By Jason Rathe
The cities of Minneapolis & St. Louis Park, through the organization Tree Trust, are currently offering low-priced trees for residents. Although it looks like many are sold out we decided to put together a list of our favorite trees for urban lots (many of our favorites are offered – like blue beech, serviceberry, ironwood, oak, crab, and Kentucky Coffee). The trees are broken down into the top three based on critical categories: large trees, medium trees, small flowering trees and shade trees.
Seed Pods on a Kentucy Coffee Tree
Large Trees: Large trees are the cornerstone of our urban forest. They provide shade and energy savings for our houses and many supply critical habitat and food sources for gads of critters – from insects on up.
Oaks – Whether red, burr or white. Oaks are our region’s most majestic trees. In the book Bringing Nature Home, author Douglas Tallamy lists oaks as the most important plant in supplying habitat, food and pollen for insects. Burr oak and white oak are slow growing but red oak and swamp white oak have a medium growth rate. White and burr oaks are two of the longest lived trees in our neighborhoods. If you haven’t noticed the amazing burr oak arching over Lyndale Ave. around 45th St., take a look when you are in the neighborhood.
Kentucky Coffee Tree – This native tree is a great tree for tough spots. It is used more and more as a parking lot tree. The tree has an open habit with interesting, furrowed bark, and thick, dark pods that offer winter interest. The fine leaves turn yellow in the fall. Like oaks, it is fairly slow growing. If you ever go to the Mill City Cafe in N.E. Minneapolis, take note of the great Kentucky Coffee Tree near the steps – it was only planted 10 years ago and already has great stature.
Fall "Fruit" of the Ironwood
Maples – Our native red maple and sugar maple make nice urban trees, either in their native species form or in popular cultivars like “Autumn Radiance” red maple or “Fall Fiesta” sugar maple. They both have medium growth rate and spectacular fall color. They won’t thrive on the boulevard or other exposed and droughty areas. This is a tree to keep well watered, particularly during establishment. (We recommend these over the crazily popular “Autumn Blaze” maple or any of the Norway Maple cultivars).
Medium Trees: Medium growth rate trees are some of the most versatile trees for our urban landscapes. The size gives nice shade without the high removal costs and liability of larger trees. They are also friendlier for planting around above ground utility lines.
Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) – Tough native tree. Slow growing and long-lived. This tree thrives in part sun, but will do ok with a little more sun too. Turns yellow in the fall and has interesting “fruit” in fall and winter.
Aspen - Aspen is a popular native tree that is medium height and medium to fast growth rate. It grows straight and upright and the leaves “quake” in the breeze. Nice yellow fall color and white to gray smooth bark.
Decorative "Cones" and Catkins of the Alder
Black alder – This is not a native tree, but nice for our urban yards. It has a medium to fast growth rate and beautiful lush leaf. One highlight is in the winter when the little “cones” (actually strobile) and catkins hang like ornaments on a tree. Insignificant fall color.
Flowering Trees: When we design yards, we like to add at least one tree for flowering interest (usually in the spring) and one for fall interest. Here are some of our favorite flowering trees.
Crabapples in Bloom
“Prairie Fire” Crab Apple – This is a time tested crab apple that has stunning dark pink flowers in the spring. In our opinion, crab apples are to the Midwest what cherries are to Japan. Experiencing a city street lined with crab apples in bloom is one of the most dramatic natural events in our urban realm. Always make sure to purchase only crab apples that are disease resistant.
Buckeye – Not generally purchased for its flowers, buckeyes have unbelievable flowers. This underused tree has an interesting leaf, flawless form that requires little pruning and a relatively slow growth rate that insures it will be a great tree in your landscape for a long time. Ok fall color.
Catalpa – A tree that has its downsides, when the flowers are blooming and filling the neighborhood with its sweet scent you can easily forgive them. This is an upright tree that eventually gets quite large and is prone to trunk rot. Catalpa can be kind of “messy”, but it’s really noteworthy, huge tropical-looking leaves and interesting dangling seed pods, along with its amazing flowers make up for some of its short comings.
Trees for Shade: Our urban yards often have areas of significant shade. Here are some trees that we use for those areas.
'Autumn Brilliance' Serviceberry Flowers
Serviceberry - We use more serviceberry than any other tree. Although we often use the cultivar “Autumn Brilliance” many of the species are equally usable. Serviceberries (also called Juneberry and other) have a nice white flower in spring, interesting silvery smooth bark and edible fruit in the fall if you can get to them before the birds. It also has great fall color with a little sun. There is a nice large specimen along the parking lot at the Peace Garden in Minneapolis.
'Northern Strain' Redbud in Spring
“Northern Strain” Redbud – While most redbuds are only hardy to Zone 5 (we are Zone 4), this one has been successful for over thirty years. Redbud has stunning pink flowers that burst from the twigs before the plant leafs out. This is not a plant that we feel is “guaranteed” to survive for 30 or 40 years, but we still think it is worth planting for its spring flowers as well as the nice large, lush leaves for shady spots.
Blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana) – Blue beech is a native woodland understory tree that has interesting “muscle-y” silver bark. With a little sun, it gets strong yellow to purple fall color and, similar to ironwood, dangling seeds in the fall.
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