What Is An Ornamental Tree?
What, exactly, is an ornamental tree? Aren’t all trees pretty to look at? Why would I want one? What purpose do they serve? Let’s break it down to help you make the right decision when purchasing an ornamental tree for your yard.
A Tree is a Tree, So…
Even the definition of what counts as a tree is less than clear. There are no minimum height requirements to be called a tree and no size restrictions. Generally, a woody stem or stems and some size bigger than most people would call a shrub is sufficient. But that doesn’t help much. Anything from a dwarf apple tree to a redwood fits that description.
Commonly, trees that might be planted on your property are divided into three categories. When looking at trees, you can think of them as:
Like it sounds, shade trees are usually taller, more expansive trees with full crowns and a branching habit. They are planted to provide a significant patch of shade for summer naps or to shield the house and yard from the scorching summer sun.
Shade trees are usually deciduous. Before air conditioning was standard, most houses had shade trees to block the hot sun in the summer but allow the sun to warm the home all winter after the leaves dropped in fall.
Pretty self-explanatory here. Fruit trees are planted to harvest delicious fruits to eat. They are usually smaller trees and can be found in dwarf, semi-dwarf, or standard sizes. Although a standard apple tree can be pretty large, it typically won’t be as large as shade trees.
Trees categorized as ornamental usually share several characteristics. They are of small to medium size, generally topping out about 25-30 feet tall or less. Some may be much smaller.
Most ornamental trees feature unique foliage, like a Japanese maple, or springtime displays like flowering cherry trees. Some produce fruit (often inedible to humans) for birds and wildlife. They provide some shade and can fill the niche of offering vertical structure and interest where a full-sized shade tree might not fit.
Ornamental trees do not develop a large, thick trunk. Usually, the main stems are rarely more than about 10 inches in diameter.
They can be deciduous or evergreen and may be used for windbreaks, privacy screens, to line a driveway, or any other landscaping use you can think of. An ornamental tree’s main function is to be aesthetically pleasing.
How to Pick the Right Ornamental Tree
With so many choices and the potential for long-term enjoyment (or problems), picking the right tree for that spot in your yard can seem daunting.
When choosing a new ornamental tree, approach the problem by answering a few questions and keeping those answers in mind when shopping.
How much space do you have?
Planting a weeping willow that will grow 30 feet wide might not be a good choice for a 15-foot wide strip next to the house. A hydrangea tree won’t fill that large space in your front yard. Keep the mature size in mind when choosing your new tree.
Would you prefer an evergreen or a deciduous tree?
A deciduous tree will likely disappoint if you are looking for year-round privacy. Spring flowers and fall foliage colors are major reasons people plant ornamental trees and won’t be fulfilled by most conifers. Screening needs may be better addressed with conifers or broad-leafed evergreens like our ‘Little Gem’ magnolia.
Do you mind fruit or cones in your yard?
Some ornamentals will make fruit or cones, which will drop off in your yard in late summer or fall. If your new tree is near your driveway, pool, or deck, you may not want to deal with the mess–from the fruits or birds attracted to them.
What are your soil and sunlight conditions?
Some trees like to grow in a bit of shade. Others need full sun. Some trees will handle wet feet, while others need excellent drainage. Matching your tree to the site will ensure a healthy, happy tree and avoid many problems down the road.
Consider the above questions, as well as cold-hardiness, the desired color of foliage, unique bark, stem shape, and growth rate when choosing your new tree.
Make it easy on yourself by writing the answers down, and you’ll have an easier time narrowing the possible choices. And, of course, pick a tree that makes you happy to look at!