Small Trees, Garden Stars

As spring approaches, so does the opportunity to plant trees. The challenge is to choose the right one. You have lots of choices. Of the more than 60,000 species that grow worldwide, 60 are native to Maryland.

 This blog, the second in a three-part series, focuses on smaller trees, those typically under 35 feet.

Small Trees

Small trees have a single trunk and typically grow from 15 to 35 feet tall. Their crown spreads from 15 to 25 feet wide. They tend to have a shorter life span than taller trees but they can thrive for decades.

Shrubs have multiple stems and tend to be under 15 feet tall. Some plants, like the Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), is called either a shrub or a tree depending on whether it has multiple trunks or one.  While these definitions assist in classifying trees, they are not universally accepted. Trees and shrubs do not always adhere to these definitions either.

The following trees are native to Maryland or the eastern United States.


Buckeye, Red (Aesculus pavia) Height, spread: 10-20’. Erect, 4-10” branching clusters of red or orange-red narrow-tubular flowers bloom from April to May. A deciduous tree, it grows best in full sun to part shade. Prefers moist, fertile soil and afternoon shade in hot summer climates. Tolerates clay soil. Use as a hedge, flowering tree or in a rain garden. Attractive shiny, dark green leaves in spring and early summer. Begins to decline by August. Produces 1-2” seed capsules that encase poisonous seeds (buckeyes). May flower in second or third year. Attracts hummingbirds.

Buckeye, Yellow (Aesculus flava) Height: 50-70. Spread: 30-50. The largest of the buckeyes, it will be discussed in the third tree blog.

CRABAPPLE: At least two crabapples are native to the eastern U.S. Since they hybridize easily, however, it may be difficult to find a native species. Great for wildlife; they provide both food and shelter. They produce lovely flowers and fruit for preserves. For more info, go to

American or Sweet crabapple (Malus coronaria) Height: 15 – 25’. It blooms in mid- to-late spring with pink flowers arranged in loose clusters. Sour-tasting fruit is hard and round. Rough-textured bark is reddish-gray brown. It is native to central and eastern North America. The 1-3” leaves are bright green and oval shaped with toothed edges.


Southern crabapple (Malus angustifolia) Height, spread: 12’-25’. Native to southern and eastern U.S. Grows in dense thickets due to shoots that spread underground. It produces fragrant pink flowers and yellowish green crabapples. It is on the USDA’s endangered list of protected plants in its native range.



Alternate-Leaf or Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) Height: 12’-15’. Spread: 10’-12’. A beautiful small tree or large shrub, it has a unique horizontally layered branching structure with flat clusters of small flowers in spring. Grows in sun or shade. It dislikes hot, dry sites.

American Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) Height: 20′. Spread: 15′-20′. A small tree with flat-topped crown, it likes well drained soil and full sun to partial shade. Excellent specimen tree. Red berries are an important food source for songbirds in winter.


Dogwoods are highly susceptible to the deadly anthracnose disease. A dogwood with strong resistance to it, ‘Appalachian Spring,’ was found growing wild in Maryland. The University of Tennessee’s Dogwood Breeding program developed a cultivar from this plant.


Appalachian Spring’ dogwood cultivar Height, spread: 12’-20’. A fast-growing tree with apple green foliage and bright red fruits that are larger than those of the species. Its foliage turns red to purple in fall. Its blooms, like most dogwoods, are clusters of inconspicuous yellowish flowers surrounded by large white bracts. Other cultivars can be grown with care, but ‘Appalachian Spring’ is a wise choice.

Fringe tree, white (Chionanthus virginicus) Height, spread: 12′-20′.  Slow growing tree that prefers moist, fertile soils and full sun. Excellent specimen tree or grown in groups, borders or near large buildings. Limited wildlife value. Some say it is the most beautiful small tree in the country.

HAWTHORNS have dense thorns that are great for nesting birds. In the right site, they are a good addition to a yard, such as a border or hedge where you want to dissuade foot traffic.

Hawthorn, Washington (Crataegus phaenopyrum) Height: 25′-30′, Spread: 20′-25′. Broadly rounded to oval, dense, thorny tree. Plant in well drained soil in full sun. Excellent specimen tree or for borders and hedges. Tolerates severe urban stresses. Has attractive flowers, fruits, and foliage. Fruit is used by grouse. Great for birds.

Hawthorn, Green (Crataegus viridis) Height, spread: 20’-35’. Rounded crown. Dense thorns. Flowers are white. Fall foliage is purple to scarlet color. The fruit is bright red and persistent into winter. Great for birds.

Holly, American (Ilex opaca) Height: 15′-30′, Spread: 18′-25′. (Some hollies have grown to almost 100’.) Dense, pyramidal in youth, opening with age. Plant in moist, well drained soil. Full sun or partial shade. Use one male for every three females. Use as specimen plant or in groupings. Many cultivars available. Used extensively by many songbirds including thrushes, mockingbirds, catbirds, bluebirds and thrashers. Foliage provides cover for songbirds and mammals. Beautiful, low-maintenance trees.

Hophornbeam/Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) Height: 30’-50’. Spread: 25’. Tree has a lovely yellow color in fall. Its small nutlets, which ripen in summer and fall, are used by birds and mammals during the winter. Bark is an attractive orange or grayish brown peeling off in long strips.

MAGNOLIAS: These beautiful and relatively disease-free classics include about 125 native and exotic species, states the Clemson Cooperative Extension. The large Southern magnolia is well known but many smaller varieties work well in gardens.


Star magnolia (M. stellate) Height: 15-20. Spread: 15’. A dense deciduous shrub or small tree. A slow grower, 3 to 6’ over 5 to 6 years, it is cold hardy to USDA zone 5. It’s pink or white flowers are 3- to 4- inches in diameter that bloom in late February and March. Plant in sheltered location.


Magnolia, Sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) Height: 40-60’ (shorter in the north). Width: 15-25’. Considered a coastal plant, sweetbays are a small tree or shrub. They like wet, acidic soils and tolerate shade. They have white to cream colored flowers with a strong lemon and rose-scented smell. Wildlife value is low though some mammals and birds eat the seeds. Be prepared for a battle–deer love it. A specimen tree, young trees may be slow to flower.

For more details about magnolias, check Clemson’s site at or the National Arboretum site at

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) Height, spread: 15-20’. A shrub or small tree that grows in full sun to part shade. Pawpaws produce a big fruit that can be eaten by wildlife and many people. Blooms April to May, flowers open greenish-brown and become deep red. Prefers medium to wet soil. Grows in low-bottom woods, slops and along streams. Spreads by root suckers to form colonies. Low maintenance.

Redbud, Eastern (Cercis canadensis) Height: 20′-30′. Spread: 25′-30′. Small tree with rounded crown, pink to purplish flowers in early spring. Heart-shaped leaves are reddish at emergence, become dark green, then yellow in the fall. Likes moist, well drained soils. Full sun to light shade. Requires little/no pruning (may remove lower branches for clearance). Limited wildlife value. Generally, an easy-to-grow tree. A fast grower, it can be grown in the woods or used as a street, yard or border tree. Lovely in bloom.


Serviceberry or Shadblow (Amelanchier canadensis) Height: 6′-20′. Spread: 10′-15′. Erect stems, often clumped. These small trees have attractive bark, white flowers and fruit. Beautiful orange to red autumn color. Requires little or no maintenance. Important berry producer for wildlife during the early summer months. Blue-black fruit is eaten by bluebirds, cardinals and tanagers. Wildlife eat the foliage.

Serviceberry, Allegheny (Amelanchier laevis) Height: 30’-40’. Spread: 15’-20’. Multiple stems are upright and highly branched forming a dense shrub or, if properly pruned, a small tree. A short-lived tree, it grows quickly and can be used as a filler plant or to attract birds. It has white flowers that grow in drooping clusters in mid spring. Birds eat the sweet, purplish-black berries. The fall color is yellow to red.

Serviceberry, Downy (Amelanchier arborea) Height: 15’-25’. Spread: up to 35’. Typically, multi-stemmed. Beautiful orange leaves in the fall. Flowers are white and in upright clusters. Birds enjoy the sweet, edible fruit.

For more information about a specific tree, visit the Missouri Botanical Garden at

The Mount Cuba Center’s Native Plant Finder lists trees native to the Piedmont region at

The Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources also offers a quick index of local trees:

Top to bottom: Eastern redbud, Red buckeye, American dogwood, American holly, Star-magnolia, Eastern redbud and an unidentified Serviceberry.  Photos courtesy of Pixabay.


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