New England is known worldwide for its hardwood forests and brilliant fall color. Last month, I published a list of shrubs and small trees for Southern New England; this is the companion list of 40+ medium to tall local native trees. All are valuable to wildlife, are good shade trees, and most have at least good, if not awesome, fall color, especially when we keep diversity in mind when planting to get an extended season of color with maximum color contrast. Unlike last month’s shrub and small tree list, this list is not intended to be as inclusive as possible. Instead, it is intended to give the home gardener, park manager and city planner plenty of good choices.
If I missed a good tree, particularly one suitable for yard or street use, please add it in the comments.
One of the most important things I have learned from arborists, when considering medium and large trees, is that we need to think in long time spans. Where you have a large specimen in the last third of its life, or threatened in some way, I’d plant at least two young ones spaced so that if you lose the big tree in a storm it isn’t likely to fall on both the replacements. Remember also to plant young trees (1 to 5 years) as they recover and grow faster than older trees, besides being cheaper. Lastly, “lolloping” trees is bad, bad, bad for the tree. Young trees, like many teenage humans, are naturally gangly – they will fill in as they age. Reject any sapling that has been topped out to make it “fuller”.
Unfortunately, today, planning for the future means planning for a much warmer future. We could dump the whole idea of local genotypes and start importing southern, more heat-resistant genotypes of our natives. However, it may be that if we allow enough of our own local natives to thrive, they will make enough seedlings (if we control the deer) to mutate naturally to handle higher heat levels, meanwhile continuously supporting our local insects. Many scientists think we will do better if we have faith in Mother Nature to take care of herself and give her the space to do it.
In my view, continuing to plant local genotype trees most especially includes our wonderful signature New England tree, the sugar maple, despite its current inability to survive Florida-like temperatures. If you can, please plant a local genotype sugar maple and help foster its strongest offspring.
1. Red maple, swamp maple (Acer rubrum) 40-70′. great fall color, relatively fast growing, high value to wildlife from early-waking pollinators to almost all riparian border species, popular yard and street tree; sometimes over-planted. Along with the tupelo (see below) one of the first trees to turn color in the fall. Plant one of the 3 native maples listed here rather than the nonnative, weedy box elder maple, the invasive Norway, and Sycamore maples, and the potentially invasive Japanese, trident, and amur maples. In fact, please don’t plant any foreign maples – they all have samaras (winged seeds) that can travel up to 30- 40 miles in storm winds and may become invasive as temperatures rise.
2. Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) 70’ or more. Tall, beautiful, massive trunks, lacy leaves, weak on fall color expect near water. Like its swamp maple cousin, silver maple has high value to wildlife. A good tree for the riparian buffer or a large yard or park space. Silver maple tends to be weak limbed so should be planted away from structures, driveways and roads. The large samaras ripen just in time to feed the spring crop of teenage squirrels, newly emerged from their mothers’ nests.
3. Sugar maple (Acer saccharum): 70- 100’. A world champion for fall color, plus the syrup and the shade. Graceful tree with an outstandingly beautiful trunk. Doesn’t do root compaction, road salt, car exhausts, etc., so best planted in the backyard, parks and the like. Doesn’t necessary bear seeds every year.
4. Yellow birch (Betula aleghaniensis) 60-80′ or more; showy yellow foliage in fall; light-colored, peeling bark turns pale gold in winter. Great for winter interest, nice fall foliage color as well. Reputed to prefer cooler temperatures. Naturally found in forests, needs sun as an adult. Good at the edge of a wood lot.
5. Cherry birch, Sweet birch, Black birch (Betula lenta) 40-55′ in yards; taller in woodlands. showy yellow foliage in fall, dark bark resembles cherry bark; large tree for a large space. Naturally a woodland tree.
6. River birch (Betula nigra) 50-70′, popular yard tree but many homeowners don’t realize how big it will get. Medium to fast growing, beautiful, curling, multi-colored bark when young. Bark looses its decorative coloration with age. Naturally a riparian buffer tree, OK in sun or part shade and in damp areas; not particularly drought hardy.
7. Hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) 25-40′ Male catkins in spring; nutlets provide winter wildlife food, attractive nut casings and bark, shade tolerant, good fall yellow. Good smaller urban tree – under used.
8. Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) 60- 80′, good fall color, shaggy bark, handsome, large ornamental. Best known of the hickories; beloved by squirrels and other nut-eating animals. Good yard tree.
9. Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) 50-75’, full sun to part shade. Beautiful fall color.
10. Pignut hickory (Carya glabra) 50-60′, slow grower, large leaves, good shade tree, prolific nut producer, yellow-mid-fall color. OK in sun or part shade.
11. Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) 50-60′ tall, straight tree, good fall color, all hickories are great for woodpeckers and turkeys, not to mention squirrels and chipmunks.
12. Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) 50-70’ Beautiful long-lived tree with golf ball-sized, lime green fruit, and fern-like compound leaves. Allopathic (poisonous) to certain other plant families notably grape and tomato. Best to plant away from driveways, roads, vegetable gardens, etc. Black walnuts are excellent for baking. Nut casings are used for dye.
13. White Ash (Fraxinus Americana) 60- 70’; opposite branching. Nice fall color – yellows sometimes tinged with purples. Naturally occurs in forests and riparian buffers; adaptable but prefers good moisture and sun. Can handle poor soil. Good seeds for wildlife. Attractive bark: uniform pattern of small diamonds.
14. Green Ash, Red Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) 60- 70’, said to be a fast grower. Found in same places as the white ash and often interbreeds with it.
15. Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) 60-100′, big tree for a big space, star-shaped leaves, spectacular fall color, spiny seed pots are loved by birds (and young human boys) but are a litter problem so plant away from paths, driveways and patios. OK in sun or part shade and in damp but well drained areas. Frequented by yellow-bellied sap suckers. This tree has a bad reputation for roots that damage cellar walls, sewer pipes, and the like. However, in reality, most trees if planted, e.g., near a sewer pipe with a crack, will send roots in for the water. I once checked the web sites for a large number of sewer districts nationwide and found that they all pretty disliked almost all local trees.
16. Tulip tree, tulip poplar, yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifer) 40-100′ – big tree for a big space. Naturally found in the forest and riparian buffers. Planted in parks, gardens, etc. Attracts hummingbirds, birds, and squirrels; host plant for tiger and spicebush swallowtail butterflies. Attractive mid-green leaves, turn yellow in fall. Water lily-like flowers are often too high up to fully appreciate.
17. Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) to 60′ . Important mid-summer fruit for birds and squirrels but messy so plant away from paths, driveways and patios. I have never found an actual pure-bred one growing wild in Southern Fairfield County. As far as I can tell, sadly, all of our native stock has interbred with, or been outcompeted by, the invasive white mulberry, imported some 350 years ago in a failed attempt to create a silk farming industry. Hard to find local genotype stock. Given the importance of mulberry summer fruit, we cannot begin to eradicate the white mulberry until we’ve re-established the red. If given the chance, plant this tree!
18. Sour gum, black gum, tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) 40- 60′. Brilliant early fall color, honey bee favorite; fruit attracts birds. Good urban tree – highly under used. Naturally woodland or riparian buffer. Can be yard-planted. Plant this rather than a mid-size foreign decorative but potential invasive tree such as golden rain tree.
19. American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) 70-90’ or more. Tall, straight, wide tall tree with camouflage bark and round seed balls. Lower bark on large trees is light brown, patchy squares. Most important to wildlife as raptor habitat. Naturally occurs in riparian buffers but good in yards and parks. Susceptible to anthracnose, a leaf fungi, the tree evolved the camouflage bark so it can do up to 15% of its photosynthesis work directly through the green patches on the trunk. Along with the Asian sycamore, it is a half-parent of the London plane tree. Young humans like to throw the seed balls at each other.
20. Fire cherry, pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) 25-40′ white flowers, good fall color, leaves are poisonous to livestock, important mid-summer red fruit for birds but messy so plant away from paths, driveways and patios.
21. Black cherry (Prunus serotina) 50-90′. White flowers in May, good fall color, leaves poisonous to livestock, lovely bark, summer red-black fruit important to birds but messy – plant away from paths, driveways and patios, OK in part shade. Shallow roots should be protected from foot traffic etc. Really nice ornamental tree. Plant this rather than one of those sterile, alien flowering cherries.
22. American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) 50-70’ with a spread up to 120’ across. Prone to root-sucking and, in the forest, can create a monoculture. Smooth silver trunk. Delicious nuts with high value to wildlife. Holds leaves through winter. Plant this rather than its European cousin, the more massive cooper beech.
23. American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) As probably every school child of my generation knew, this huge, important forest tree was almsot wiped out by an invasive fungus during WWI; yet the wood is so hard that the fallen trunks are still a common sight in my local woods. Some are even, to this day, standing snags (dead trees). Since the blight doesn’t kill the trees for a few decades, there are surviving trees, at least young ones, here and there that have hopefully kept the tree’s insects alive. Major efforts are under way to breed a resistant American chestnut but testing will take unless at least 2020 (trees are slow!) Meanwhile, you can plant a species one and have it live, may be 30 years – long enough to get nuts and to help keep the tree’s companion critters alive. Read more at the American Chestnut Foundation, Virginia Tech and the US Forest Service.
24. White oak (Quercus alba) 60-100′. Slow growing, spreading, majestic, long-lived shade tree, red in fall. needs space. Oaks have high value to wildlife as hosts for various insects and insect larvae, including many butterflies. Then, of course, there are the nuts, without which there would probably be no grey squirrels, wild turkeys, etc. White oaks have very wide spreads, sometimes wider than they are tall so they are awesome shade trees and often “the” central tree in New England town squares. If you’re lucky enough to have a white oak on your property, treasure it.
25. Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) 50-60’. For wetter areas; also good urban tree for areas with high soil compaction such as parks. Stamford residents can see one in the center of Columbus Park — the small, historical downtown park, right behind the old town hall, and now surrounded by restaurants, where we hold summer concerts.
26. Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea): 75’, a member of the red oak family (leaves have pointed tips unlike the white oaks which have rounded leaves). Tall, gorgeous. Like most red oaks, about twice as tall as it is wide. Naturally a forest tree but happy in meadow (lawn). Some think that red family oaks have better fall color than the whites but the truth is that they are all great. Oaks tend to turn color later in the season.
27. Yellow Chestnut Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) 40-50’ tall and equally wide. I am not familiar with this tree but it is said to be good street tree.
28. Willow oak (Quercus phellos) 50-70′, native north to NY, fast-growing, large, showy tree with willow-like leaves, good urban street tree.
29. Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) 75’ red family oak. Prefers full sun and well-drained soil. Good yard and park tree.
30. Chestnut Oak, Basket Oak (Quercus prinus) 60- 70’ usually found north of the Merritt Parkway (cooler, up-land forest; not as much coastal influence).
31. Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) 60-75′, less spreading than white oaks but equally popular, vertically-striped trunk, acorns less of a litter problem. Easier to transplant than many of the oaks. Urban and drought tolerant. Good street tree where space permits. Common in Stamford parks, yards and forests.
32. Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii) 60-80’ Big tree with a wide spread. Red oak family. I am not familiar with this tree but it is said to be good street tree – fast grower, salt and urban tolerant, easier to transplant than many of the oaks.
33. Black Oak (Quercus velutina): 50-60’, very dark bark (hence the name); red oak family. Prefers moist, well-drained, acidic soil; full sun. Long lived, slow growing. Common tree in my local woodlands. Aged specimens can be as breath-taking as the majestic white oaks. Not easy to transplant.
34. Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) 80-100’ big tree. Beautiful fat buds, early season catkins, delta-shaped leaves, and yellow fall color. Cottony seeds are used to line bird nests. Occurs naturally in riparian areas but also adapts to lawns and parks. Some consider it weedy and especially a threat to sewer pipes and the like. not long lived. Good habitat for raptors, orioles and the like.
35. Black willow (Salix nigra) 60′ or more. The most important of our local tree-sized willows. Tall, rough barked, very important in the riparian buffer where it is flood tolerant, and a good bank stabilizer. Early flowering catkins are important to pollinators and recognized, e.g, by the Canada geese, as a high source of protein. Leaves and wood support numerous insects and the trunks form cavities that are great habitat. Beloved by wildlife from Baltimore Orioles, woodpeckers and wood ducks to possums and raccoons. Plant this rather than the invasive European weeping willow but plant in a large area away from structures due possible branch drop.
36. American basswood, American linden (Tilia Americana) 40-70’or more. Large tree with beautiful straight trunk, fragrant early summer flowers attract bees, dark green heart-shaped leaves turn yellow. OK in part-shade, not salt tolerant. Needs, and deserves, a large space. Plant this rather than the European lindens such as little- leafed linden.
37. Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) 40-80′, fast grower, prone to non-harmful leaf pests; nice fall yellow, orange to dark blue berries, bird favorite. Weak limbed so best away from structures. OK in sun or part shade and in damp but well drained areas. Prolific, bird-spread tree with lots of local cultivars adapted to, e.g., forest, shoreline, etc. Under used.
38. American Elm (Ulmus Americana) 60-90’. Graceful vase-shape, such a wonderful street shade tree that many New England towns have an “Elm Street”. New cultivars are believed to be resistant to Dutch-Elm disease. If you’re growing your own from seed, it is theorized that the American elms remaining in the deep woods are more likely to have been exposed to, and survived, the disease compared the city and street American elms which are thought to be more likely to have been isolated enough to not have been exposed. Plant this or rough elm rather than English, Chinese or Japanese (Zelkova) elms.
39. Red elm, rough elm, slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) 60-70′. Rough bark with attractive red-undertones especially in winter. Smaller than the disease-prone American elm but often interbred with it. Lacks the vase shape. Good yard, street tree. Found in woodlands and riparian buffers. Very early bloomer.
40. Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) 50-80+’, majestic, long-needled pine, fast growing when young. Ok in part shade, not particularly salt tolerant. Popular yard tree.
41. Eastern arborvitae, white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) 25-50′, popular for hedges and screens. Ok in part shade. Needles arranged in graceful fans. Plant this rather than Norway spruce. Always try to include a few conifers in your yard for winter bird shelter.
42. Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) 30-70+’ popular for screens; needs part shade. Not salt tolerant, and not particularly heat tolerant. Delightful tiny cones; petit needles. I have noticed that young hemlocks growing in the undisturbed understory are woolly-adelgids free in my area – yet whole forests have been wiped out farther south in Pennsylvania. Accordingly, I have suspected that recent attacks by invasive woolly adelgids may be related to warmer weather. New research, however, suggests that disruption of the soil’s mycorrhizal fungus may play a role.
NON-NATIVE, OFTEN-SEEN TREES:
The “often seen but not native” list includes box elder, black locust, honey locust, and eastern catalpa. No need to plant these when we have so many good, local trees.
Note: Tree heights and spreads are taken from UCONN in order to best reflect local growing conditions.
Additional posts in this series are:
- Native Shrubs and Small Trees for Southern New England
- Southern New England’s Native Vines
- Native Plants for Southern Connecticut Rain Gardens and Wetlands
- Nature’s New England Winter Garden Design.
To find these trees for your local area, please visit The Ultimate Guide to Finding Native Plants for a list of New England native plant nurseries and native plant societies.
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