Hartley Magazine

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Four Favorite Small Trees—Planning next year’s garden? Don’t forget the trees.

There’s a gardening aphorism—“The best time to plant a tree?  Twenty years ago. And the second-best time to plant a tree? Now.” This month I’m looking back twenty years to my local Northwest experts—Roger Gossler of Gossler Farms, and Harold Greer of Greer Gardens who recommended that I plant these four small trees. Thanks, gentlemen, for the good advice.

And because now is the second-best time, I advise you to add these choice trees to your spring planning list. All top out at between 12 and 30 feet, have white scented flowers, golden or red fall color, and grow in full sun to partial shade.

  • Cercidiphyllum japonicum var. pendulum (Zones 4-8) – I planted this weeping katsura near my water fountain where its pendant branches mimic a waterfall. This four-season beauty features bare cascading limbs in winter, pink buds in spring, and heart-shaped gray green leaves that dance on their stems in the slightest breeze all summer. But the best show comes in autumn when the dried foliage gives off a cotton candy scent. Then, one cold night, the katsura drops all its leaves at once. It’s the tidiest tree I know.
  • Davidia involucrata (Zones 6-9) – The white dove tree is a slow grower. It took seven years in my garden before I saw my first bloom, which looks like a white handkerchief suspended among the large heart-shaped leaves.  I love it for its provenance. Nineteenth-century plant hunter E.H.Wilson discovered it in the back-of-the-beyond in China, but when he returned for seed, he found that the  original tree had been cut down to make a house that stood nearby. You’ll be glad Wilson persevered and eventually brought back seeds.
  • Franklinia alatahama (Zones 6-9) – Although available by mail-order, this slow-maturing American native is even more rare—it hasn’t grown in the wild since it was discovered on the banks of the Alatahama River in Georgia in the 1700s by John Bartram, King George III’s naturalist. Named for Bartram’s friend, Ben Franklin, the tree’s yellow and white blossoms appear in late fall to very early spring here in the Northwest.
  • Styrax japonicus ‘Carillon’ (Zones 5-9) – This elegant weeping tree resides in a tiny circle-in-the-square garden my daughter Annie designed on the north side of our house. She was only seven years old when she spotted the snowbell tree among my gallon-can purchases from Gossler Farms—the kid has good taste—and insisted it be the centerpiece of her garden. Now, arching branches bloom with clusters of white bellflowers every June.