Native Trees

by Cindy Gilberg

From mid-October into November, the familiar green of our native trees fades away to reveal a brilliant foliar kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows. And every year this prompts an exodus of admirers into the countryside to see the brief display of fall color in our Missouri woodlands. There are approximately 150 native tree species in Missouri, comprising about 14 million acres of woodlands. Many of these are great choices to add into our own landscapes. When choosing a tree to plant, note its ultimate height, cultural needs and seasonal interest—flowers, fall color and/or interesting bark. Habitat value is equally important and, in addition to providing shelter and nesting sites, trees can be host to insects (food for birds!) and provide berries or nuts.

Trees are great multi-taskers, providing a wide array of aesthetic, environmental and economic benefits. In addition to their colorful autumnal show, they provide summer shade and some of the oxygen we breathe. A tree’s contribution to stormwater management in the landscape is considerable, intercepting rainfall in its canopy, taking up water as it grows and helping to make the soil more permeable. Both large and small native trees provide the framework for a healthy and thriving wildlife habitat. (For more information on the benefits of trees, see www.treebenefits.com) .

Oaks reign supreme in the landscape not only for the shade they offer but also because they are at the top of the list for habitat value in the landscape. If you could plant only one plant to increase habitat in your landscape, it would be an oak. They are host to over 500 species of butterflies and moths. Up to 96% of the Midwest’s bird populations feed caterpillars and other insects to their young fledglings. The acorns of the mighty oaks, once valued for making a nutritious flour, are an important source of winter food for many mammals.

Consider some less commonly used though readily available native trees. Yellowwood (Cledrastis kentuckea) is a spectacular, medium size tree that sports creamy-white, fragrant panicles of flowers in June. Its golden fall color gives it yet another season of interest. Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is considered by most to have the best fall color with glossy leaves that turn that turn bright orange-red in fall. Birds come to eat the late summer berries and it is a favorite not only for its habitat value but also for its tolerance of moist soils. Other choices for moist soils and berries for birds include green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis) and hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). A couple of interesting sidenotes is that the hawthorn is our state flower and the hackberry is host to the mourning cloak and question mark butterflies. For those that want an edible landscape, persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) and pawpaw (Asimina triloba) are a must. Ripe persimmons are harvested in fall—be sure they are ripe before tasting them as the unripe fruit is astringent! White serviceberry flowers are among the first spring flowers in woodlands and have sweet, midsummer berries. On pawpaw, odd banana-like fruit ripens about the same time with a tropical custard flavor. The trick is to beat the wildlife to these fruits as they ripen.

The classic understory trees of our woodlands are the dogwoods, redbuds and serviceberry. There are many dogwoods (Cornus spp.) to choose from and all provide pollen for insects when in bloom followed by berries that attract many different songbirds. A lesser known small woodland tree is spicebush (Lindera benzoin) that blooms in early spring with chartreuse flowers and has a midsummer supply of berries. For those gardeners wanting to attract more butterflies, spicebush is host to the spicebush swallowtail butterfly.

This is but a small sampling of choices for native trees to add to your landscape. A good online resource of information, photos and sources to help you find the right trees for your property is www.grownative.org. Missouri Department of Conservation (www.mdc.mo.gov) offers information as well and their online store includes books about trees and landscape plants for Missouri gardeners.

“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky…” – Kahlil Gibran

This column is written in collaboration with Shaw Nature Reserve (Missouri Botanical Garden) in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Visit the Whitmire Wildflower Garden (at Shaw Nature Reserve), a 5-acre display garden, for ideas on native plant landscaping. Native plant conservation and the promotion of native plants in our landscapes is vital to restoring the rich biodiversity of our region.