The Best Small Flowering Trees
One of the true hallmarks of any successful garden is a nicely shaped mature tree. The choice of the best tree for your garden situation is often one of the most difficult situations faced by the home gardener. It is especially taxing for the gardener with limited space. While the choices of ornamental trees seem almost limitless, there are far fewer choices when it comes to outstanding small flowering trees.
A small flowering tree can be simply defined as growing between 15 and 30' tall at maturity. However, there are a host of small flowering trees that not only offer great flowering ornamental interest but may have other attributes for which they are equally coveted.
These trees can be easily grouped into two categories: spring flowering and summer flowering.
There is no better harbinger of spring than a spectacular flowering tree: One of my favorites is the under-used red buckeye, Aesculus pavia. This native tree has interesting palmately compound leaves. As the foliage appears in the spring, it is adorned with 8- to 12-inch upright, cone-like clusters of deep, burgundy-red flowers, usually appearing in May. This tree will grow equally well in sun or shade.
For including some pink in the spring garden, there is no better choice than the redbuds, Cercis canadensis and Cercis chinensis. There is a selection of the American redbud, "Forest Pansy," that in late April is adorned with pink, pea-like flowers up and down the stems. Then the new heart-shaped leaves unfurl displaying an intense, lustrous purple. Throughout the spring, the leaves will maintain their purple hue, eventually turning to green as the summer progresses. More upright in habit is the Chinese redbud, which has an even more electric pink-colored flower than the native species.
While white flowering plants are somewhat ubiquitous and overused in most gardens, it does not diminish the ornamental impact of the fringe trees. The Chinese fringe tree, Chionanthus retusus, is a striking beauty. Growing upright in habit, it is covered in lacy, fine white flowers that bloom in the middle of May. The fine-textured flowers are an inviting addition to the garden.
Japanese flowering cherries are synonymous with spring. The choices of flowering cherries amount to well over 100. My favorite is Prunus "Okame." This vase-shaped tree will reach 20' at maturity. In late May, the buds swell and turn a rich carmine red. The flowers open to display a bright pink color, lasting almost two weeks then fading to light pink. The bract-like leaves that support the flower remain intact and offer another week of burgundy-pink tints. In the fall, the small leaves turn to orange, salmon and red.
In the summer, there are many great choices for flowering shrubs, but far fewer outstanding choices of trees:
Perhaps one of the most intriguing is the Franklin tree, Franklinia alatamaha. William Bartram originally discovered it in the 1700s, growing along the Alatamaha river in Georgia. Since then there have been no signs of it growing in the wild. In August, it is covered in 4-inch-wide camellia-like flowers with a distinct yellow center. This tree will flower best in full sun, as long is it gets ample amounts of moisture during periods of drought. The linear leaves turn an attractive burgundy-to-purple color. On a mature tree, the trunks will have an attractive striation of gray and white on the bark.
Related to the Franklinia is my favorite small flowering tree, the Japanese stewartia, Stewartia pseudocamellia. It is truly a plant for all seasons. In July, it too has camellia-like flowers that develop from striking, silk-laden, rounded buds. In the fall, the leaves turn purple, soon falling to reveal the pièce de resistance of ornamental bark. The sinuous and smooth bark is a stunning tapestry of forest green, terracotta, plum and tawny tones. As the tree matures, it only gets better.
Other small flowering trees that should get consideration include the sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum, and the Amur maackia, Maackia amurensis.