Published on 09/12/00

Magnificent, Small Trees for Small Places

For most of us, the biggest challenge to planting is selecting the right plants. Trees are planted for the long term, and correct selection is critical to success.

Most homeowners have relatively limited space and can't accommodate large trees such as oaks and pines. Fortunately, several small trees perform well in Georgia and fit in small places, including under utility lines.

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Here are a magnificent seven of these small trees:

(1) American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) is a native small tree. Also known as ironwood or musclewood, it's named for the smooth, gray, fluted trunk. The tree can grow to 25 feet high and 20 feet wide. The leaves can provide yellow to bright orange-red color in the fall.

(2) Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a fairly common landscape tree that's native to the Southeast. Growing to 25 feet high and 30 feet wide, it's a fairly heavy-branching, multistem tree with dark green leaves. The flowers of the native species are reddish purple at bud stage, opening to a lighter pink. Many cultivars have other flower colors. The plant does well as an understory tree but also performs well in the full sun in Georgia. The leaves turn a bold yellow in the fall.

(3) Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a great small tree that performs best in a shady or understory environment. It grows to 25 feet high and equally wide. The early-spring flowers are greenish-white to white and can last about two weeks. Some cultivars offer other flower colors and even variegated leaves, but native seedlings seem to do best, especially in south Georgia.

(4) American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) is a small, rounded tree growing to about 25 feet high and 20 feet wide. The flower-related parts are hairy and can be quite pronounced, which gives rise to the common name. Fall color can be spectacular, ranging from orange to red to purple.

(5) Two-winged Carolina silverbell (Halesia diptera) is relatively little-known native tree that reaches about 25 feet high and 20 feet wide. It's a multistem, low-branched tree that can be used in sun or shade, but definitely prefers shade. In south Georgia, the leaves may bleach out or turn yellow under water stress in the full sun. The plant is named for the white, bell-shaped flowers that hang from the stem in early spring. In the fall, the leaves turn a bold yellow.

(6) Commonly used holly (Ilex) species, cultivars and hybrids include: (1) Savannah holly, an upright, open-growth tree with light green leaves that does well in tough sites and usually has abundant berries; (2) Foster holly, an upright, densely branching plant with dark green, high-gloss leaves, that can be shaped easily with light pruning (perhaps the most popular clones of this hybrid are Foster No. 2 and No. 3); and (3) East Palatka holly, which was discovered in the wilds near East Palatka, Fla., and is similar to Savannah but with darker green leaves.

(7) Little Gem Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is a cultivar of the more common large southern magnolia. Little Gem grows only to about 20 feet high. The tree will flower at a very small size (3 to 4 feet) and has blooms through the summer. It does best in full sun but will stay fairly dense under shade. Plantings of this small tree can create a very effective hedge or screen.

Mel Garber is a professor in the Office of Environmental Science of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.