Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
October, 2004
Regional Report

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Crape myrtles come in many bloom colors and sizes, adding months of color to the summer landscape and structural beauty in winter.

Small, Flowering Trees Fit Any Landscape

Remember the days when most folks had huge lots with room for several pecans or live oaks? Now lot lines are shrinking so much that you can almost reach out your window to close your neighbor's blinds! Many people live in garden homes, town homes, or other tight areas without an expanse to accommodate a large tree.

There are a number of small trees that are tailor made for our modern landscapes. Many offer the added feature of blooms. In fact, they are so attractive and versatile that even if you have the space, you might forego a larger tree in favor of a grouping of small trees. Groupings are nice because they add interest and can extend the blooming season for many months.

Small trees can serve many useful functions, such as shading a west window, lining a driveway, forming a living fence along a property line, providing a focal point to a patio or entry courtyard, and providing a little shade for a poolside sittin' spot. They make great accent plants to draw attention during their blooming season. They also can provide light shade to give understory plants a break from the blistering summer sun, or serve as understories themselves peering out from the edge of a larger tree's shadow.

Wherever you live across the lower south, from the alkaline soils and arid climate of central Texas to the acid sands of the southeastern forests, there are many small, blooming trees to add color and interest to your landscape.

Deciduous Magnolias (Magnolia sp.)
Deciduous magnolias come in many forms, from the taller tulip magnolia (M. quinquepeta) with its tall, purple blooms lined with a creamy white interior; to the saucer magnolia (M. soulangiana) with saucer-shaped blooms that are purplish outside and white to pink on the interior; and the star magnolia (M. stellata) with many strappier petals on a multistemmed shrub/tree. These trees prefer the acidic soils and higher rainfall of the southeast.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
One of the first signs of spring are the blooms of the redbud trees. Their blooms appear before the foliage emerges to announce the arrival of the new season. If you live in the southeast, the eastern redbud (C. canadensis) is your best choice. Two great varieties are 'Oklahoma', with its wine-red blooms; and 'Forest Pansy', which sports purplish red new foliage that fades toward green as the season progresses. For high pH soils in the arid west, choose Texas redbud (var. 'texensis') and Mexican redbud (var. 'mexicana'). Plant redbuds in well-drained soil where they get at least morning sun. The Texas and Mexican types are very well adapted to a full sun exposure.

Dogwood (Cornus sp.)
Spring wouldn't be spring in the southeast without dogwoods. The blooms of eastern dogwood (Cornus florida) adorn the forest edges throughout the region. They do quite well in a compost-enriched, well-drained soil with a thick mulch of leaves. Plant them where they get morning sun but have a break from afternoon sun. Gardeners in western areas will do better with its cousin known as roughleaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii). It produces clusters of small blooms that do not resemble its eastern relatives. However, it's worth a spot in the landscape and does well in a sunny to partly shady location.

Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum suspensum)
This is one of the most outstanding yet underutilized of our small, flowering trees. It is a native that does well throughout the lower south. It prefers full sun but can take some shade, too. In spring 4- to 6-inch bloom clusters adorn the branches. These are followed by blue-black fruits that attract birds. In fall the dark green foliage turns shades of red/orange/burgundy before falling.

American Smoke Tree (Cotinus obovatus)
Smoke tree also is underutilized, considering its unique beauty and versatility. In spring pink to purple, cloud-like bloom clusters resemble smoke floating through and over the foliage -- a dramatic effect from a distance. Trees will reach 20 feet or more in time, and while they may be pruned to a single trunk, they usually take on more of a multi-trunked form. New growth emerges with a pinkish bronze hue and turns a dark, attractive, blue-green color. Fall color is often excellent, with bright shades of yellow, orange, red, and burgundy-purple.

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
Crape myrtle, the "lilac of the south," is a superb ornamental, offering beautiful blooms; fall foliage color; and attractive, smooth, exfoliating bark. Before buying a crape, do some investigating to determine which variety has the best bloom color and size for your needs. Choose only from those varieties that promise powdery mildew resistance. Most of these have Native American Indian names, but check with someone who knows before investing your money in one of these trees. For best results, give your crape full sun. Less sun means fewer blooms. Wishing is no substitute for sunlight.

Take a look at your landscape this fall. Picture your home from the street, or view the backyard landscape through a bay window or from an outdoor sitting area. Where would a little blooming color be nice? Then get going because fall is the best planting season of all.

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