Design challenge: specimen tree

swanoir(Zone 5)June 22, 2011

We recently lost our beloved maple to verticillium wilt and are looking for another specimen tree to replace it. We wanted to put in a redbud tree, since we have one at the back of our house that is beautiful, but unfortunately redbuds are not resistant to verticillium wilt. We live in a Zone 5 area (central WA), the soil is slightly alkaline, this site gets morning light only (until the tree gets larger than the house)

I contacted a nursery, which suggested the following verticillium wilt resistant choices, which I have annotated with potential issues (but then may not since I have little experience):

Cercidiphyllum Heronswood Globe - size

Sorbus aucuparia - size, flowers malodorous, likes acidic soil

Betula nigra Fox Valley/Little King - likes moist acidic soil, more shrub-like

Malus Velvet Pillar - highly susceptible to apple scab, potentially messy, does best in full sun.

We would really appreciate any feedback or any other suggestions for a specimen tree. We tried a larch in this spot, but that didn't really work.


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You don't indicate what size tree you are looking for and your list of suggestions contains a range ;-) And are there any other particular attributes you are looking for....shade for house, fall color, flowering, etc?

FWIW, I'm not sure selecting a focal tree for your front yard is necessarily a 'design' challenge - it's just tree selection. Posting this same query on the Trees forum will generate many responses from which to choose.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2011 at 10:06AM
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farmgirlinky(z6 CT)

Stewartia pseudocamelia can thrive close to the house, with only part sun or shade, and has winter interest (beautiful bark) as well as camelia-like flowers in late June/July: a wonderful tree. Amelancher?


    Bookmark   June 23, 2011 at 10:21PM
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swanoir(Zone 5)

@gardengal: Sorry about that. I shouldn't have assumed that what was a design challenge for me was the same for others. The tree size I am looking for is approx 15' to 20' - something that looks appropriate to a single story house. The main attribute I am looking for is foliage that looks good against our pumpkin colored house and can handle the limited light exposure, which is why the Japanese maple was such a great choice. Shade, fall color, and flowering do not concern me, although showy flowers or berries that attract birds or butterflies would be a plus. Thanks for the suggestion to post on the Tree forum - I hadn't thought of that.

@farmgirlinky - thank you for your suggestions. I will look into them to see if they are resistant and zone appropriate. We have a Amelancher in the back, but I have been disappointed in it has a focal point for the patio area. Perhaps another cultivar would work better.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2011 at 3:49AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

If there's a tree you'd consider except for the soil alkalinity issue, have you considered changing the pH of the soil in that bed?

Disclaimer: I'm not a pro and I've never done this!

    Bookmark   June 24, 2011 at 10:54PM
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15-20' is rather limiting :-) As is the desire for something to compliment the pumpkin colored house. I would have suggested you consider a smokebush, like Cotinus 'Grace', but they are also vulnerable to verticillium. What about a ninebark, Physocarpus? Usually a multi-stemmed shrub, they are often also sold trained as a single trunked small tree. One of the dark leaved cultivars like 'Centerglow' or 'Coppertina' would make a very attractive contrast against the house. And then there's my fall-back Japanese maple substitute when these little trees won't work -- Sambucus 'Black Lace'. Much the same effect as a burgundy leafed Japanese maple but with a much more adaptive constitution. And it flowers, too!

If you could go larger, the katsura is a great choice. It IS a dwarf form, but dwarf is relative. The original tree, in the old Heronswood nursery garden, is a good 25' tall and as wide, but it took a long time to get there and typical mature size is listed at somewhere between 12-18' with an equal spread. Not a drought tolerant tree, you will need to pay attention to watering.

Attempting to alter pH to suit the needs of a chosen plant is not usually a good idea. Most soils resist significant changes and the effect is not permanent - soils will eventually return to existing pH unless amendments are routinely added. Far better to select a plant suited to current growing conditions.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2011 at 9:00AM
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Katsura (Cercidiphyllum) is one of my favourite garden trees. If you can find it in multi stem form it won't get so high. The emergence of the heart shaped leaves in spring is a delight as is the subtle colour and smell in the fall and I guess everything in between. It can be pruned to keep within bounds just leave those branches in the sun and don't tell your wife and kids what the smell is, I think it is chocolate but some say strawberry or caramel but beauty is in the beak of the beak holder.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2011 at 9:56AM
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swanoir(Zone 5)

Thank you all for your suggestions. Gardengal is correct about the pH - I did try to alter it in this area at one time and it failed miserably, after much work.

I have 3 Physocarpus 'Centerglow' on the east side of the house. I have never seen them trained up as a tree, but that is an interesting idea.

I have 5 Sambucus 'Black Lace' and 2 Sambucus 'Black Beauty' on my property and and 5 Sambucus 'Black Lace' at my clinic. The 'Black Lace' is my absolute favorite shrub. It certainly meets all of my criteria, which is why I have so many. Sadly, it would hardly be a specimen "tree" amongst all its brother/sisters and these plants gets so huge on our lot that it would obliterate any view from that north window. I have already had to remove one that was in front of the bedroom window.

Following Gardengal's excellent suggestion, I did post on the tree forum. One poster wrote, "If you're in Wen/Yak/Chelan/TriCities area the birch won't work (pests, water), the apple will be a lot of work, the Katsura wants a lot of water (best on wet side), and the mountain ash can tolerate that soil but has several pest issues that may need your attention. Best out of that bunch is the mountain ash IMHO."

I discovered that in our area the county can come onto your property and spray any type of apple tree if there is a pest that threatens the apple crop. Thus the Malus Velvet Pillar is probably not a risk I will want to take.

At this point I am still favoring the Katsura, since I grow Lingularia in this plot of land and they need a lot of water.

I am still waiting for the nursery to reply and will post back as to what they say in case anyone else is following this thread for their own needs.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2011 at 2:31AM
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The birch is pretty small - really a multi-trunked shrub rather than a tree (more like the ninebarks) - but there is no reason to assume it won't work in E. WA. River birches are quite disease and insect free (not bothered by birch borers) and will tolerate dry soil much better than the katsura will.

There are also many varieties of flowering crabapples that could work - most have been bred to be very disease resistant, they come in a range of leaf colors, fruit is persistent and does not create a mess and they are lovely small, spring flowering trees. Check with your extension office for varieties recommended for your area.

Mountain ash is considered a weed tree in W. WA. and borderline invasive. Nurseries on this side of the Cascades will not sell them. And if you think the apple has a potential to be messy, wait until you plant an ash!! The berries can be a PITA and are produced in far more abundance than a crabapple fruit - one of the reasons this tree is considered so weedy - and not favored by very many bird species until after they go through a frost and begin to ferment.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2011 at 9:09AM
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Sorbus aucuparia does not require acidic soil - it grows on limestone rocks here - but it would probably like a bit more sunshine. I have two of them and use the berries for cooking.
I thought of elderberry too, not Black Lace but the straight species (just because it's blooming now) - and katsura is one I've wanted to plant, but haven't, because I cannot predict its growth rate.
One more tree for your list: Corylus Maxima "Purpurea"- in shade, the leaves have a nice reddish green colour.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2011 at 12:33PM
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mdvaden_of_oregon(NW Oregon)

2nd the Stewartia, and Katsura mentioned above.

If you can acquire a Chitalpa (not Catalpa) in your area, search online about it.


M. D. Vaden of Oregon

    Bookmark   June 26, 2011 at 3:04PM
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swanoir(Zone 5)

Thank you all very much for your suggestions. I am enjoying learning more about all these wonderful trees!

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 2:03AM
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