Spring is a time of abundant blooms as well as one of the best times to establish new woody plants in your landscape.
This year, consider adding one, or all, of my favorite Illinois native spring-flowering trees to your landscape, and you’ll enjoy spring floral displays for years to come. My top four spring-flowering trees are all relatively small, making them an easy fit for most locations, and all provide unparalleled flowers while supporting native insect populations.
- Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is one of the classic spring-flowering trees in Illinois. It frequents forest edges with slightly more sunlight than the interior, making it perfect for full-sun or partial-shade locations.
Dogwood flowers are unmistakable in their appearance among other native species. The flower structure is actually small and green, whereas the showy white “petals” are actually bracts, or modified leaf structures. This creates a unique, attractive bract display that persists for about a month.
Beyond ornamental value, this plant is packed with ecological benefit as it supports over 100 species of native caterpillars.
- Redbud (Cercis canadensis) could be considered the other classic spring-flowering tree in Illinois forests. Redbud and Dogwood occupy similar locations in the forest, near the edges, and with coinciding flower displays, they together help mark the awakening of our forest trees each spring. They make wonderful planting companions offering a great combination of native flowering species that truly bring the beauty of our native flora to the built environment.
The floral display of redbud is perhaps one of the best of any small tree in Illinois. For over a month, the tiny pink to purple flowers adorn stems nearly from tip to base, creating a canopy of flowers prior to leaf emergence.
Like flowering dogwood, redbuds are well suited to full-sun or partial-shade locations. Both plants reach a mature size of about 20 to 30 feet tall. They both require well-drained soils, so they are not suited to locations with poor drainage or high soil compaction. Redbuds tend to have a more spreading and muti-stemmed habit, whereas dogwoods are more compact and tend to be single stemmed and more tree-like in appearance.
- If you are interested in a multi-stemmed plant, downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is a spectacular spring-flowering tree with four seasons of ornamental interest.
The show starts in spring with several weeks of clustered white flowers that give way to edible reddish-purple fruits. As fruits mature, they provide an attractive summer display when contrasted against the pleasant light green foliage.
Their fall color is among the best of any small tree in Illinois. Winter interest is provided by its distinctive light-gray, smooth bark that is only enhanced by its unique and branching multi-stemmed habit.
Serviceberry does well in full sun to partial shade but does need space to spread out as its mature height (15 to 20 feet) is often exceeded by its spread. However, narrower single-stemmed specimens are available at most nurseries if a more compact habit is desirable.
Downy serviceberry can sometimes be difficult to source at nurseries, but many offer a close second choice of the also-native Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis). There are also a number of hybrid varieties of these two natives that are commonly available and perhaps the easiest to find.
- Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a smaller-sized native tree with distinctive flowers and leaves. The large, bright pinkish-red clusters of flowers are hard to miss each spring as they persist for about two weeks at the branch tips of each stem.
This smaller-sized native tree also has the interesting and characteristic buckeye leaves, consisting of five palmately arranged leaflets in each compound leaf structure. It is a great plant for a smaller site with more demanding conditions.
Both red buckeye and serviceberry are much more adapted to poor soil drainage or compaction and would be better choices for tough conditions. In addition, red buckeye can handle nearly any light level from full sun to full shade, making it the most versatile plant on my list.
Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. This column also appears on his ‘Garden Scoop’ blog at go.illinois.edu/GardenScoopBlog.