Let me start by saying the choices on this list of tree’s is entirely my own. Tree lists are typically opinion over fact, and I readily admit this list is no different. However, after over 20 years as a landscape installer, designer, contractor, and certified arborist, I have managed to notice a few things about how and what trees are planted in the urban and suburban landscape, and would like to share a few real world things I have figured out.

This post (and similar ones to follow) will be an attempt to discuss some of the good, bad, and ugly tree choices and installation techniques I see being made by designers, landscape architects, installers, and property owners. I live and work in central Virginia (USDA Hardiness Zone 7a) so these posts will primarily discuss plants suited to this region. In today’s post I’d like to shed a little light on the real world situations common to today’s landscapes, and share a few trees I think can work great in them, but aren’t being utilized nearly enough.        

The biggest hurdle I see as a landscape professional is the utter denial of reality when planning and installing a modern day landscape. The backbone of the landscape industry is new construction, while at the same time; the most difficult environment for a young plant to thrive in is NEW CONSTRUCTION! Here is the real world chain of events for the vast majority of modern landscape jobs:


A new development is planned, a forest is bulldozed, heavy yellow machines scrape off and compact native soil horizons, unnatural grades are imposed, root zone protection of remaining trees is absent, buildings are erected, chemicals, trash and debris litter the site, bare soils are left open to further compact, and after all the other trades have beaten the site into submission, now it’s time to plant!

Plans have been drafted by designers and landscape architects that specify plants that should grow in that particular zone. In “boots on the ground” reality, hardly any attention was paid to how tolerant these plants would be in the wasteland that will become their new home. Can they grow in compacted soil? Under HEAVY irrigation (contractors loooove to let the water fly on their new sod!)? Will they grow if completely neglected, with no human inputs of water or fertilizer? And if they can manage to somehow gain a foothold in this harsh new environment,can they accomplish the goals we ask of them as designers?


Should our current building practices be reformed? Absolutely. As in life, we should all strive to do better. But until those days come, I think as professionals we can make better plant choices. Choices that can shoulder our goals of providing shade, structure, habitat, or beauty all while managing to survive in the manmade environments we ask them to grow. Now let me climb down from my soapbox, and give you some specific trees.

Chinese Pistache

Pistacia chinensis - Chinese Pistache

Native Habitat: Central and western China, Taiwan, Philippines.


Mature Size: 30-35’ high, 25-35’ wide.

Hardiness: Zones 6-9

Form/Shape: Oval-rounded. Upright, unorganized habit in youth, more uniform with age.

Bark: Grey-brown and furrowed. Exfoliates as it matures, and can be interesting.

Flower: On previous year's wood in April before leaves. Female has 8” panicles that are interesting, but not show stoppers.

Fruit: ¼” bright red fruit ripening to blue in a panicle cluster. Again, are interesting, but not the reason for using the plant. Birds gobble them up Oct-Nov.

Foliage: Now here’s the real reason to use this tree. Compound 10” leaves that are lustrous green in summer, absolute fireworks show of orange-red from mid-October into November.

Growth Rate: Medium fast. 1’-3’ a year depending on soil conditions.

Drought Tolerance: Very drought resistant once established.

Soil Requirements: Prefers moist, well-drained soils, but will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. I have observed it thriving in barren tree pits, as well as dry, narrow hell-strips.

Light Requirements: Full sun.

Diseases and Insects: None serious.

Maintenance: Some staking and pruning will be required in its youth to give it shape, and remove multiple leaders. Develops a full head as it matures with minimal input.

Uses: Under-utilized lawn, park, and street tree. Once established, it withstands life in the urban environment even in poor, droughty soils.

Sweetbay Magnolia

Magnolia virginiana - Sweetbay Magnolia

Native Habitat: Eastern United States


Mature Size: Typically 20-30’ Tall by 20-25’ wide. Can get larger.

Hardiness: Zones 5-9

Form/Shape: Multi-stemmed “tree shrub” in youth. Will eventually form multi-stemmed pyramidal tree in maturity.

Bark: Smooth; light grey. Not showy.

Flower: Creamy white, 2-3” flowers through summer months. While not as out right showy as southern magnolia, they are pretty and their lemony-esque scent is fantastic!!

Fruit: Ornamental “grenades” when the seeds ripen inside the fruit in late summer/ early fall.

Foliage: Alternate, simple, elliptical to oblong; small to medium sized leaves are dark green with silvery underside. Very handsome effect when the wind blows, exposing the undersides of the leaves. Semi-evergreen in warmer climates. Noted they retained their leaves in Richmond VA amid -5 temps during winter 2018.

Growth Rate: Moderate to fast.

Drought Tolerance: Decent once established, but definitely prefers moist, well drained soils. Unlike other magnolias, this does well in wet areas, and is a perfect choice for the often over watered suburban landscape.

Soil Requirements: Requires acidic soils.

Light Requirements: Full sun to part shade.

Diseases and Insects: Nothing very serious. Can get chlorotic in alkaline soils.

Maintenance: Typical pruning to improve structure.

Uses: Excellent small tree for its summer flowers, leaf display, wet soil adaptability, and for maintaining a patio sized presence. Great residential landscape, park, or street tree.

Katsura Tree

Cercidiphyllum japonicum - Katsura Tree

Native Habitat: China, Japan


Mature Size: 40-60’ tall by 20-30’ wide.

Hardiness: Zones 4-8

Form/Shape: Pyramidal in youth, variable in maturity; some maintaining pyramidal habit, some wide spreading.

Bark: Brown and slightly shaggy. Attractive.

Flower: March to April; not showy.

Fruit: Small papery bean-like pods. Not showy.

Foliage:Emerge a lovely red/purple, transitioning to bluish green in summer. Bright yellow with apricot hues in autumn. Generic name gives away that they’re shaped like Redbud leaves. Fall leaves can also be sweetly fragranced.

Growth Rate: Medium to fast once established.

Drought Tolerance: Not nearly as good as some others on this list, but it is a worthy enough tree that a little supplemental watering should not preclude it.

Soil Requirements: Prefers rich, well drained, but is adaptable.

Light Requirements: Full Sun

Diseases and Insects: None serious.

Maintenance: Will absolutely  need supplemental watering to establish, and during hot, dry periods.

Uses: Could be used as a street tree. Perfect for residential landscapes, parks, and even commercial sites. A fantastic shape and size for residential lots. 

Bald Cypress

Taxodium distichum - Bald Cypress

Native Habitat: Eastern and Southern United States through Northern Mexico


Mature Size:60-80’ tall by 25-30’ wide

Hardiness: Zones 5-10

Form/Shape: Upright, pyramidal, symmetrical when young; flat topped when very old.

Bark: Smooth; reddish brown fibers when young; matures to reddish brown to gray-brown with shallow fissures.

Flower: Forms in late winter. Brownish tan panicle of small male cones; greenish purple female cones composed of fleshy scales form a 1” ball.

Fruit: Obovoid, hard, greenish purple to brown cone; attracts birds and squirrels. I think they’re pretty darn cool looking.

Foliage: Alternate, simple, lanceolate, needle-like leaves. Pale green needles turn coppery red in Fall; leaves are like a soft evergreen needle, but tree is deciduous.

Growth Rate: Moderate to fast

Drought Tolerance: For a tree that is at home in a swamp, it is surprising drought tolerant once established.

Soil Requirements: Grows in all soil types, and grows well in areas where where constant flooding may kill other plants.

Light Requirements: Full sun

Diseases and Insects: Leaf blight, sapwood rot’ root knot nematodes, gypsy moth larvae feeding, and mites. Sounds like a lot of ailments, but I have mostly observed that this is one tough tree, and little affects it.  


Uses: Wet sites!! This tree is fantastic in soggy areas with poor drainage. Perfect tree for BMP’s. 

Black Gum

Nyssa sylvatica - Black Gum, Black Tupelo

Native Habitat: Michigan, Texas and Eastern U.S.


Mature Size: 65-75’ Tall by 25-35’ wide

Hardiness: Zones 4b-9

Form/Shape: Symmetrical canopy; oval to pyramidal

Bark: Smooth; gray when young; matures to grayish black with deep fissures, ridges, and plates.

Flower: Blooms small and white in spring. Hardly noticeable.

Fruit: Small, blue and ovoid. Attracts birds.

Foliage: Alternate, simple. Green in spring, with BRILLIANT, showy red to deep purple in fall.

Growth Rate: Slow to moderate.

Drought Tolerance: Great once established!

Soil Requirements: Prefers moist, well drained, but will tolerate a variety of soil types, and even intermittent flooding during the dormant season.

Light Requirements: Full sun to part shade.

Diseases and Insects: Branch cankers, leaf spot, leaf blotch, Fusarium, Hypoxylon, Nectria.

Maintenance: Minimal pruning required. If used in a street tree setting, lower limbs will need to be removed to allow for vehicular or pedestrian clearance. Fruit litter can be messy, so it may not be the best choice near a building entrance.

Uses: Street tree. Shade tree or specimen. Look awesome in fall when clustered in small groups. Larger parking lot islands, buffer strips and median plantings.


Did You Know:

  • In one day, one large tree can lift up to 100 gallons of water out of the ground and discharge it into the air.

  • One large tree can provide a supply of oxygen for two people.

  • Every state has an official State Tree. Virginia adopted the flowering dogwood Cornaceae Cornus floridaas the State Tree on February 24, 1956.  The dogwood is well distributed throughout the...

  • Most tree roots are in the top 12 inches of soil.

  • Most trees do not have a tap root.

  • Trees properly placed around buildings can reduce air conditioning needs by 30 percent and save 20-50 percent in heating energy.

  • Trees are the largest living organisms on earth: some coastal redwoods are more than 360 feet tall.

  • Well-maintained trees and shrubs can increase property value by up to 14%.

  • A birdhouse hung on a young tree branch, does not move up the tree as the tree grows.

  • Trees are some of the oldest living organisms on earth: some bristle-cone pines are thought to be more than 5000 years old.

  • A mature tree removes almost 70 times more pollution than a newly planted tree.

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