Every time a new native tree seedling popped up in our yard, my husband wanted to keep it. As an avid plant collector, I initially repelled the idea. My collection of expensive native trees includes the American smokebush (Cotinus obovatus), sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) and cutleaf sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’), but eventually I gave my husband credence. Exceptional regional natives appear in our yard all the time with desirable species like American holly (Ilex opaca), northern red oak (Quercus rubra var. rubra) and tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) among them. It seemed a shame to pull every one when we still wanted lawn trees, so I finally kept and nurtured a few with great success. Sure beat buying new trees, and local populations have likely been here for millions of years, or thousands in areas that were glaciated.

Quercus rubra Var ambigua

Our red oak popped up in the back garden five years ago and is now over 15 feet tall!

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Acer saccharum

Few native trees are as beautiful as sugar maple in fall. If you have seedlings to care for, wait a season or two and choose to keep the specimens with the best fall color.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Asimina triloba

Our North American native pawpaw (Asimina triloba) has bold leaves with usually good yellow fall color, interesting flowers and edible fruit.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Maclura pomifera_225x251

Look out below! The heavy, earth-bound fruits of the native Osage orange make the tree unsuitable for most household landscapes.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Gleditsia triacanthos

Wild-type forms of honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) have vicious thorny protrusions that are as nasty as they look. Lucky for homeowners, all cultivars of this native beauty are thornless.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Advantages to Native Trees

Adaptation means everything when it comes to best-fit plants for yard and garden, and nothing is more adapted to a yard than the native plants that grow around it. Regional natives don’t need supplemental fertilizer or water once established. They’ll thrive in the local soils and climate and feed the fauna that have come to rely on them over the course of millennia. Promoting local biodiversity is a way of encouraging the natural heritage of your region.

Knowing Your Native Trees

Some native trees are weedy, messy and short-lived while others are long-lived, great for wildlife and reach regal heights. Knowing what you want and what to expect in a tree is essential for selection, and this comes down to knowing your trees and identifying them at the seedling stage.

There are lots of ways to identify trees. Less experienced gardeners can send photos to online sources. Another option is to take a photo and leaf sample to a local extension agent (Cooperative Extension System Offices). More adventurous gardeners keen on plant identification may choose to refer to a botanical tree key for their area. (Almost every state has one, and many, such as the Summer Key for Pennsylvania Trees, are online.)

Choosing and Placing the Right Tree

Size, habit, growth rate and longevity are all essential points to consider when choosing a tree. One you’ve identified a seedling, you can easily look its plant name up in the L2G Plant Database (or check a garden reference book) to learn such valuable information about your plant.

Growth and longevity are two of the most important selective factors and often go hand in hand. Fast-growing trees offer quick cover, but they also tend to be short-lived and weak-wooded. Those with a moderate to slow growth rate make better, safer landscape specimens in the long run. For example, the northern red oak grows moderately quickly, relative to all other oaks, but it’s still long-lived and has strong branches. A few other desirable natives to nurture include the sugar maple (Acer saccharum), pawpaw (Asimina triloba), redbud (Cercis canadensis), hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), hickories (Carya), just about any oak (Quercus) and if you have enough space, the American beech (Fagus grandifolia).

You just need to be careful: Plenty of native trees are messy, fast-growing and weedy, too. For example, box elder (Acer negundo), silver maple (Acer saccharinum) and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) are weedy, weak-wooded, short-lived trees that cause problems when planted near homes, outdoor living areas or highly trafficked roadsides. Messy trees or those with dangerously heavy fruit should also be planted away from areas that people tend to frequent. The falling fruit of Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) and black walnut (Juglans nigra) can knock a person out if the timing’s right, and never make the mistake of walking barefoot after a sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) has dropped its fruits (as much as I love this tree)! The roots of the black walnut also emit a chemical called juglone that kills many other ornamentals, especially those in the tomato family.

Tree seedlings or saplings that pop up in the yard lack the hefty root balls of well-tended nursery stock, so they’re best transplanted small and nurtured until well-established. It’s even better to let a seedling sow and grow, but if it must be moved, consider following these helpful steps:

Transplant saplings before they leaf out in spring. Prepare a site for the tree first by digging a hole large enough to accommodate the root ball. The ball should be 18 times the diameter of the trunk. Work up the soil from the hole so it’s porous, friable and easy to add as backfill. When transplanting the tree, dig a clean root ball that will enclose all its roots. Use a sharp, rounded spade for digging, and choose a day when the ground is not too moist. Wrap burlap around the ball if it starts to fall apart or if it’s too large to move with a spade. Gently lower the dug tree into the hole and make sure it’s planted at the same soil depth – add fill to the hole if it stands too low or dig the hole deeper if it’s too high. Hold the tree vertically, then firmly fill in with soil. Water the plant deeply after planting and make sure it remains moist, not wet, for at least two weeks following transplant.

This year alone, the American holly we transplanted in spring has grown a whopping 6 inches, and our 5-year-old red oak is over 15 feet. So don’t let all those seedlings go to waste. Try nurturing some of your own regional native trees, and watch your garden – and green thumb – grow!