Scott Zanon is the author of Desirable Trees for the Midwest – 50 for the Home Landscape and Larger Properties.

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Small Spring-Flowering Trees
by Scott A. Zanon       #Flowers   #Spring   #Trees

This is the time of year when you notice all the blooming trees — they just seem to pop out of the landscape. Maybe it is time you added one or two (or all of them!) to your garden.

Small spring-flowering trees can be key elements in the design of the garden with their beautiful blooms and some very fine fragrances. They offer multi-season interest and are very significant in many of the smaller gardens of today. For this article, small spring-flowering trees will be those considered to be 30 feet tall or less at mature size.

These trees work well with bulbs, perennials, wildflowers and woody plants of all kinds. By combining with other spring-flowering plants, their spectacular blooms are enhanced even more. From a design standpoint, their size allows them to be important links to both tall and short elements in the landscape.

Many of the trees we will be discussing offer interest in several if not all of the four seasons here in the Midwest. Hopefully this will allow me the opportunity to introduce some fine but little-used trees to stretch the plant palette and to add interesting “bones” to your garden.

Here are some of my choices for you to consider.


Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) 1

Red Buckeye
(Aesculus pavia)
Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 10 feet tall and wide

If your goal is to attract hummingbirds, the red buckeye is one of the best to do so. The showy red 6-inch panicles are attractive on this single or multi-trunked tree. It does tend to drop its leaves early so placing around other plants is a wise choice.


Fruit and leaves of Amelanchier ovalis 2

(Amelanchier spp., aka Juneberry, sarvisberry, saskatoon, shadbush, shadblow)
Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 6 to 30 feet tall by 4 to 10 feet wide

One of the best four-season trees around, serviceberry offer many species and cultivars. Its showy white flowers are followed by purple edible fruits. Available as either multi-trunked or single-trunked tree form, fall color is a spectacular array of yellow-orange-red. As the bark matures, it becomes striped. I have
always preferred A. laevis but all are fabulous selections.


Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) 1

Common Pawpaw
(Asimina triloba aka custard apple)
Zones: 5 to 8
Size: 15 to 20 feet tall and wide

This small tree with its 6- to 12-inch long droopy leaves has the largest edible fruit native to North America. It is a native understory tree that needs regular watering during the growing season and does not tolerate heavy, wet, alkaline soils. Flowers are a unique maroon-dark purple in color followed by an edible berry of many shapes which is ripe when brown. Its soft orange flesh has a consistency of custard and flavors of banana and pear. Fall color is usually a spectacular yellow.


Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Royal White’)1

Eastern Redbud
(Cercis canadensis)
Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 15 to 25 feet tall and wide

A popular tree with showy long-lasting blooms, Eastern redbud is a strikingly conspicuous tree in the spring because its bright lavender flowers emerge before other tree leaves form. Best for naturalized, woodland (understory) settings, it is often multi-stemmed with distinctive heart-shaped leaves.

Recommended cultivars: ‘Covey’ has a weeping umbrella crown; ‘Floating Clouds’ offers a white variegated leaf; ‘Forest Pansy’ leaves emerge red-purple; ‘Hearts of Gold’ produces yellow new leaves; ‘Royal White’ has white flowers and is cold hardy.


Chionanthus virginicus  2

White Fringetree
(Chionanthus virginicus)
Zones: 3 to 9
Size: 10 to 20 feet tall and wide

This is one of the best small native American flowering plants. Commonly multi-trunked, this can be pruned to a single stem form. White flowers have a slight fragrance and appear after foliage expands. The fleecy look is outstanding in drooping 6- to 8-inch panicles. It is dioecious so dark blue drupes appear on female plants only. This very adaptable tree also develops a nice yellow fall color.


Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) 1

Pagoda Dogwood
(Cornus alternifolia aka alternate-leaf dogwood)
Zones: 3 to 7
Size: 15 to 20 feet tall and wide

A small understory tree native to much of the Eastern United States, it gets its common name from its pagoda-like horizontal branching pattern. Attractive fragrant white-yellow flowers produced in clusters followed by blue-black drupes on bright red pedicels. Fall color may be red-deep red but rarely is outstanding. Seems to do best in colder climates and the key to success is keeping the root zone cool, moist and acidic. This is an alternative to flowering dogwood (C. florida).

Recommended cultivars: ‘Argentea’ has leaves with a cream white variegation and a compact form; ‘Golden Shadows’ has yellow variegated leaves.


Cornus kousa 'Satomi' 3



Kousa Dogwood
(Cornus kousa aka Chinese dogwood)
Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 20 to 25 feet tall and wide

A handsome small ornamental four-season tree with layered branching, Kousa is more resistant to drought and slightly more cold hardy than flowering dogwood. Flower (bract) colors range from white, pink and red. Fruits are raspberry-looking drupes in the fall followed by terrific burgundy fall color. The bark becomes a mottled cream-gray with nice exfoliation. Many cultivars are available in the trade. There are new hybrids of Cornus x rutgersensis (C. kousa x C. florida) developed at Rutgers University by Dr. Elwin Orton which seems to be resistant to dogwood borer and anthracnose and are more vigorous and erect. They also have no fruit and have rounded bracts.

Recommended cultivars: ‘Lustgarten Weeping’ is a distinctive weeping form mainly on upper branches; ‘Satomi’ has pink-red bracts and is a slow grower; ‘Wolf Eyes’ has white margined leaves with impressive pink-red fall color; Cornus ‘Rutcan’ Constellation® has long white rounded bracts; Cornus ‘Rutgan’ Stellar Pink® has rounded soft pink bracts.


Cornus mas 4

Cornelian Cherry Dogwood
(Cornus mas)
Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 20 feet tall and wide

In March when I see this fine yet adaptable tree in bloom, it heralds spring’s arrival. The first spring-flowering tree is typically multi-trunked and its early yellow flowers give way to bright cherry-red oblong drupes in the summer. The bark also exhibits some ornamental exfoliation.

Recommended cultivars: ‘Elegantissima’ shows variegated leaves of yellow, green and pink; ‘Flava’ has yellow fruits; ‘Golden Glory’ shows an upright form with dark green foliage. 


Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina)1

Carolina Silverbell
(Halesia carolina)
Zones: 5 to 8
Size: 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide

This small understory woodland tree has a native habitat on wooded slopes and along stream banks in the Central and Southern United States. It has a prolific midspring blossom of white bell-shaped flowers that hang from the branches. Its young branches are smooth gray-brown with prominent darker striations. This plant is surprisingly free of diseases and pests but prefers slightly acidic soil.
Recommended cultivars: ‘Rosea’ has light pink flowers.


A 42 year old Magnolia acuminata tree photographed at Morton Arboretum 5

‘Butterflies’ Cucumbertree Magnolia
(Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’)
Zones: 5 to 9
Size: 15 to 25 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide

With lovely deep yellow flowers before the foliage, this hybrid magnolia (Denudata x acuminata) has an upright growth habit and a main trunk. Its pyramidal shape and star-shaped 3- to 4-inch blossoms make this one of the best among the plethora of new yellow-flowered magnolias in the trade.



 Magnolia stellata 'Centennial'  6

Star Magnolia
(Magnolia stellata)
Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 15 to 20 feet tall and wide

Typically a small, upright multi-trunked tree with showy white flowers, this adaptable tree is also the most cold and heat tolerant species for ornamental usage. Slightly fragrant white flowers appear before foliage shortly after Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas).

Recommended cultivars: ‘Centennial’ exhibits wide flowers, is most vigorous and cold hardy, and can reach 30 feet in height; ‘Royal Star’ is a slow grower and has light pink buds opening to fragrant white flowers. 


Flowering Crabapple (Malus spp.) 1

Flowering Crabapple
(Malus spp.)
Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 15 to 25 feet tall and wide

In the Midwest, there is no finer small flowering ornamental tree. Flowers can be white, pink or even red before foliage and are typically fragrant and single flowered. Malus has few competitors combining cold hardiness and spectacular spring-flowering blooms in Northern states. However, many flowering crabapples are susceptible to apple scab, cedar apple rust and fire blight. Modern cultivars below have been selected because they flower annually, have persistent fruit and exhibit tolerance or resistance to most of the pests and diseases that plague crabapples.

Recommended cultivars: ‘Adirondack’ has a vase-shape with crimson buds opening to white flowers and red fruits; ‘Holiday Gold’ is an open, rounded tree with pink buds opening to white flowers and yellow fruits; ‘Louisa’ is a weeping and spreading form with red buds opening to pink flowers and yellow fruits; ‘Prairifire’ is upright and spreading with crimson buds opening to red-purple flowers and red-purple fruits; ‘Red Jewel’ is rounded with white buds opening to white flowers and cherry-red fruits; ‘Sargent’ is a mounded shrub-like form with red buds opening to white flowers and bright red fruit.

Call Before You Dig

Before you plant that new tree, find out where the underground utilities are.

The new 811 number is a national “Call Before You Dig” phone number designated by the FCC to eliminate the confusion of multiple “Call Before You Dig” numbers and help minimize damages to underground utilities.

One phone call to 811 begins the process of getting underground utility lines marked prior to your planting project. Local One Call Center personnel will then notify affected utility companies, who will send crews to mark underground lines for free.Visit for more information.



Photo Credits:
1 -
Photos courtesy of Scott A. Zanon
2 - Photos in Public Domain
3 - Photo by Wendy Cutler
4 - Photos by Leonora Enking
5 - Photo by Bruce Marlin
6 - Photo by Melissa Burdick


A version of this article appeared in a print edition of State-by-State Gardening May/June 2012.


Posted: 08/08/12   RSS | Print


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