A surprising number of trees routinely planted as landscape specimens have qualities that are unpleasant, at best. That promising little sapling you planted in the middle of your yard all those years ago may grow into a rebellious teenager, then a grumpy old tree you'd rather not be around at all. The reasons for regret when it comes to selecting a tree can be varied, but the main reasons cited when afterthoughts occur are:
- The tree is messy. Most everyone expects to rake up leaves from a deciduous tree, but you might be surprised by fruit, berries, or seed pods that make a huge mess of your yard each year.
- The tree is weak and prone to damage. Some trees are brittle by nature and very susceptible to wind damage or injury from heavy snow and ice. Ash trees, as well as now being susceptible to emerald ash borer, are notoriously brittle and prone to damage.
- The tree is susceptible to pests and diseases. It can come as a great surprise when that disease or pest problem that lurked 1,000 miles away suddenly reaches your region, just as your tree is beginning to look good.
- The species drops a lot of pollen. Pollen production from certain trees can make life pretty miserable for sensitive individuals during the spring flowering season.
- The tree has roots with water-seeking tendencies that threaten water mains or septic tanks. Some trees are much worse than others at seeking out water wherever it is—including your underground water and sewer lines.
- The tree is highly invasive, crowding out native species while not benefitting wildlife.
- The dense shade of the tree may make it impossible to grow grass or other plants. It should come without saying that trees cast shade, but the degree of dense shade can surprise you if you've planted a large-leaved specimen, such as catalpa.
- Some trees affect the soil in a manner that makes other plants suffer. Pine trees of all kinds will drop needles that make the surrounding soil acidic. And black walnut actually puts a toxin in the ground that kills many other plants.
Think hard about these nine landscape trees before planting them on your property.
01 of 09
Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
Red oaks, sometimes called northern red oaks, are messy on multiple counts. Everybody knows about the large leaves and acorns they drop in autumn. Incidentally, the acorns—if they fall from a great enough height—can even put small dents in your car. But the messiness of red oak is not just an autumn phenomenon—they are also messy in spring. Large specimens can shed a massive volume of catkins composed of tiny, staminate flowers.
Some people are so fond of the shape and appearance of oaks that they are willing to tolerate the messiness. But if these habits seriously bother you, you'll have to look for another tree species entirely, since all the oaks produce acorns and flower catkins of some type. A good alternative tree that has roughly the same shape and shade-producing habit is the linden tree or one of several maples.
02 of 09
There are varying degrees of messiness. It can also take different forms. All deciduous trees are infamous for one form of messiness—namely, the numerous leaves they dump into your yard all at once when autumn arrives. Or, messiness can take the form of falling flowers, shedding bark, dropped fruit that rots on the ground, and more.
But the sticky pitch dropped by eastern white pine puts it in the running as one of the messiest of all trees. The pitch is incredibly sticky and can stain car surfaces and clothing in a way that is quite hard (sometimes impossible) to remove.
03 of 09
Because the foliage of Ginkgo biloba resembles that of maidenhair fern, this beauty is sometimes commonly called "maidenhair tree." It sounds refined, doesn't it? But there is a problem: This maiden is an awful slob.
Using the common name, "maidenhair trees" will help you remember an important fact: It is specifically the female that is messy. Male trees do not shed the fleshy, stinky golden balls (shown in the picture) that bring Ginkgo biloba into this discussion of messy trees.
The male gingko tree can be distinguished by the small cone-like structure that appears at the point where flowers develop, just above the leaves. These cones are evident even on very young trees available for sale in pots at the garden center. Good garden centers may not even carry the female trees in their stock. The ginkgo has much to recommend it, including resistance to pests, diseases, and urban pollution, so its recommended that you go ahead and plant it—just avoid the female plants.
04 of 09
American sweetgum is so called because of the seed pods or "gumballs" that it drops, which make it quite messy. These seed pods are round, hard, and spiky, as are those dropped by another high-maintenance plant, the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). Another commonly found plant with rounded seed pods is the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), also called the "western planetree." Those globular seed balls yield yet another common name: "buttonball trees."
But take heart: Horticulturalists have developed seedless versions of this tree. The variety of sweetgum shown in the photo, namely, the 'Rotundiloba' cultivar, does not produce gumballs, making it a clean substitute.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Their small leaves give honey locusts the potential to be relatively clean trees. But there is a problem with many types: The flattened seed pods are a bother to rake up. But the kind shown in the picture is podless—problem solved. That is why you will often see this particular type planted in parks and along roadsides: namely, Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis 'Suncole,' better known as "Sunburst" honey locust.
06 of 09
Unlike locust trees (see above), the messiness of northern catalpa is not relegated to its bean-like pods. Its large leaves add to the litter. Nor are the fallen leaves pretty enough that you'll be tempted to let them lie where they fall to contribute autumn color to your yard: By the time catalpa leaves fall, they will likely have been blackened by the frost, transforming what had hitherto been respectable foliage into something hideous.
But their orchid-like flowers are lovely. If you must have them (but want a cleaner specimen), turn to a cultivar of the southern catalpa: Catalpa bignonioides 'Nana.' Whenever you see the cultivar name, 'Nana,' you know you're dealing with a dwarf. This tree stands 10 to 12 feet high, with a slightly greater spread. It is recommended for hardiness zones 5 to 9, as is its golden-leafed version, Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea Nana.'
07 of 09
What makes Bradford pear one of the worst trees to grow in your yard is not the mess that it creates but, rather, its weak branches. It shares this flaw with many other trees, including silver maple (Acer saccharinum).
This tree can be quite beautiful for the multitude of white flowers it produces in spring and the gorgeous fall foliage it achieves in fall. But the flowers smell unappealingly fishy, and should a particularly harsh winter come along to dump heavy snow and ice on the branches, two or three major branches can easily break off, disfiguring your beautiful tree forever. However, the real reason to avoid this tree is its highly invasive tendency.
If you want the beauty of an ornamental pear without having to undergo such heartbreak, grow a Pyrus calleryana 'Autumn Blaze,' instead. It serves as one of the best alternatives to Bradford pear.
08 of 09
Aspen Trees (Populus tremuloides)
Aspen trees are popular specimens for fall foliage in the West. But they are also members of the willow family, as is Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra), for example. This family of shrubs and trees is infamous for having vigorous root systems that seek out water.
This water-seeking behavior makes them a threat to do damage to pipes,
Research the best alternatives to grow over septic systems, such as:
.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09
White ash makes the list of the worst trees to grow in your yard for pollen. But it is only the males that you have to worry about because it is the male of the species that produces pollen. Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and mulberry (Morus spp.) are examples of other popular trees with separate male and female plants, and whose males produce a lot of pollen.
"Black Walnut Toxicity". The Morton Arboretum, https://mortonarb.org/plant-and-protect/tree-plant-care/plant-care-resources/black-walnut-toxicity/#!.
American Sweetgum. Yale University Extension
"The Harsh Reality Of The Bradford Pear". University Of Illinois Extension, 2021, https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/know-how-know-more/2021-04-20-harsh-reality-bradford-pear.
Aspen Trees. University of Montana Extension