On a hot summer day, what could be more pleasant than sitting under a big leafy shade tree enjoying an iced tea or lemonade?
Why shade trees? Shade trees keep your environment cool in the summer — according to experts, shade on the roof and windows can reduce summertime air conditioning costs by 30%. Shade over patios and walkways can reduce the substrate temperature and the heat that radiates off of bricks or stones. As a result, a leafy shade tree can also filter dust and pollutants from the air.
Furthermore, summertime shade is required for some of our favorite ornamentals such as begonias, hostas, camellias, trilliums and tropical cacti to flourish.
What makes a great shade tree? It should be…
- Deciduous, because you don’t need shade in the winter;
- Have a wide spreading canopy with dense foliage;
- Be fast growing so you can reap the benefits sooner.
When choosing a shade tree, consider how nice if it had additional benefits such as showy flowers or fall color – and, consequently, it must be well adapted to your particular climate and site conditions. Try to select species that are native to your region whenever possible, since these generally have fewer problems.
It is important to select a tree based on where it will live in your landscape rather than picking a site for a tree you have already selected. Choose a shade tree whose mature size will not be too big for its location and consider how messy a shade tree can become. Of course, all deciduous trees shed their leaves in the fall. So, do you want to deal with the shedding bark and profuse seed clusters of a sycamore, or the prickly fruit balls of a sweet gum?
Site selection for your shade tree is important. Seems like the further North you go, the lower the sun tracks across the summer sky. In northern latitudes, trees cast a long shadow that will put shade on the roof and side of a house. Up North, you should position shade trees on the south end of the home.
Down South, however, the sun tracks across the sky directly overhead — so a proper shade tree would need to have branches spreading almost directly over the roof. In southern climates, shade trees planted on the east side of the house will protect the home in the morning while the sun is still low, therefore reducing heat buildup later in the day.
A general note to consider: large shade trees should be positioned at least 20’ from the house foundation, as well as, smaller ones as near as 8 or 10 feet.
Here are a few choices for large shade trees in the home landscape
Members of the red oak group (Quercus rubra and others) are fast growing trees, usually with broad, wide-spreading canopies and beautiful red fall color. They withstand city conditions and are relatively clean, dropping only smallish acorns and leaves in the fall. Perfect Plants offers several choices in the red oak group. Nuttall oak tolerates poorly drained sites and grows fast. It gets up to 80 feet tall with a spread of 35-50 feet. Nuttall oak is best adapted to zones 5-9. Another member of the red oak group is the willow oak, named for its slender, willow-like leaves. It gets 40 to 75 feet tall, and spreads 30-40 feet across. The willow oak prefers medium to moist soil, and is exceptionally tolerant of air pollution. Willow oaks are adapted to zones 5-9.
Members of the white oak group (Quercus alba and others) are majestic trees with thick, sturdy, horizontal branches and wide canopies. The native white oak is slower-growing than some oaks, but it is not as susceptible to insects and diseases, and it tolerates a wider range of soil types. White oaks can get up to 100 feet tall, and are not for small lawns.
Red maple (Acer rubrum) is an especially good choice for a shade tree because of its early spring magnificence when it explodes with a profusion of tiny red flowers against its backdrop of smooth gray bark.
Red maple is also one of the first trees to change color in the fall.
The ‘Brandywine’ red maple cultivar is a male selection that does not produce those little helicopters that can be messy on a patio or walkway. The ‘Brandywine’ is quite dependable once established as it tolerates most soils and insect pests. This maple tree reaches 25-35 ft tall and 15-25 feet wide, and is adapted to zones 4-8.
‘October Glory’ is a fast-growing, red maple, cultivars whose leaves turns bright red in fall and persist for several weeks and is widely adapted in zones 3-9. Its improved heat tolerance and dependable fall color make this tree one of the most popular selections of red maples. The ‘October Glory’ maple will grow 40-50 feet high with a 25-35 foot spread. It is tolerant of many soil types, but does best on slightly acidic and moist soils. ‘Autumn Blaze’ is a selection from hybridizing red maple and silver maple. This cultivar has blazing red and orange foliage that lasts all autumn long. The ‘Autumn Blaze’ reaches 40-55 feet tall with a width of 30-40 feet and is adapted to zones 3-8.
The most striking feature of the American sycamore is the flaking bark that sloughs off to reveal the lighter-colored skin underneath. Sycamores are always dropping bark and if that sounds like a problem, it is best to move on. The Sycamore is a fast-growing tree that will reach an ultimate height of 75-100 feet with a spread just as large. This biggie is suitable for only the largest landscapes.
Tupelo (aka black gum) (Nyssa sylvatica) has one of the deepest red fall foliagedisplays of any American tree. This is a dense tree with horizontal, wide spreading branches that are fast-growing and relatively pest free. Tupelos get 30-50 feet tall and 20-35 feet across at full maturity, and do well in zones 5-9.
The American native, tulip popular (Liriodendron tulipifera),best suited for larger landscapes, grows rapidly and develops into a large tree, 80-100 feet tall with a spread of 40-50 feet. The tulip poplar (not a poplar, but rather in the magnolia family) likes a deep, fertile, moist soil. Their leaves turn bright yellow in fall and are most adapted to zones 4-9.
More large shade trees for consideration
- Ginko (Ginko biloba), an ancient survivor;
- Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus), wide tolerance, fragrant flowers, messy pods;
- Basswood and linden (Tilia americana and similar European species);
- Japanese zelcova (Zelkova serrata), an elm tree that is resistant to Dutch elm disease;
- Horse chestnut and buckeyes (Aesculus spp.), if you don’t mind the litter;
- Ash trees (Fraxinus spp.) large, handsome trees.
Some of our favorite smaller shade trees
Catalpa tree (Catalpa bignonioides), adapted to zones 6-10, is famous for the catalpa worms that fishermen love, growing to 20-50 feet, they also make excellent shade trees. In spring catalpas produce beautiful orchid-like flowers that develop into long hanging pods.
Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) are large shrubs or small trees with attention-grabbing foliage. They like a rich, moist soil and will not grow within very wet or very dry soils. Although some varieties get 25 feet in height, probably most will not get over 10 feet tall. These slow growing little trees are strictly for small-scale shading. ‘Bloodgood’ is a Japanese maple cultivar, preferring mildly acidic, well-drained soil, adapted to zones 7-10, renowned for its beautiful foliage and attractive architecture.
Flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) offer a burst of spring color in white or pink. While they grow slowly, they generally max out around 20 feet in height. Perfect Plants’ Pink Dogwood features beautiful pink flowers and elegant low branches with shiny red berries attractive to birds. The Pink Dogwood is easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in zones 5-8.
More small shade trees for consideration
- Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana and related European species);
- Viburnums (Viburnum spp.) This deciduous species are excellent small shade trees;
- Silverbells (Halesia spp.) Lovely springtime flowers;
- Redbud (Cercis canadensis) Pretty spring flowers and interesting pods;
- Snowbell (Styrax spp.) American and Japanese species are available.
Hence, when deciding on shade trees and their benefits, make sure you have all your information and ready to plant. As a result, you’ll finally be enjoying the coolness of the summer under your shade trees. Happy planting!