Photo by Melody

Choosing a Small Ornamental Tree

By Susanne Talbert (art_n_gardenApril 22, 2014

Sometimes trees are planted for shade, sometimes they are planted to serve as a windbreak, and other times yet they are planted for fruit or nut production. But when a small specimen tree is planted for its sheer and petite beauty within the landscape, it can add special interest to a landscape. Following are some suggestions for small specimen tree planting, whether it is for aesthetic or sentimental interest.

Gardening picture

Because they are not prized for shade, enormous growth or production, ornamental trees are treasured for other reasons.  Most small ornamental trees have striking flowers, berries for wildlife, interesting branch patterns, and winter interest.  Ornamental trees make great accents in perennial beds or as foundation planting for young landscapes.  They do not create enormous amounts of shade or take up too much root space, so they can be squeezed in as afterthought or when height is needed in the garden.

Take a look at this beautiful assortment of small ornamental trees that are a great choice in your landscape.   


Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Dogwoods, hardy to Zone 5, make an exquisite statement as an ornamental tree both alone or in groupings.  Their white or pink blooms are a welcome site in spring.  Dogwoods top out at about 20 feet and prefer acidic soil and partial shade.  Another recommended variety of Dogwood is Cornus kousa.




Crabapple (Malus)

Any of the crabapples make a lovely choice for an ornamental tree.  The one pictured at left is a cultivar called 'Doubloons', which is marked by two-tone double flowers in spring.  Crabapples reach a height of about 20 feet and are hardy to Zone 4.  One drawback is the messy fruit that the tree produces after flowering, though it provides a good source of food for wildlife.  Other crabapples to grow are the Japanese Flowering Crabapple (Malus floribunda), Sargent's Crabapple (Malus sargentii), or any one of the many cultivars, such as 'Echtermeyer', which is a pink-flowering variety introduced in 1914.  



Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

It seems as though everyone has a sentimental recollection about a Redbud tree.  The heart shaped leaves, petite and distinctive form, and of course the beautiful early spring magenta-pink blooms are burned into people's memories.  Eastern Redbud trees can reach 15 to 20 feet tall with a spread of the same and are hardy to Zone 4. 




Thornless Cockspur Hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli var. inermis)

A lesser known, but highly valued small ornamental tree is the Thornless Cockspur Hawthorn.  Hardy to Zone 4, the Thornless Cockspur Hawthorn tops out at about 20 feet.  The tree puts on small white blooms in late Spring which are complimented by glossy green leaves.  The branching pattern is unique for winter interest.   





Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia)

For gardeners in warmer zones, Crepe Myrtles are a lovely standard ornamental tree.  They seem so common in the southern US, but those of us that cannot grow them fancy their profuse, large blooms.  Crepe Myrtles are hardy to Zone 7 and can grow to about 20 feet tall.  They can be grown as a standard or as a multi-branching shrub.  They take full sun well, have a vase-shaped growth pattern, and interesting light beige bark.



Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)

Downy Serviceberry trees, also known as the Juneberry, is an understory tree native to the southern US.  It is hardy to Zone 4 and can reach 20 feet tall as a tree or shrub.  It blooms in spring, followed by edible and tasty berries that ripen to a dark purple.   





Sargent cherry (Prunus sargentii)

Sargent cherry trees bloom delicate blush pink to white flowers in early spring which give way to small, bright red fruits.  They can grow 30 feet tall and are hardy to Zone 4, which makes it hardier than many other commonly grown cherry trees.  As a bonus, Sargent cherry trees also provide striking fall foliage color.


Weeping pussywillow (Salix caprea

If you need an especially small ornamental tree and you like the look of weeping branch formation, then a weeping pussywillow might be a good choice.  They only grow to 6 to 8 feet high and stay compact.  Each specimen is completely different, so finding a good shape to begin with is key with weeping trees.  The weeping pussywillow is hardy to Zone 5 and has pipe cleaner-like blooms in early spring.




American Plum (Prunus americana)

American plum trees boast beautiful flowers beginning in mid-spring followed by colorful fruits that are tasty to humans and wildlife.  If kept unchecked in the landscape, American plums will sucker to form thickets and they have sharp spines.  They are ultra-hardy, to Zone 3, and are native to many parts of the US.


Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

Black elderberry, while really a shrub, cannot be overlooked as an ornamental in the landscape.  More interesting than its cousin the common elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis), the black elderberry has dark purple leaves and faint pink blossoms in summer.  It is hardy to Zone 4 and will grow to about 10 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide.  A beautiful cultivar to try is 'Eva'.




Magnolia 'Jane'

A hardy Magnolia!  What a treat for gardeners in cooler regions.  'Jane' is reported to be hardy to Zone 4.  It grows to be about 10 to 15 feet high and has magenta pink blooms that look like a smaller version of the southern magnolia's which appear in mid- to late-spring. 



Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonicus)

Japanese snowbell is an under-utilized ornamental tree that has pendulous white blooms in late spring.  It is hardy to Zone 5 and can grow up to 30 feet tall.  It is recommended that you plant the tree in close proximity to where you will enjoy it because the fragrant blooms are best enjoyed up close.  The branching pattern is interesting as many Japanese species are. 




Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)

Persian Ironwood is a slow growing tree that can reach 30 feet.  It changes into bright oranges and yellows in fall.  In addition to the striking fall color, as the tree ages the bark peels to reveal different splotches of color like an Impressionist painting.  Persian Ironwoods are hardy to Zone 4 and can often be seen as a large shrub or multi-branching tree. 

 Persian Ironwood bark

The choices for small ornamental trees are many; you don't have to settle for run-of-the-mill trees in your landscape.  Research and plan out the needs of your site completely before purchasing a tree.  Consider putting in a native tree to increase the habitat and food for your local wildlife. 


Thanks to the following DG members for uploading their images to the Plant Files:

T. C. Hawthorn - bigcityal Persian Ironwood - Kelli Japanese Snowbell blooms - tillady 
Downy Serviceberry - creekwalkerRedbud - MarilynbethSargent Cherry - Todd_Boland
Redbud close up- Dragonfly62Crepe Myrtle - MGCrapapple - ViburnumValley
Magnolia 'Jane' - GrowinElderberry - EvelynPersian Ironwood bark - ViburnumValley
Japanese Snowbell - Jamie68Dogwood - JJsgardenAmerican Plum - Xenomorf
Weeping Pussywillow - KashtanGeorgeDogwood flowers - designart 

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 27, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

  About Susanne Talbert  
Susanne TalbertI garden in beautiful Colorado Springs, half a mile from Garden of the Gods. Since we bought our first house two years ago, I have been busy revamping my 1/4 acre of ignored decomposed granite. My garden passions include water gardening, vines, super-hardy perennials, and native xerics. By day, I am a high school ceramics teacher as well as a ceramicist and painter.

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