Drive into most new home developments in the Kansas City area and within a stone’s throw you’ll find the overused favorite shade trees of home builders. On the modus operandi hit list are the ‘Autumn Blaze’ Maple, ‘Autumn Purple’ Ash and the ‘Heritage’ River Birch. This month I contacted three area professionals on a mission to find underused shade trees for our area. So if all your trees fit the pedestrian label, hopefully you can find some space to grow one of these less familiar but outstanding trees.
The Sugar Maple, Acer saccahrum, is most commonly recognized as the maple leaf on the flag of Canada but uncommonly known as a superior residential tree. Sugar Maples are one of the tallest of shade trees coming in at 70 to 90‘ tall and 60 to 80 wide. Chris Thompson is a project manager with Audrie Seeley Landscaping in Kansas City, MO and is responsible for the management of the commercial landscaping installed by the company like the Kansas City Zoo Polar Bear exhibit for example. Thompson says "because Sugar Maples are a slower growing tree, they have a denser wood structure and are able to handle a heavier stress load from ice and the rigors of thunderstorms. They have phenomenal fall color and are simply a great tree." .
There are several specific varieties including ‘Fall Fiesta’, ‘Commemoration’, and Green Mountain’ although the standard Acer saccharum grown from local seed sources is also an excellent performer. Thompson says "Sugar Maples typically only find a home in commercial landscapes as the architects are knowledgeable of their characteristics and have made great use of them. Please let your readers know about this big kept secret and I am sure they will thank you once they have one planted and get to enjoy all the benefits."
The Little Leaf Linden, Tilia cordata, is a smaller growing shade tree that is perfect for residential landscapes. Roughly 30’ tall and wide at full growth, the tree will grow at a moderate pace. Varieties you will find in the Kansas City area are ‘Greenspire’, and ‘Bicentennial’. Not only does it fit well in the residential landscape, but it also is fragrant in the spring while it flowers. There are several varieties that are grown at local nurseries and this tree is also used by architects for commercial landscaping.
Thompson says "the Little Leaf Linden is desired because of its extremely dense growth habit. This tree differs from a maple as the leaves of a maple are far less dense than a Little Leaf Linden. If someone is looking for another great tree for the residential landscape, then the Hedge Maple, Acer campestre, would be it. Hedge Maples are typically used by architects in parking lot islands and roadway medians. They are very hardy tree and provide a great texture for the landscape. As a maple, it has great color and will be a favorite of the landscape." Due to its dense foliage, the tree was often used as a hedge in Europe, thus the name. The mature tree is about the same size as the Little Leaf Linden coming in around 30’ tall and wide.
The Gingko is the king of durability with fossilized records dating back 200 million years. The tree is nicely sized for suburban lots at 40-50’ tall and 25-35’ wide. Ken Wood, the Nursery Manager at Family Tree Nursery in Shawnee, KS says “they are great for fall clean up as after the wonderful golden fall color show, leaves will all fall from the tree in a 24-48 hour period. With several male varieties on the market, Gingko are considered insect and disease free. ” One of the most impressive displays of ginkgos in the world can be found on the South lawn of the Nelson Art Gallery near the Country Club Plaza in the Henry Moore Sculpture Garden. Twenty nine bronzes of this icon’s work are nestled in rows of nearly matched gingko.
With branches that seem to dance on air, the Bald Cypress, Taxodium, disitchum is the most graceful of all the shade trees. Most people have seen the species on television in the Florida Everglades with their huge gnarled roots in the water. This genetic background makes the tree very valuable for sopping up major wet spots in your yard. Wood says “the Bald Cypress soars to 50-60’ tall but considering the fast growth, the tree has good wood durability preparing it well for hazardous weather. The tree also creates a beautiful silhouette in the winter season.” When you see such an unusual bronze fall color paired with the feathery texture of the branches, the overall effect can be simply stunning. This tree is well-suited for full cleanup since the small leaflets are easily blown into your neighbor's yards.
Alan Branhagen, the Director of Horticulture at Powell Gardens in Kingsville, MO considers the White Oak, Quercus alba, to be the queen of all trees.. The White Oak matures to 65’ to 85’ high and wide with beautiful light ash-gray, somewhat peeling bark. Branhagen says “the roots are coarse and deep so you can readily grow other plants beneath. And when planted in good soils, it grows surprisingly fast into a magnificent rounded crown. The leaves are deeply lobed and the fall color is the best of all our oaks from red to almost burgundy.”