The Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA) has voted Zelkova serrata ‘Musashino’ the 2016 Urban Tree of the Year. The yearly selection must be adaptable to a variety of harsh urban growing conditions and have strong ornamental traits. It is often a species or cultivar considered underutilized by urban foresters. The SMA Urban Tree of the Year program has been running for 20 years, and recent honorees include yellowwood (2015), ‘Vanessa’ parrotia (2014), and live oak (2013).

Photo credit: J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co

J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co

Zelkovas are native to Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. introduced Zelkova serrata ‘Musashino’ to the North American nursery trade in 2000. Named after a city in Tokyo (which itself is a city but also a prefecture containing multiple other cities), ‘Musashino’ has been a successful and popular street tree for many more years in Japan, proving itself useful as a narrow, upright form of zelkova. It has the genetic potential to reach 45 feet (14 m) in height and 15 feet (4.6 m) in width at maturity. It is hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 9.

Frank Schmidt & Son. Co. literature says of the fast-growing ‘Musashino’, “Used singly, it is a landscape exclamation mark. Planted in groups or rows, this unusual cultivar creates a vertical design statement for parks, campuses, boulevards, and other public spaces. Perfect symmetry makes it a great choice for creating inviting alleés or visual screens to block unsightly views.”

In Rochester Hills, Michigan, the forestry division’s Dave Etz has overseen the planting of 47 ‘Musashino’ within the last six years.

“So far we like what we see,” Etz says. “It’s adaptable to difficult site conditions and appears to be one of the hardiest zelkova cultivars. After two consecutive winters with temperatures dipping near or below -20F (-29C), we’ve seen zero dieback, and many of our ‘Musashino’ are located along major roads and boulevards, where they also show good tolerance to deicing salt spray.”

Photo credit: J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co

J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co

Etz finds that ‘Musashino’ leafs out a bit earlier in the spring than the other zelkova varieties they’ve planted, and the new foliage seems to tolerate light frost.

“On our relatively young trees the fall color hasn’t been outstanding (yellow/bronze), but references indicate the fall color can be excellent (bright yellow to rusty red), so we’re hoping this will improve as our trees mature,” he said.

According to J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. Director of Communications Nancy Buley, based on a six-year sales history (2009-2014), the nursery sells an average of approximately 6,000 bare root liners per year. Purchasers during the query period are located in 26 states plus Ontario, Canada—testimony to its adaptability to varied climates and growing conditions.

The SMA recognizes the underutilized, attractive, and extremely useful ‘Musashino’ zelkova for its service to urban forests and encourages its use when matched appropriately to site and as part of a diverse urban tree inventory