The go-to dwarf tree these days is without a doubt the Japanese Maple, but if you’re looking for something a bit different and don’t have a lot of space, consider one of these other specimen trees that won’t outgrow your garden.
Little King River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Little King’): While most river birches will quickly outgrow a small garden, ‘Little King’ keeps a dwarf habit, reaching only 8 to 10 feet tall and 9 to 12 feet wide in 10 years. Cinnamon colored bark exfoliates to reveal pale inner bark underneath. Because river birches are tolerant of flooding, this is the perfect choice for a wet area of the garden, although it is also tolerant of drier soils as well. The fall color is yellow. Grow in full sun to part shade.
Rising Sun Redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Rising Sun’): One of the first bloomers of spring, lavender-pink blossoms cover the branches of this stunning tree before the foliage emerges. Then, heart-shaped leaves burst forth a pale orange, transforming into various shades of yellow and gold and then lime green in summer. If your specimen is kept sufficiently moist, new growth should continue to flush throughout the growing season, giving your tree a gorgeous three-toned color palette. By fall, flowers have developed into seed pods that attract a variety of songbirds, and leaves turn gold. ‘Rising Sun’ grows 8 to 12 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide in 10 years. Grow in full sun or part shade.
Yadkin Creeper Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus ‘Yadkin Creeper’): First discovered in a small nursery in western North Carolina, the first specimen of this dwarf fringe tree was grown at the JC Raulston Arboretum, and is now available to the retail market. This unique tree has a spreading habit similar to a small Japanese maple, reaching just 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide in 15 years. In spring, white fringe-like flowers blanket the bare branches. The bark is exfoliating and ornamental in winter. Grow in sun or part shade.
Mariken Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba ‘Mariken’): Perfect for a modern or Asian-themed garden, ‘Mariken’ ginkgo reaches 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide in 10 years. Believed to be the oldest living species of tree, ginkgo dates back over 200 million years in China, Japan, and Korea. Its uniquely shaped fan-like leaves turn a stunning golden-yellow in fall. Grow in full sun.
Inspiration Michelia (Magnolia laevifolia ‘Inspiration’): This small evergreen magnolia (formally classified as a Michelia) grows 8 to 10 feet tall and 5 feet wide. In spring, white sweetly fragrant flowers emerge from fuzzy buds that have been providing interest all winter. Grow in sun to partial sun in acidic, moist soil. This tree is hardy from zone 7b to 9b – mulch heavily to preserve heat during winter and plant in a protected spot.
Kojo no mai Cherry (Prunus incisa ‘Kojo no mai’): Also known as Fugi cherry or contorted cherry, this small tree is the perfect flowering cherry for small spaces. Reaching just 8 feet tall and wide, Kojo no mai will add interest to your garden for three seasons. In spring, bare branches are covered with crimson-red buds, blossoming into pale pink flowers that fade to white. Fall color is a brilliant red-orange. The zig-zag habit of branches provides architectural interest to the winter garden. Grow in full sun, making sure to plant in well-drained, moist soil.
Crimson Cascade Weeping Peach (Prunus x ‘Crimson Cascade’): This incredible specimen tree will make your garden the envy of your neighborhood. Stunning double crimson-pink blossoms cover the bare, weeping branches in spring, followed by leaves that emerge maroon before fading to summer green. Mature size maxes out at 10 to 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Don’t plan to harvest any peaches, however – the fruit is small and of low quality – but leave it for wildlife. Grow in full sun.
Green Bullet Umbrella Pine (Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Gruene Kugel’): This eye-catching conifer is one of the more unique conifers available to the retail market. Habit is dense and well branched, with thick, dark green and shiny needles that are arranged in a whorl resembling an umbrella. Green Bullet is a dwarf cultivar developed in Germany reaching only 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide in ten years. Umbrella Pines grow slow, but the wait is worth it. Grow in full sun to part shade in well-draining soil. This plant does not like wet feet.
Evening Light Snowbell (Styrax japonicus ‘Evening Light’): Add drama to your garden with this snowbell that grows to just 10 feet tall and 5 feet wide with a compact, vase-like habit. Leaves emerge dusky purple, followed by a profusion of fragrant white bell-shaped blooms that develop into pale green drupes later in summer. Grow in full sun to part shade in moist, well-drained soil. If kept moist through summer, ‘Evening Light’ may rebloom in fall.
Peve Miniaret Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Miniaret’): One of the few conifers that lose its leaves in winter, bald cypress are native to North Carolina, where it grows naturally in swamps and marshes. If you have a wet area of your yard, this is an excellent plant to address the problem without spending lots of money on drainage systems. Unlike the species, ‘Peve Miniaret’ reaches just 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide in ten years. Fern-like foliage transforms to burnt orange in fall. The bark is reddish in color, adding winter interest to the garden.
Featured image – ‘Rising Sun’ Redbud / JC Raulston Arboretum
Val Engel was the Marketing Director at Atlantic Gardening Company and can be reached at [email protected]