If I asked most south Georgians what comes to mind when I say “tree,” I suspect the first answer would be Live Oak. It is our state tree, stately and magnificent, draped in Spanish moss, sturdy and solid. It’s the tree of my childhood and played a significant role in my tree climbing days as a tomboy! But, in many residential landscapes, a live oak is simply too large.
Are there other smaller choices out there? Well, if you are willing to delve into the realm of deciduous, I shout a hearty “Yes!” Maybe it’s not considered quite Southern to plant a tree with the audacity to shed its leaves in the winter, but heck, live oaks do actually shed their leaves; it just happens to occur in the spring. For those of you willing to venture into the lesser-known varieties, here are my top choices.
This elm is native to eastern Asia including China, India, Taiwan, Japan, North Korea, and Vietnam. It is a splendid small-to-medium semi-deciduous elm, with a handsome flaking mottled bark of grays, tans and reds. The ultimate height ranges from 35-60 feet tall and 50 to 60 feet wide with a slender trunk and full crown. The leaves are small, single-toothed and leathery, often staying on the tree through January, or later, in our coastal Zone 9a. It grows quickly. We planted a small specimen in our backyard three years ago as a 30-gallon container plant and it has put on significant growth. My estimate is that ours has grown more than a foot per year in width and height. It’s not nearly as messy as an oak. Its fruit is a small winged samara just 1/4-inch wide and 1/2-inch long, maturing from green to light tan. The fruit only stays on the tree until late fall, being blown off by wind.
Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
This choice has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I obtained my masters degree at Ohio State University, in the Buckeye State. It has everything to do with being a Georgia woodland native. This deciduous small tree or shrub is actually native to the southern and eastern parts of the U.S. from Illinois to Virginia and from Texas to Florida. It is named for the color of the red flowers, upright compound 4-10” panicles that appear in the early spring before the leaves emerge. I love that it naturally forms clumps. We planted three under the canopy of live oaks that provide shade from the afternoon sun and now have a bit of a thicket growing. It does produce shiny brown seed capsules called buckeyes that ripen in the fall. They are poisonous. (However, homemade delectable buckeyes of chocolate and peanut butter are very edible!) Leaves are palmately compound, with five leaflets. They usually begin to decline in early fall, dropping early.
Chaste Tree (Vitex negundo)
This small deciduous tree is currently in bloom at the time of this writing (Memorial Day weekend). Like the Red Buckeye, it has a compound leaf- palmate with five serrated or toothed leaflets. It blooms after the Red Buckeye, in late May. Its flowers are numerous, covering the tree in white to lavender 5-8” upright lightly fragrant panicles. The flowers are popular with bees and butterflies. The tree grows to 6-15’ wide and up to 20’ feet in height with somewhat of a vase-shaped habit. It is often grown multi-stemmed. It’s a fast grower with few disease or insect problems.
Golden Rain Tree
This small deciduous tree grows to 25-40 feet in height with a similar spread. The gray bark is furrowed and corky. Leaves are large reaching two feet in length, bi-pinnately compound. Flowers are yellow, and reach up to 20 inches in length and appear in June. The very ornamental pink fruit appears in the fall, oval but elongated in shape, ranging up to three inches in length. It is considered a category II invasive species in the Florida Exotic Pest Control Council list, but I would not consider that a reason for not planting it here in coastal Georgia. I get enough questions about this when it is in bloom or covered in its pink fruit to know that people notice it! For those of you visiting or living on St. Simons Island, there are wonderful specimens at Harris Teeter and in front of the Grey Owl Inn on Old Demere Road. Leaves turn a delightful reddish orange in the fall. The tree is rarely attacked by pests, and grows in a wide range of soils, including coastal sandy soils with a high pH. Yes, indeed, there is room for something other than a Live Oak. Be bold. Plant the unusual!