Trees are the largest and most dominant features of our landscapes. There is nothing like a giant shade tree to add value to your home and to turn an outdoor area into a more hospitable place during a sweltering Texas summer.
However with the shade comes some drawbacks, including a limit on our options for flowering plants to brighten the landscape. In the shade of a giant tree the list of summer bloomers shrinks dramatically. While green is nice, a sea of green can be rather boring.
You may have also noticed that over the years as large trees grow to blanket the yard with shade the turfgrass gradually declines due to a lack of sufficient light.
Remember the days of old, when most folks had huge lots with room for several pecans or live oaks? Now lot lines are shrinking so much that you can almost reach out your window to close your neighbor’s blinds. Many people live in garden homes, townhomes, or other tight areas without an expanse to accommodate a large tree. Structures such as outbuildings, pools, and decks, as well as hardscape features like sidewalks and driveways may mean a large tree is just not appropriate for the landscape.
These changes have opened up a new opportunity for small trees. There are a number of small trees that are tailor made for our modern landscapes. Many offer the added feature of blooms. In fact they are so attractive and versatile that even if you have the space, you might forgo a larger tree in favor of a grouping of small trees. Groupings are nice because they add interest and can extend the blooming season for many months.
Small trees can serve many useful functions such as shading a west window, lining a driveway or forming a living fence along a property line, providing a focal point to a patio or entry courtyard, and providing a little shade for a poolside sittin’ spot. They make great accent plants to draw attention during their blooming season. They can also provide a light shade to give understory plants a break from the blistering summer sun or serve as understories themselves peering out from the edge of a larger tree’s shadow.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the best small flowering trees for our Texas landscapes. I’ll bet there are a few you just can’t live without!
Deciduous magnolias come in many forms from the taller tulip magnolias (Magnolia quinquipeta) with its tall purple blooms lined with a creamy white interior, to the saucer magnolias (M. soulangiana) with saucer-shaped blooms that are purplish outside and white to pink on the interior, and the Star Magnolia (M. stellata) which produces a bloom with many strappier petals on a multistemmed shrub/tree. They all prefer the acidic soils and higher rainfall of east Texas but are occasionally seen west of that range when a gardener is able to provide suitable conditions.
These deciduous magnolias are among the first woody ornamentals to bloom in late winter to early spring. In our hot climate the deciduous magnolias appreciate a little afternoon shade. A multitude of varieties are available. You can stretch the season a bit by choosing more than one species or variety.
One of the first signs of spring are the blooms of the redbud trees. Their blooms appear before the foliage emerges to announce the arrival of the new season. If you live in the eastern parts of the state the Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is your best choice. Two great choices are the variety ‘Oklahoma’ with its wine red blooms and ‘Forest Pansy’ which sports purplish red new foliage that fades toward green as the season progresses.
For central, south and west Texas the Texas redbud (var. ‘texensis’) and Mexican redbud (var. ‘mexicana’) are better choices. The eastern variety can grow quite large over time while the Texas and Mexican varieties usually top out at 20′ and 15′ respectively.
Telling them apart is not difficult. Eastern redbud foliage is dull rather than glossy and tends to have a prominent tip to the end of the leaf, similar to the base of a heart shape. Texas redbud has slightly smaller, glossy leaves that usually lack such a prominent tip. Mexican redbud foliage is smaller still and is also glossy but has very wavy edges. Mexican redbud also tends to have more and finer branches giving it a bushier look. Having said all that I should add that redbuds are pretty promiscuous and as a result it is sometimes difficult to find a true Texas redbud without a little Eastern blood in the background.
Plant redbuds in a well drained soil where they get morning to full day sun. The Texas and Mexican types are very well adapted to a full sun exposure.
Spring wouldn’t be spring in the southeast without dogwoods. The white or occasionally pink blooms of Eastern Dogwood (Cornus florida) adorn the forest edges throughout the easternmost parts of the state. Bring them into your landscape and act like their survival is important to you and they will die sure enough. In fact I used to say that dogwoods love to die! The truth is that they do quite well if we will give them the conditions they want and leave them alone.
They love a forest floor soil, so add compost to the area prior to planting. Then mulch the surface and keep the soil moist but not soggy wet. Plant them where they get morning sun but have a break from the afternoon sun. I have found the pink ones more difficult to grow, perhaps due to their seed sources, but there are many great pink specimens throughout east Texas.
Folks in the western two thirds of the state will find dogwoods, like azaleas, a very risky challenge most likely doomed to failure. Now I must confess that there are a few pink dogwoods in northwest Austin growing in an almost full sun exposure in a tiny spot between two townhome driveways and a house foundation that laugh at my advice every spring with a blanket of blooms. But these trees obviously can’t read gardening books and magazines…and trust me, yours can.
For those of you in non-dogwood country, there is a cousin known as Roughleaf Dogwood (Cornus drummondii). It produces clusters of small blooms that do not resemble their eastern relatives. However they are worth a spot in the landscape and do well in a sun to part shade location. The trees tend to sucker, forming a thicket that reaches 12 to 20 feet in height.
Orchid trees are named for their interesting blooms that somewhat resemble an orchid. The leaves are very unusual with two distinct lobes like a footprint from a cow’s cloven hoof.
Many orchid trees are semi tropical to tropical and as such are best suited to far south Texas including Purple Orchid Tree (Bauhinia variegata) and Hong Kong Orchid (B. blakeana). I have seen Purple Orchid trees do quite well in a protected entranceway or courtyard as far up the coast as Houston, but that far north they would be a gamble, albeit one worth taking if the spot is right.
Gardeners in the rest of the state may want to try Anacacho Orchid Tree (Bauhinia lunarioides (B. congesta)). This tree can take heat, drought and cold (to about 15 degrees), producing a covering of small white blooms in the spring. It can take a variety of soil conditions as long as the soil is well drained. Anacacho Orchid reaches only about 10 feet tall making it ideal for a courtyard or within a perennial bed.
Texas Mountain Laurel
The bluebonnet may be the official symbol of our state when it comes to wildflowers, but when it comes to native landscape plants, Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora) is the poster plant. It produces dark green foliage and tolerates thin calcareous soils but still does well on deep fertile soil. It just needs great drainage.
While it is best adapted to the central and southern parts of the state, I have seen it doing well in east Texas if planted on a high mound in soil with lots of lime added, just to make it feel at home.
Although its growth rate is slower than molasses it is well worth the wait. The purple spring blooms leave the air laden with a heavy, grape bubble gum or grape Kool-Aid aroma. The red seeds are poisonous, but speaking as a former (some may debate that) kid they make great slingshot ammo and can be rubbed on a sidewalk to heat them up for inflicting a quick burn on your neighborhood friend’s arm. But I digress.
Texas Mountain Laurel can actually grow over 20 feet in some conditions but for practical purposes is a small to medium sized shrub/tree. It makes a great specimen plant but also works well planted in a row down a property line to form a loose evergreen screen.
Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum
Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum suspensum) is one of the most outstanding small flowering trees for Texas. It is a native that does well in most parts of the state if provided a little supplemental moisture. It prefers full sun but can take some shade too.
In spring 4″ to 6″ bloom clusters adorn the branches. These are followed by blue-black fruits that attract birds. In fall the dark green foliage turns shades of red/orange/burgundy before falling. These tree/shrubs reach to about 18 feet in height. Rusty blackhaw viburnum is a natural beauty for your Texas landscape.
American Smoke Tree
Smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus) is underplanted considering its unique beauty and versatility. In spring pink to purple, cloud-like bloom clusters appear as smoke floating through and over the foliage. While not that interesting up close, it creates a dramatic effect from a distance. Trees will reach 20 feet or more in time and while they may be pruned to a single trunk usually take on more of a multi-trunked form.
Its foliage is its ace in the hole feature. New growth emerges with a pinkish bronze hue and turns a dark attractive blue green color. Fall color is often excellent with bright shades of yellow, orange, red and burgundy/purple.
I have seen smoke tree doing well from east Texas to San Angelo as long as drainage is good and soil moisture sufficient. It is worth planting in most areas of the state except south Texas.
The first time I saw a fringe tree blooming in East Texas I had to stop the car and run over to see what on earth was putting on such a show. These plants load up in late spring with a profusion of small blooms that appear as white fringe all over the plant. Grancy graybeard (Chionanthus virginicus) is our native fringe tree. I must confess a partiality to Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus) which is showier producing flowers that last for two or more weeks on the terminal ends of new shoots.
Fringe tree prefers a moist acidic soil and can tolerate wet conditions quite well. It will grow in part shade to full sun but does best with a little late day shade. It forms a nice multi-trunked tree with a little pruning. Plant it in front of a forest line or other dark background where the white blooms can really be highlighted.
Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) will take a lot of abuse when it comes to poor soil and drought. It is best suited to a western style landscape where a rugged look and xeric design is in. Its form is airy and its foliage casts a light shade making the space around its base suitable for many other plants. There are several varieties on the market. The standard form bears pink blooms with dark pink features. ‘Bubba’ produces reddish/burgundy blooms and the blooms of ‘Regal’ are even deeper burgundy/purple.
This plant needs full sun and well drained soil. It is hardy in all parts of the state except the panhandle and far north Texas. It can reach 15 to 30 feet in height and will reward you with almost care free beauty for years to come.
Also known as the “lilac of the south” and “the flowering trees of 100 days” crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia incia) should be made the “national small flowering tree of Texas.” We are all quite familiar with this wonderful plant, with its many bloom colors and extended bloom period. So let me use this space to urge two things.
First investigate which variety is the best bloom color and appropriate size for your needs before buying a tree. Decide which bloom color you want and how large you want it to be. It is a cruel and dismembering task to try to butcher a crape into a smaller size than it is genetically programmed to be. There are many options out there in whatever bloom color and size you like. There is a reason no garden center offers “a free saw with each crapemyrtle purchased”! Some crapes make nice bushes. Others make superb multi-stemmed mini trees. Still others tower over the landscape as small trees. One such tall variety, ‘Natchez’ is especially eye catching with white blooms and gorgeous cinnamon streaked exfoliating bark.
Second, only pick from those varieties that promise powdery mildew resistance. Most of these have Native American Indian names, but check with someone who knows before investing your money in a crapemyrtle variety for your landscape.
For best results give your crape full sun. Less sun means less bloom. Hope and wishing are no substitute for sunlight.
Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) is one of the few summer blooming trees. It produces large spikes of blue (or white) blooms. Blue is a hard color to come by in summer too. These multi-trunked trees are tough enough to be used in some highway plantings and with a little pruning and care can form a very attractive small tree about 10 to 15 feet tall, or even larger.
It does best in full sun and a soil that ranges from moist to dry. Soggy conditions, especially in heavy clay, will lead to a quick demise. It grows well throughout most of the state except the panhandle. Several varieties are on the market including variations in the blue to purple shades as well as white and pink blooming varieties. Purchase this plant either by variety name or when it is in bloom to make sure you are getting a specimen with especially attractive flowers.
Mexican (or Texas) Olive
When in full bloom the Mexican olive, aka Texas olive (Cordia boissieri), is quite a beautiful small tree. The white blooms appear in clusters for an extended period that spans the growing season. Foliage is evergreen in frost free areas where the tree can reach 15 to 20 feet in height.
Mexican olive is hardy only to about 20 degrees so its region of dependability is limited to south Texas and the Gulf Coast. We grow it in the Austin area with the understanding that occasionally we may get to start over, but the incredibly long blooming season and attractive flower clusters make it well worth it. This plant’s primary drawback is the small fruit which can drop and create a bit of a mess, so don’t plant it right against a walkway or pool deck.
Now I know I’ve overlooked quite a few small blooming trees that are bound to be favorites with some readers, including mimosa, crabapple, flowering pear, hawthorn, ornamental peach and plum, loquat, silver bell, snowbell, Jerusalem thorn, and acacia. However page space and/or my personal (albeit misguided I’m sure) prejudices just did not allow for mention of all of them here. But this list should get you off to a great start.
So take a good look at your landscape. Picture your home from the street, the backyard landscape view through a bay window or from an outdoor sitting area. Where would a little blooming color be nice? Then get set to go because fall is the best planting season of all.