Miss Floribunda: Casting shade on nonnative trees
Dear Miss Floribunda,
You wrote about silver maples last month, but you didn’t warn that their roots can get into drain/sewage pipes and cause damage. After paying for expensive repairs, I sold my place and moved. My new front yard has space for a tree, but I want to be sure that any tree I get is smaller and less problematic. I like crepe myrtles because they bloom in summer, they are not oversized, and their flowers come in vibrant colors. However, I’ve heard that because they’re not native to our country, they don’t provide food or shelter for many birds or helpful insects. I hope you can recommend a flowering native tree as gorgeous as the crepe myrtle that is good for the ecosystem.
In Need of Native Intelligence on Ingraham Street
Dear In Need of Native Intelligence,
It’s true that crepe myrtles are not native, and they host no more than 30 species of beneficial insects, whereas the silver maple hosts up to 200. Other maples, tulip poplars, catalpas and native trees top even this — with native oaks coming first with a whopping 2,300 — but like the silver maple, they are all too large for the average home garden.
I’ve learned from my friend Dr. Betula Bower at the National Arboretum that a silver maple should not be planted any closer than 100 feet from a house. Not only will its roots invade pipes and house foundations, the branches often break off and fall. However, she hastened to add that while a silver maple is inappropriate in an urban setting, it is a wonderful stabilizer along a stream or in a flood plain, as well as in a forest interacting with other trees to support and shelter insects, birds and wildlife. These arboreal communities provide ecological benefits well beyond their confines. Dr. Bower believes Hyattsville is especially fortunate to have Driskell Park, with its extensive wooded and wetland areas purifying our air and nurturing our pollinators.
This doesn’t mean your own home plantings can’t be ecologically important. Fortunately, there are attractive small- to medium-sized native trees with flowers as beautiful as those of the crepe myrtle. Generally, they bloom in spring.
The exceptions are the summer-blooming native sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and the umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala). They are smaller than most other native magnolias, generally ranging from 15 to 30 feet high. The flowers of the sweetbay have the familiar lemony fragrance of most magnolias, but there is some disagreement about whether the more earthy aroma of the umbrella magnolia is pleasant.
Also in that height range is the April-blooming redbud (Cercis canadensis), with its fluffy flowers resembling those of the crepe myrtle. Its palette of colors is similar, with many shades of pink, mauve and magenta, as well as snow white.
However, for beauty of form, nothing surpasses the dogwood (Cornus florida), which blooms in late April to early May in our area. The native variety usually has white bracts around the tiny green flowers, and the ethereal effect recalls the luminous landscapes of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. The red berries that develop after flowering are beautiful and feed birds well into winter. Generally an understory tree, the dogwood can grow in shade as well as sun — so if your yard is darkened by your neighbors’ trees, it is the best choice.
If you want a small tree with fragrance and fruit in addition to beautiful flowers, you might consider both the crab apple and the serviceberry. Our native sweet crab apple (Cornus coronaria) and southern crab apple (Cornus angustifolia), bloom in May in white or pink, and by autumn, produce delicious fruit more suitable for making cider, jam and jelly than that of the imported cultivars. The Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) provides a spectacular display of pink buds and white flowers earlier in spring, and, like the native crab apple, its fruit is suitable for people, as well as birds. Wait till the red berries turn purple, and you will have a fruit comparable in flavor to blueberries that can be used to make jellies, jams, pies and wine.
Just as you must in your garden, I also must consider space here, so I can’t name all the wonderful native trees you can choose among. To discuss these choices with others, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Oct.15, at the home of Betty Buenning, 5202 42nd Avenue. The meeting will begin at 10 a.m., followed by a plant exchange.