The Q&A Archives: California Pepper Tree

Question: I am replacing a fichus tree with a Calif. pepper tree. Is it advisable to plant within 2 feet of a cement slab without expecting damage to the concrete? How invasive is the root system? How much pruning is required? We are over 70 years young and want low maintenance.

Answer: California Pepper tree, as lovely as it is, has a shallow root system which can be invasive. I wouldn't recommend planting one 2' away from a cement slab for that reason. It is a fast growing tree, but the branches can be brittle and snap off in heavy winds. If you're looking for an attractive, low maintenance tree, how about considering one of the following trees:

Raywood ash (Fraxinus oxycarpa "Raywood'). This deciduous tree grows fairly fast (to 35 feet). I can't imagine a better tree for fast shade. It's seedless and resistant to ash leaf blight. The wine red fall foliage is outstanding. Raywood ash takes summer heat, winter cold, and most soils--including alkaline --in stride. Its roots will grow deeper if the tree is given a wide planting area and occasional deep watering.

Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). While this deciduous shrub-tree grows in cooler climates, it's at its best where summers are hot. Handsome in any season, its foliage is light green and tinged bronze in spring, turning to yellow or red in fall. In summer, fluffy clusters of flowers--in shades of rose and pink to rosy orchid--bedeck the branches.

Widely available are "Kellogg's Purple', "Watermelon Red Improved', and one known simply as "pink.' Indian Tribe selections (dark purple "Catawba', bright red "Cherokee', and pink "Potomac' and "Seminole') are mildew resistant. Virtually mildew immune are "Muskogee' (light lavender), "Natchez' (pure white flowers and distinctive dark cinnamon bark), and hard-to-find "Tuscarora' (dark coral).

Height depends mostly on how much you prune; unpruned, some kinds grow to 30 feet. To train as a patio tree, prune so that one to four trunks begin branching 5 to 6 feet from the ground.

Plant in full sun. Feed moderately. Water infrequently but deeply. Once established, crape myrtle is drought resistant. Mildew is sometimes a problem in cool coastal areas; plant crape myrtle where it will get the most heat and good air circulation.

Purple-leaf plum (Prunus blireiana and P. cerasifera "Krauter Vesuvius'). Of the many flowering plums, these two emerged as favorites in our survey. Both are excellent. P. blireiana has leaves that fade to bronze-green by midsummer, becoming vivid red in fall, and it has double flowers. "Krauter Vesuvius' has leaves that stay black-purple all season, and its flowers are single.

P. blireiana grows to 25 feet, "Krauter Vesuvius' to about 18. Flowers are pink, appearing in early spring. Either adapts well to all Western climates. Give ample water until established.

Ornamental pear (Pyrus calleryana). This deciduous tree grows well in most of the West (except the desert), reaching 15 to 25 feet tall. Glossy green leaves are leathery; white flower clusters appear in early spring.

"The variety "Bradford' adapts widely and has deep roots. Spring flowers and fall color are excellent. Compared to evergreen pear, it's very resistant to fireblight.
It tolerates any soil and needs minimal summer water once established. "Aristocrat' is similar to "Bradford' but more spreading.

Japanese pagoda tree (Sophora japonica). One of the best spreading deciduous trees for summer shade, it grows slowly to 40 feet. Clusters of yellowish white 1/2-inch-long flowers appear in summer (most reliably where summers are warm and dry), followed by long, narrow pods. "The bark of mature trees is outstanding. Cracks and fissures look something like traditional paintings of pagodas. "Regent' is extra vigorous, well shaped.

Best wishes with your new tree!

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