Get out your shovels and mulch because April is National Landscape Architecture Month. One of the most important elements of the complete southern lawn are shade trees. These fast-growing, wide-spreading hardwoods not only provide shelter and relief from the sweltering summer heat, they also add immense property value, define the outdoor living space, improve landscape sustainability and irrigation, and support the natural wildlife habitat.
Whether you’re living in the big “city in the forest,” (like Atlanta), or in a small rural town, here are the top nine shade trees of the south:
1. Southern Magnolia (flowers pictured above)
The Southern Magnolia, or Grandiflora, is an iconic southern shade tree. Magnificent is an apt way to describe the magnolia, with its lush canopy of wax-covered broad green leaves and copious, lotus-shaped flowers that emit an intoxicating citrus aroma in spring. The Grandiflora is impenetrable, a living sunbrella so thick nothing can grow beneath it.
Tall and pyramidal in shape, the magnolia blooms April through June, reaches up to 80-feet in height, with a massive wingspan, tolerates most soils, and thrives best when standing alone.
2. Live Oak
From Brunswick to Blue Ridge, nothing epitomizes the old-southern landscape more than the majestic oak. Draped in shawls of spanish moss or laid bare, the oak’s massive trunk and sinewy, twisted branches covered in thick, dark green leaves create the ultimate canopy.
Deeply anchored with an extensive sprawling root system, oaks are unmatched in strength and stability, resistant to hurricane-strength winds, fire, drought, and disease. Its seedlings have a rapid growth rate, and they can live for hundreds of years. Ideal for prodigious yards, as most oak species easily reach 80 feet in height and diameter, though more compact variations can be found.
3. Chinese Elm
The elm is the quintessential rope-swing tree, perfect for picnic-blanket shelters and mid-afternoon summer naps. The Chinese Elm is considered a “True Green,” producing beautiful, red-green broadleaves without the common elm setbacks of “weeping,” seed shedding, and the notorious D.E.D., Dutch elm disease, which has rendered American elms nearly extinct. Chinese elms can reach up to 50-feet in height, bloom in August and September, and are distinguished by a unique, camouflage bark, a mottled green, orange and grey flaky layer that exposes an orange-red inner bark beneath.
3. Japanese Zelkova
A gorgeous, and often underutilized shade tree, the Japanese Zelkova matches the more common elm in beauty, stability, and coverage. The Zelkova resembles an old-fashioned, wood-handled dust brush, with a long, thin trunk that gives way to a vertical, V-shaped upgrowth. Its leaves range from yellow to reddish purple, it blooms March through April, has a fast growth rate, and is incredibly tolerant of urban environments when given ample berth of 50 feet to accommodate its 50-80 foot tall height.
4. Gingko Biloba
Called a “living fossil,” the Gingko is one of the oldest plants on earth, estimated to be around 270 million years old. The Gingko is also one of the most distinctive features of the southern landscape, with its stunning fan-shaped leaves providing inspiration for painters, photographers, and herbal physicians alike.
From a distance, the gingko tree in autumn resembles a hundred fluttering golden butterflies, turning bright green in spring. This dual ornamental/shade tree is resistant to insects, droughts, viruses, deer, clay soils, cramped spaces, and air pollutants, making it a popular street tree of cityscapes, and reaching heights of 25-50 feet.
It’s important to know that the female gingko will produce a foul-smelling fruit all year long that has been vividly compared to “dog vomit.” For a tree that can live thousands of years, you may want to plant the male specie.
5. Tulip Poplar
Gorgeous, delicate, and stately are three words to describe the tulip poplar with its large, hexagonal leaf and yellow/orange striped tulip-shaped flowers. The tallest of the eastern hardwoods, this tree grows rapidly up to 90 feet in height, with a 40-foot spread. A huge fan of the Tulip Poplar, George Washington planted the tree throughout his Mount Vernon estate, which now stand up to 140 feet tall.
Poplars enjoy full sun, all soil types, and bloom in May and June.
6. Flowering Dogwood
The state flower of North Carolina and Virginia, the Dogwood is the prince of the southern understory shade trees. Folklore suggests it got its name for the dog barking sound produced when the wind knocks its branches together. A more scientific origin comes from the fact that the tree’s bark was often boiled in water to create a salve to treat canine mange.
Always, the first dogwood bloom has signified the end of winter and beginning of spring.
7. Eastern Redbud
A popular alternative to the dogwood in areas of total sunlight is the eastern redbud. This multi-trunk shaped, arched branched stunner sports stunning heart-shaped leaves which produce beautiful vertical blooms of deep purples, vivid chartreuse, and pink-rose.
Many cultivars exist, from Forest Pansy to Silver Cloud, but all redbuds reach up to 20-30 feet in height, and thrive in extreme heat.
8. Chinese Pistache
The “ugly ducklings” of shade trees, the Chinese Pistache start off life as awkward, ungainly saplings which later develop into one of the most beautiful hardwoods around. Their lustrous, long-pointed leaves sport spectacular fall-colors of scarlet, amber, and goldenrod, while its roots require little to no water.
The Chinese Pistache is the ultimate combination of ornamental and shade tree, brawny and breathtaking all at once. Medium sized, they reach up 50 feet tall, with new leaves emerging in late March and April.
9. Crepe Myrtle
You can’t be in the south without spotting this ubiquitous stunner. The Crepe Myrtle is the supreme sun worshiper, wilting in even partial shade. Known for its gorgeous, crepe-paper thin pinkish flowers and cinnamon-colored, mottled bark, the crepe myrtle is a common awning for outdoor wedding altars, baby showers, and courtyards. The tree is also highly resistant to mildew, drought, humidity, and heat.
A growing epidemic among Crepe Myrtles, known as “crepe murder,” is the practice of over-pruning, which results in bare, decimated stumps in winter that never return to their former growth glory.