I am often asked what the best trees are for planting in our region. This query typically includes certain criteria that make my answer more challenging.
Homeowners want a tree that does not get too big, does not produce messy fruit or seeds, does not have insect or disease problems, or does not have invasive roots or surface roots. Their ideal tree also has pretty flowers in the spring and attractive fall color, grows quickly, and tolerates our local soils and climate well.
If you are waiting for a list of trees that meet these criteria, keep waiting. There are no perfect trees. Every tree has one or more characteristic that is objectionable in some way.
▪ Leaf litter: If you own a mature sycamore or silver maple, you know that large trees with huge leaves produce generous volumes of leaves, creating a raking and disposal nightmare in the autumn. Mature large trees can be magnificent. However, when studying what type of shade tree to plant, consider trees such as little leaf linden or river birch, with smaller leaves that produce a smaller volume of fall foliage.
▪ Seed and fruit litter: Generally, trees are going to produce litter in the form of seeds or fruit. I hear complaints about the massive amounts of seeds from some maples and Siberian elm, as well as the seed balls of sycamore and sweet gum trees.
The fruit of ornamental plums, crab apples and cherries can provide food for wildlife, but this fruit can be messy when ripe and mushy, especially if the tree is close to pavement. Some fruit trees, even ornamental fruit trees, are subject to attack by the cherry fruit fly or the codling moth. County law requires that these pests be controlled, even in ornamental fruit trees. This requires regular pesticide applications.
Gingko fruit smells like dog manure, and mulberries will turn white tennis shoes permanently purple. Catalpa, Kentucky coffee tree and honeylocust can create an abundance of bothersome litter with their seed pods.
When selecting trees, look for seedless and fruitless cultivars. For example, the Autumn Blaze maple is a hybrid cross between red and silver maple. It is seedless or pretty much seedless. If you find those spiny seed balls of sweetgum trees a problem, look for ‘Cherokee’ or ‘Rotundiloba’, both virtually seedless sweetgum cultivars. If you like gingko trees like I do, be sure to purchase a male tree, as only female trees produce the stinky fruit. If you like mulberry trees but want to skip the fruit, find Morus alba ‘Fruitless’ that does not produce berries.
▪ Bark and twig litter: Some trees, like sycamore, have bark that sloughs off, and in some years, they can create considerable annoying bark litter. However, this does create an attractive mosaic bark pattern. Siberian elms and birches have a tendency to drop twigs that must be cleaned up before mowing. Since river birch is one of my favorite trees, I am willing to tolerate this annoying tendency.
▪ Nut litter: Mature nut trees, such as walnut, horsechestnut, Chinese chestnut and oak, produce fairly large hard or spiny fruit. Before planting nut trees, be sure to consider the fruit that will eventually be produced.
There are no perfect trees, but some research before you buy and plant a tree will help you avoid trees that create a mess and more work for you.
Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.