Question: We have lost one of the trees planted by the builder and are not very impressed by the survivors. What trees are native to the Houston area with good shade potential?
Answer: Some native trees to consider include Shumard red oak (Quercus shumardii) Native to Texas, the Shumard reaches 60 feet and is one of the best oaks for fall color. The Shumard is tolerant of slightly alkaline soil. It likes sun and a moist but well-draining soil. Give it room to grow: The branches can span 40 feet.
Drummond red maple (Acer rubrum drummondii); The Drummond red maple, a vigorous native, provides fairly heavy shade. Its autumn leaves may be mostly golden yellow some years, yet display broader splashes of red other years. Houston just doesn't get the brilliant reds enjoyed in some areas of the country. This tree also is fast-growing, likes sun or partial sun and moist, acidic soil. It will grow in sand, loam or soils with more clay and is tolerant of poor drainage. It's a favorite of Carolina chickadees and other birds.
River Birch (Betula nigra); An excellent tree for the Houston area because it thrives in our black gumbo soil and even tolerates standing water. This shade tree matures to a height of 30 to 50 feet, and sometimes more with a spread of 20 to 30 feet. River birch is fast-growing, often multitrunked and can live 30 years or more. It is the only birch native to Texas. Disease and pest-free, it is also a means of erosion control. The river birch prefers sun or part sun and benefits from a pine needle or pine bark mulch that acidifies the soil as it breaks down. The leaves of the river birch are triangular but rounded on the bottom. They turn yellow before they drop in late fall. Twigs and young saplings have cherrylike bark, and as the tree grows, the bark changes to peachy-white that flakes to reveal the orange inner bark. Maturity brings a chocolate-brown bark that peels in strips to reveal silvery inner bark.
"Drake" elm (Ulmus parvifolia); A fast-growing deciduous tree that is nearly evergreen in Houston. The `Drake' elm, a Chinese elm cultivar, likes sun and a fertile, moist loamy soil. It also likes good drainage and is drought-tolerant. Its fall color varies, and its bark has an interesting texture. It grows to about 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. It's insect- and disease-resistant, but its heavy canopy may require support. The trees can fall over if not properly planted. They also tend to have girdling roots that can kill the tree after 3-4 years after planting. Beware: The less-desirable Siberian elm (U. pumila) is sometimes sold as the "Drake" elm.
Mexican sycamore (Platanus mexicana); This tree is a fast-growing native with large blue-green leaves with silver-white undersides that are most striking when there's a breeze. This tree also has attractive bark. Mexican sycamore is best in full sun and is tolerant of most soils and wet or dry conditions. This long-lived, deciduous tree matures to 60 or more feet. The more commonly seen American sycamore" (P. occidentalis") also is beautiful, but can be prone to anthracnose and bacterial leaf scorch.
Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis); This is a great alternative for those looking for a medium-size shade tree with red or red-orange fall color. This long-lived tree is especially heat-, drought- and soil-tolerant and is extremely pest-resistant. Although the Chinese pistache is adaptable to various soil types, it can't stand wet feet. At 40 feet tall and with an umbrellalike canopy 30 feet wide at maturity, it's a beauty in full sun. It's a Texas Superstar.
Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum); The Montezuma cypress, native to Mexico, is a much faster grower than the bald cypress or the pond cypress. It is a huge tree that can grow to more than 100 feet tall and is substantially evergreen. It is riparian, occurring near lakes, streams and rivers, not in swamps like the Bald and Pond cypress, nor does it roduce "knees" from the roots.
Green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica); The native, tall green ash has a rather narrow spread; it grows to 80 feet high by 40 feet wide. It's a better selection for this area than the short-lived Arizona ash, which is more prone to borers. Green ash is a widespread U.S. native tree. Relatively fast-growing, it is used to provide shade and prevent erosion. The dark green foliage turns bright yellow in the fall. Fruitless male selections are available. It prefers moist, organic soil but adapts to a variety of soils. And it needs sun to partial sun.
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