can be found in online catalogs with some regularity.

Of course, availability is one thing; suitability is another. A tree suitable for one homeowner's yard and needs (or desires) may not be suitable for another's. So let's discuss some particular specimens, with an eye to what may make them suitable under some conditions and unsuitable under others.

If you need a good street tree, then you will want to seriously consider only specimens that are pollution-tolerant and trees that tolerate road salt; some trees do, others do not. Examples are:

  1. Sunburst honey locusts (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis 'Suncole') do.
  2. Beech trees (Fagus) do not.

Here is a different scenario. You love the autumn season, so your goal in planting trees is great fall color. Either of the following two choices could be a step in the right direction for achieving your goal:

  1. Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), which grows to be 80 feet high or taller.
  2. Autumn Blaze maple (Acer x freemanii 'Jeffersred'), with a mature height of 50 feet (making it better for yards of a moderate size).

But if you have the space, do not stop there. The fall-color display of the maples, which does not last very long, peaks in October (in many parts of the United States, for example). If you rely only on maples, your enjoyment of the autumn season will be brief. To extend the season, plant one of the oak trees (Quercus) with red fall color, as well. Oaks get their fall foliage later, in November.

Or maybe you are shopping for a large evergreen tree, but you would prefer one that is the least messy of the lot. The choice between the following two trees, if messiness or the lack thereof is the main criterion, is quite clear:

  1. Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), which is extremely messy.
  2. Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), which is relatively clean.

Of course, the preceding are just three of many possible scenarios involved in the choosing of a landscape tree. Different criteria may be important to you, based on your own unique situation. For example, is your region bothered by deer pests? Then you will want to select from among the deer-resistant trees. For example:

  1. Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) is a good choice if you want an evergreen.
  2. Want a tree with colorful fall foliage? Bloodgood Japanese maple (Acer palmatum atropurpureum 'Bloodgood') gives you that and more, offering good color for three seasons.
  3. But if it is a flowering tree that interests you, the Kwanzan cherry (Prunus serrulata; 'Kwanzan') may get the nod.

If not deer, but drought is the challenge that you face, pick from among the drought-tolerant trees. For example:

  1. Leyland cypress (x Cupressocyparis leylandii) could be your evergreen selection here.
  2. Your fall-foliage specimen could be maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba).
  3. And the tree that gives you beautiful flowers could be the hawthorn (Crataegus)

Deciding on a Tree When Your Yard Is Small

The above is the kind of reasoning needed to decide between the various kinds of ornamental trees (in terms of suitability for your own landscaping). Here is another example of how you might drill down to find just the right specimen for your own set of circumstances.

Are you very limited in your yard by space? If you have a small landscape, then you would be smart to grow dwarf trees instead of full-sized types. After making that decision, your choice just comes down to what will work in your area and what ornamental features you value the most. Crimson Queen Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum 'Crimson Queen') is a dwarf that is regarded highly by gardeners who value foliage over flowers. If you are also high on weeping trees (but lack the space for a plant as big as a weeping willow), then you are in luck, once again, with Crimson Queen, whose drooping branches give it an especially attractive form.

But you have many other options, depending on your own personal needs and wants. Those who love weeping plants and who want a novelty for the early-spring season may decide on a weeping pussy willow. But if you do not care about a weeping form and just want something with evergreen foliage so that you can enjoy its color year-round, slow-growing Japanese dwarf white pine (Pinus parviflora 'Arnold Arboretum Dwarf') is a possibility.

Tiger Eyes (Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger'), a type of sumac, gives you early fall color (before the maples), beginning its display in September in many regions. If it is spring flowers that you want, grow Lavender Twist redbud (Cercis canadensis 'Covey'). Redbud is one of the best plants to grow for a spring floral display, and this dwarf, weeping cultivar (5 to 10 feet tall and wide) is perfect for small yards. Then again, if you desire an ornamental tree that will reflect your wild and crazy side, try twisted filbert (Corylus avellana 'Contorta'), whose unpredictable branching pattern is a constant source of wonder and delight.