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A Tree for All Seasons

By Judy Sedbrook, Colorado Master GardenerSM, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver County

Evergreens are most commonly used to brighten the winter landscape, but deciduous trees can offer multi-season interest as well. Many have fragrant spring blooms and colorful fruit or berries in summer. Others are noted for the brilliantly colored foliage they display each fall. Trees with an eye-catching form or attractive bark can break the monotony of a dreary winter landscape.

Whether renovating an existing garden or designing a new one, think ahead. Does your plan provide for year-round interest? Most gardens are planted with only spring and summer in mind. Little thought is given to making the garden equally attractive in fall and winter.

The well-planned garden includes a variety of plants. Of these, trees are often the most visible during the colder months.

In making selections for the garden this year, consider trees that offer visual appeal in more than one season. The following are a few that have adapted well to our unique growing conditions.

Seasonal Photos can be seen by clicking on the name of each tree:

  • Russian Hawthorne (Crataegus ambigua): A native to Russia, this tree will grow to 15-20 feet in height. It likes full sun, is hardy to USDA Zone 4, and is resistant to cedar-apple rust. With low water needs, the Russian Hawthorne is a good choice for the xeriscape garden. The tree is covered with white blooms in late May or early June. These are followed by dark red berries in August. Fall foliage is yellow, and its yellow-gold bark and twisted branches provide good winter interest.
  • Seven Son Flower (Heptacodium miconioides): Native to China, this tree will do well in full sun or partial shade and is cold-hardy to -30 F. It will tolerate a wide range of soils and has no serious disease or insect problems. This multi-stem tree grows 15-20 feet in height. Its fragrant white blooms appear in August, lasting for several weeks. These are replaced with pink calyxes and reddish-purple fruit that last through the fall. Bronzed, peeling bark becomes more noticeable in winter with age.
  • Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum): Brought here from Western China, the Paperbark Maple will grow 20-30' in height. It likes full sun but will tolerate up to day shade. It is hardy to USDA Zone 4, disease and pest resistant, and very tolerant of our heavy clay soils. Fall foliage is gold to red. Chestnut-brown peeling bark is especially attractive in winter.
  • Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia): This tree is not a true ash but a member of the rose family. Native to Europe, Western Asia and Siberia, this 20-40' tree is hardy to USDA Zone3b. It likes full sun and well-drained soil, and must be kept well-watered during hot, dry weather. Clusters of showy white flowers in spring are followed by bright orange fruit. Berries last from August to October, and may even persist into winter, providing food for the birds. Fall foliage changes from green, to yellow, to orange, and often to red and can be very showy. Mountain ash is susceptible to fireblight.
  • Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum): This ornamental shade tree grows 40-70' in height and is native to Greece and Albania. Martha Washington's father planted the first one in this country in 1736. Hardy to USDA Zone 3, it can be grown in full sun to light shade. Gray bark can exfoliate to show an orange-brown inner bark. This, and its thick buds, make this tree stand out even in winter. Wherever a leaf has been, the facsimile of a horseshoe can be seen, right down to the seven nail markings. The ornate flowers are white and grow in dense, erect spikes in May. The seedpods are round and spiny, about 2" in diameter and very noticeable in August. Foliage is a bright red-gold in fall. It has no serious insect or disease problems.

Another tree in the Horse Chestnut family may be more suitable for the smaller landscape. The Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra), a native, is similar in seasonal appearance to the Horse Chestnut but grows only 20 to 40 feet in height.

The Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) grows 12 to 25 feet in height, has good fall color and spikes of fragrant yellow-red flowers in spring. Hardy in zones 3 to 7, these trees will tolerate full sun to partial shade and prefer moist, well-drained soil. All parts of these trees are poisonous if eaten.

  • Western Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa): A native to the United States, this tree grows 40-60' or more and is hardy to USDA Zone 4. Also known as the Indian Bean Tree, it can be grown in sun to partial shade and adapts well to a variety of soils. Its leaves are very large, up to 10", and heart-shaped. Spectacular white orchid-like flowers are borne in 7-inch clusters in May and June. The seedpods last into winter and are brown, up to 20" long, resembling beans or cigars. Fall color is yellow. This tree can occasionally have mildew.
  • Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata): This tree was introduced from the Orient in 1809 by Thomas Jefferson. It is native to China, Japan and Korea. Growing 30-40' in height, it is hardy to USDA Zone 5 and grows well in full sun to partial shade. A good urban tree, the Golden Rain Tree tolerates drought, alkaline soil, heat, wind and air pollution. One of the few trees to bloom in mid-summer, it produces showy yellow flowers on 12-15" panicles in late June to July. These are followed by chartreuse lantern-like, papery seed pods that turn a rich brown in fall and may last through the winter. Fall foliage is yellow. The bark is attractive, with ridges and furrows. This tree has no serious disease problems, but can be host to the Red shouldered plant bug.
  • Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana ): The name Hornbeam comes from the German for tough tree. This tree will grow to 40', likes full sun to partial shade, and is hardy to USDA Zone 3b. It tolerates any soil, needs good moisture and drainage until well-established but then is tolerant of moderate drought conditions. Flowers are not impressive, but seedpods are arranged in bracts of three and resemble papery, hanging Japanese pagodas. The fall foliage is striking, ranging from yellow to apricot to orange-red and then plum. The trunk of this tree is sinewy and twisted, resembling flexing muscles. The long, slender, zigzag branches form an impressive winter silhouette. It has no serious disease or pest problems.

The ideal planting time for trees is in the early spring, as soon as the ground is workable. This spring, why not add something to your landscape that can be enjoyed all year long?

Photographs courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010