When we talk of shade trees, we automatically think of mammoth- sized plants, looming above the eaves of the home and spreading their branches to cover half the yard.
But not all properties can support larger shade trees, and there are smaller selections that can serve to provide much needed shade on smaller properties and in niche areas of the landscape. Even though inventories of larger specimens are recovering from the recession-caused shortage, clients want trees now.
Given the appetite for smaller gardens and the desire for quick solutions, smaller trees and even larger shrubs can be used to provide some measure of shade on the patio or at the front door. They won’t air condition the house, but they’ll help to give cover where it’s needed. Try the following selections as well as those featured above.
Carpinus caroliniana (American hornbeam)
Cercis canadensis (redbud)
Crataegus phaenopyrum (Washington hawthorn)
Lagerstroemia indica (crapemyrtle)
Pistacia chinensis (Chinese pistache)
We’ve identified a few popular and robust trees that grow to a height of about 30 feet, with spreads that help to shelter limited areas. Added features include showy flowers, fragrance and unique bark. Multistemmed or single-trunked, these smaller shade providers are excellent fillers for today’s reduced yards.
1. Acer palmatum
Often used — some say overused — as a small specimen tree, Japanese maple offers not only shelter from the heat, but standout color throughout the seasons. Leaves are palmate (thus the specific epithet), and each holds five or seven pointed lobes painted in reddish purple tones. Fall color can be quite dramatic, with hues ranging from yellow to bronze to a deepening maroon. Small, attractive flowers are succeeded by colorful samaras borne in pairs.
Japanese maple grows in a rounded habit (often with low branching) to a height of about 25 feet, with an equivalent spread. It prefers moist, slightly acidic, welldrained soil and can be grown in full sun to part shade.
Invasiveness has been reported in areas along the East Coast and into western Pennsylvania.
Hardy in zones 5 to 8.
2. Cornus kousa
Dogwood, a treasured symbol of the South, has made significant inroads up North with hardier Cornus kousa selections. Not often used as a shade tree — more often as a star attraction among supporting actors — flowering dogwood can reach 30 feet tall with an equivalent spread, adding much-welcomed shade to niche areas in the landscape. It’s best grown in organically rich (but welldrained) soil with medium moisture in full sun or part shade.
Kousa dogwood can be grown as a small tree or a larger, multistemmed shrub. The celebrated “flowers” are actually white, pointed, petal-like bracts that surround the true flower, which appears as a nubby little yellowgreen mound. Berrylike fruits follow flowering. Dark green, oval to pointed leaves reach about 4 inches long; fall color can be a brilliant and dramatic red-purple to blazing red.
Hardy in zones 5 to 8.
3. Amelanchier canadensis
Known as an understory tree, often found at the edges of wooded areas, Amelanchier canadensis can serve nicely as a small shade tree in the appropriate site. It can reach up to 30 feet tall with a spread of 20 feet on its multistemmed structure. Before the foliage emerges in spring, delightfully showy and slightly fragrant white flowers appear in drooping clusters; these are followed small, round berries that turn red, then purple, then near-black in summer. One- to 3-inch-long, medium to dark-green elliptical leaves turn a brilliant orange come fall.
Serviceberry is easy to grow, and it appreciates average, welldrained soil in full sun to part shade.
Hardy in zones 4 to 8.
4. Acer griseum
While the most outstanding feature of Acer griseum is its impressive, exfoliating and curling, cinnamon-colored bark — making it a show-stopper in winter — paperbark maple’s trifoliate leaves offer their own unique show. Three coarsely toothed leaflets are a medium green on top, but viewed from beneath, they appear to be frosted with blue-green to gray-green, fine and soft hairs. The color effect alone is enough to lend a cooling feel.
Paperbark is a hardy, easily grown tree that reaches upwards of 30 feet tall with a spread to 25 feet. It performs well in moist, well-drained soils (it is not drought-tolerant) and can be situated in full sun to part shade. Once it’s established, it requires very little maintenance.
Hardy in zones 4 to 8.
5. Magnolia × soulangeana
Magnolia is another Southern favorite, but many selections have made their way North to provide graceful flowers and cooling shade. Magnolia × soulangeana produces showy, fragrant, white to pinkish white blooms in early spring, before the foliage emerges. Leaves emerge reddish bronze and mature to a deep green that remains clean throughout the season; fall color is a subtle yellow-brown. Depending on the cultivar, leaves can reach up to 8 inches long and about half as wide with a sharply pointed tip.
Growing upwards of 25 feet with a similar spread, saucer magnolia is best grown in moist, organically rich, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade; it should be shielded from strong winds and sited in a protected area to avoid damage to flowers from early spring frosts.
Hardy in zones 4 to 9.
6. Styrax japonicus
Featuring a rounded crown and horizontal branching that supports showy, fragrant, bell-like, pendulous blooms in midspring, Japanese snowbell is the kind of plant that’s optimally viewed from beneath the branches. The white, fivepetaled flowers are waxy, and they hang below the glossy, medium to deep-green, upright foliage. Fall color is not as rich, but may turn yellow to red. On older branches, the gray bark may split to reveal orange inner bark.
Styrax japonicus can reach 30 feet by 30 feet wide, although some specimens have been known to reach 40 to 50 feet tall; it is best grown in organically rich, acidic, welldrained soil in full sun to part shade.
Hardy in zones 5 to 9.