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Gardening Columns

Enjoy Year-Round Bloom with Flowering Trees

First published on on August 14, 2008, by Suzanne DeJohn

I bet there's a perfect spot in your yard for a small flowering tree, and now is the perfect time to think about where. Evaluate your landscape and make your fall planting list. Include several types of trees that bloom at different times, then underplant your new trees with complementary flowers and bulbs, choosing plants that bloom at different times than your trees. For example, plant some spring-flowering bulbs and fall-blooming asters underneath a summer-flowering rose of Sharon. With thoughtful planning, you can extend the flowering season almost year-round.

Here is a rundown of small, flowering trees for our region, in approximate order of bloom, from early spring through summer into fall and even winter.

Redbud. Masses of blooms along the branches of redbud (Cercis canadensis) are a sure sign that spring has arrived. The flowers appear before the leaves, so there's nothing to hide their splendor. Once the flowers fade, the vase-shaped tree takes on its summertime mantle of deep green, heart-shaped leaves. USDA Zones 4-9.

Purple-leaf plum. Gorgeous, pale pink spring flowers and attractive reddish purple foliage make purple-leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera 'Atropurpurea') a standout. Reaching a height of up to 25 feet, it forms a striking focal point for island beds. Note that like most fruit trees, it is susceptible to a number of diseases and insect pests that can make the tree relatively short-lived. However, some gardeners report great success so it may be worth the risk. USDA Zones 5-8.

Japanese cherry. Known for its abundant spring flower show, Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata) grows to a height of 15 to 25 feet with a slightly narrower spread. 'Kwanzan' is a popular variety and produces large, rose-pink, pendant clusters of blooms. It's one of the stars in the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. USDA Zones 5-8.

Dogwood. Although flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a spectacular tree, in recent years it has suffered setbacks from anthracnose disease. In the right setting -- moist, acidic soil in light shade -- it should thrive, but a safer bet is kousa dogwood, C. kousa. This vase-shaped tree sports abundant white flowers on distinctly horizontal branches. Or, check out the Rutgers hybrids, created by crossing C. florida with C. kousa, with characteristics of both but resistant to anthracnose. USDA Zones 5-8.

Fringe tree. In late spring the showy blooms of fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) cascade down like an old man's beard, hence its other common name: "old man's beard." It blooms about the same time as the dogwoods and azaleas. Reaching a height of 15 to 20 feet, fringe tree is often multistemmed and shrubbier than other small trees. However, its striking, sweetly scented flowers more than make up for this possible shortcoming. USDA Zones 4 or 5 to 9.

Chastetree. The Latin name of the chaste tree, Vitex agnus-castus, originates from the Greek word for "chaste" and refers to the belief that the plant calmed passions. In the landscape, the tree takes on a sprawling shape with aromatic foliage. In May or June the plant sports clusters of tiny flowers similar to those of buddleia, with which it is sometimes confused. Like buddleia, chastetree is a magnet for pollinators, especially bumblebees. USDA Zones 7-9.

Stewartia. Reaching a height of 20 to 30 feet, stewartias bloom over a long period in early summer. Although the show of white flowers isn't as spectacular as that of some other flowering trees, the plant's other characteristics, such as attractive bark and good fall color, make this genus a winner. Tall stewartia (Stewartia monadelpha) is the best variety for hot-summer areas, but in regions with milder summers consider Japanese stewartia (S. pseudocamellia), which boasts lovely patterned bark in shades of cinnamon, orange, gray, and brown. Tall stewartia, USDA Zones 6-8; Japanese stewartia, USDA Zones 5 to 7.

Little Gem Magnolia. A dwarf variety of southern magnolia, 'Little Gem' magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem') is more upright and compact than its full-sized cousins, reaching a mature size of 20 feet high by 10 to 15 feet wide. The tree bears abundant small, white flowers in early to midsummer, with additional blooms later in the growing season. A real gem! USDA Zones 7-9.

Smoketree. On close examination you'll see that the early summer "smoke" on the smoketree (Cotinus spp.) is made up of the silky hairs on the flowers. From a distance, the effect is ethereal. The American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) is a native species that prefers limestone soils. The common smoketree (C. coggygria) has pinkish brown flowers but is available in cultivars with different colored "smoke." 'Daydream' has beige-pink flowers; 'Velvet Cloak' has maroon flowers. Smoketrees are relatively troublefree; just plant in full sun and avoid wet soils. Although smoketrees are often shrubby and tend to get leggy, their unique flowering habit makes them a winner in the garden. USDA Zones 5-8.

Sourwood. A finely textured, 20- to 30-foot-tall, pyramidal tree with drooping branches, sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a native tree common to areas with acidic soil. In early to midsummer the tree is adorned with sprays of small, white flowers; in fall the leaves turn a brilliant scarlet. The name derives from the acidic taste of the leaves. The flowers are favored by bees, and provide native bees with a food source at a time when other sources can be scarce. This tree can be challenging to grow, requiring specific conditions, including infertile, acid, well-drained but moist soils. But if you're up for a challenge, this tree is a winner. USDA Zones 6-9.

Rose of Sharon. By nature rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is a multistemmed shrub, but it can be pruned to a small single trunk and is readily found in tree form at nurseries. Valued for its huge, 4-inch-wide flowers and long flowering period, rose of Sharon brightens the late summer to fall garden. Even in tree form the plant stays small, reaching a height of just 10 feet, so it's perfect for small gardens. USDA Zones 5-8.

Autumn-blooming Higan cherry. Although Higan cherries (Prunus subhirtella) put on their best flower show in spring, the variety 'Autumnalis' also blooms sporadically in fall and even during mild spells in winter. As with all the flowering cherries, Higan is a dependable bloomer and has a particularly graceful form. Unfortunately, like other ornamental fruit trees it can be relatively short-lived due to disease and insect problems. USDA Zones 5-8.

Hybrid witchhazel. One of a handful of plants that bloom in winter, hybrid witchhazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) is a must-have in the winter garden. Flower colors range from yellow to red, depending on cultivar. The unique, twisted, strappy petals are unmistakable, and they're fragrant, too. Although the plants tend to be shrubby, they can be pruned to an upright shape. USDA Zones 5 to 8.

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