Plants for the Small Tree Niche

(News article for Sept. 25, 2020)

The popularity of crape myrtles is, in my opinion, well-deserved. While they do sometimes get Cercospora leaf spot, aphids or, more recently, crape myrtle bark scale, disease and insect issues generally do not threaten their survival. They are resilient, as evidenced by their tolerance of the severe pruning approaches to which they are sometimes subjected.

With sizes ranging from dwarf cultivars less than 5 feet in height to the traditional ‘Natchez’, which can reach 30 feet tall, there are crape myrtle varieties that can fit into almost any landscape.

However, it’s nice to have variety sometimes, and there are other trees to consider for the small tree niche.

One such plant is the vitex or chaste tree. ‘Shoal Creek’ is a popular cultivar that was named a Louisiana Super Plant in 2011. These produce lavender flower clusters, about one foot long, in May and June. The flowers attract both butterflies and bees.

‘Shoal Creek’ grows to approximately 10 to 15 feet in height and width, with a spreading, multi-stemmed form. Like crape myrtle, vitex flowers on current season’s growth and so can be pruned, if needed, in late winter and will produce blooms on new shoots. Vitex is deciduous and will lose its leaves in the winter.

If you’d like a small, multi-stemmed tree but would prefer an evergreen, one plant to consider is the loropetalum, or Chinese fringe-flower. These flower in late winter and then sporadically during the growing season. While there are varieties with green leaves and white flowers, many of the popular varieties have purplish leaves (at least when they’re young) and pink flowers.

We often think of loropetalum as a shrub, and they’re frequently pruned to maintain a smaller size than they would naturally reach. However, some varieties naturally get quite tall. ‘Burgundy’, for example, is sometimes cited as growing to 6 to 10 tall and wide but can get taller. Such a variety can be trained to grow as a multi-stemmed tree.

Another small- to medium-sized evergreen tree to consider is the loquat. I grew up calling these “Japanese plums,” but they’re not all that closely related to plums. These have evergreen leaves that are similar in size to but more textured than southern magnolia leaves. Mature height ranges from approximately 10 to 30 feet.

Loquat trees produce a fuzzy yellow fruit similar in size to a kumquat. In Tangipahoa and Washington Parishes, fruit production can be expected in some but not all years. They flower in the fall and early winter, and temperatures in the 20s can damage flowers and fruit. (The exact temperature depends on the crop stage.) When the crop survives, fruit generally ripens in March or April.

Loquats are sometimes damaged by the bacterial disease fire blight that also causes problems on pears, apples, and mayhaws, but trees typically recover.

Of course, kumquats and satsumas are also fruit-producing small evergreens that can be included in the landscape. Oriental persimmons can function as deciduous landscape trees.

Sunny sites are suggested for all of these plants, although loropetalums can tolerate some shade.

Remember to space plants far enough from the house or other structure that, when they get large, they will not have to be repeatedly pruned. A rule of thumb is to place plants half of the mature width, plus one foot, from a wall. For example, if a plant is expected to reach 20 feet in width, place it at least 11 feet from the house.

Let me know if you have questions.

Contact Mary Helen Ferguson.

20180517-cropped2jpg'Shoal Creek' vitex in front of the LSU AgCenter office in Amite, LA. (Photo by M.H. Ferguson)

10/1/2020 9:06:10 PM
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