The most common of a few species of cottonwood that are native to California seems as if it should not be. Populus deltoides is the Eastern cottonwood. This name implies that it should be native primarily to regions of the East. Yet, it naturally inhabits every American State except for Hawaii and Alaska. Since it is so familiar locally, it is simply cottonwood.
It grows wild in riparian ecosystems, and occasionally sneaks into adjacent landscapes. It is almost never an intentional acquisition. Cottonwood grows too aggressively and too large for refined home gardens. It works better as a grand shade tree for parks and urban waterway trails. As a riparian species, it requires either riparian ecosystems or irrigation.
Mature cottonwood trees may be almost a hundred feet tall, and rather broad if exposed. Their bark is handsomely furrowed. Yellow autumn color of the deciduous foliage can be surprisingly vibrant within arid climates, or if rain is later than frost. Vigorous trees can be susceptible to spontaneous limb failure, so may occasionally justify aggressive pruning. Roots might be voracious.
During the summer, the native white alder, Alnus rhombifolia, is a nice shade tree that looks bigger than it really is. By late winter, the bare deciduous canopy has an appealingly picturesque silhouette. This time of year is actually when white alder is typically less appealing, with dead foliage that provides no interesting fall color, but lingers until knocked down by rain or late frost. Yet, even now, it sometimes surprises with these funny looking floral structures that are interesting both in the early winter landscape, and with cut flowers.
In past decades, white alder was an ´expendable’ tree that was put into landscapes for quick gratification while slower but more desirable trees matured. By the time the desirable trees matured, the alders were removed to make more space for the desirables. This technique was practical because, like many fast growing trees, alders do not live very long, so start to deteriorate after about twenty five years anyway. However, alders often live longer than expected.
Mature alders are usually less than fifty feet tall where they are well exposed. They can get at least twice as tall where shaded by other trees or big buildings. Their plump trunks with mostly smooth silvery gray bark make them seem larger than they really are though. Too much water promotes buttressed roots which can displace pavement.
There are very few coniferous (cone bearing) trees that are deciduous; and because most prefer cooler winters, very few are ever seen in local gardens. The bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, happens to be one of the few deciduous coniferous trees that really could be more popular than it is, since it seems to be right at home in mild climates. It is native to coastal riparian regions from Maryland to Florida to eastern Texas, and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers as far as Indiana.
The soft foliage resembles that of coastal redwood, but is more finely textured. It is still mostly light green, but will soon be turning paper bag brown before trees go bare. The tiny individual leaves are shaped like flat pine needles, and are not much more than half an inch long. The ruddy or grayish brown bark is finely shaggy.
In the wild, mature bald cypress trees can get more than a hundred feet tall with trunks more than five feet wide. Some of the largest trees have buttressed trunks as wide as fifteen feet! Trees in swamps develop distended growth from their roots known as ‘knees’, which can stand several feet tall! Fortunately, bald cypress rarely get half as tall or develop such massive trunks locally.
Resiliency is typically an attribute. It is how silk tree, Albizia julibrissin, adapts to various urban landscapes. Unfortunately, it is also how it naturalized within a few ecosystems of North America. It grows easily from seed, whether or not it is appropriate to where it does so. Many naturalized specimens somehow find good situations in which to grow though.
With good exposure, most mature silk trees develop rather low but broad canopies. They have potential to grow taller than forty feet, but if not competing with taller trees, may stay half as tall. Their arching limbs flare elegantly outward in low mounding form. Their finely textured foliage provides appealingly uniform shade that is neither too dark nor too light.
The lacy and bipinnately compound leaves of silk tree are between half a foot and a foot long. Each leaf divides into as many as a dozen pairs of pinnae (leaflets). These pinnae divide into about twice as many pairs of pinnulae (leaflets of leaflets). Such minute foliar components disintegrate during autumn defoliation, and can disappear into groundcover.
The pink and fluffy summer bloom can actually be messier than the deciduous foliage. It does not disintegrate as it falls, so may accumulate on top of vegetation below. Cultivars generally bloom with richer pink color, although at least one blooms with white. ‘Summer Chocolate’ exhibits richly bronzed foliage that contrasts strikingly with pastel pink bloom.
Though native mostly to the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges between San Francisco and Oregon, California black oak, Quercus kelloggii, also inhabits isolated colonies in lower mountains as far north as the southern half of the Oregon Coast, and as far south as San Diego County. It actually occupies more area than any other hardwood tree in California. Wild trees competing in forests can get more than a hundred feet tall and live for five centuries. Well exposed urban trees may take their first century to eventually get about half as tall with trunks as wide as four feet.
Even while young, California black oak is a distinguished tree, with a broadly rounded canopy and elegantly arching limbs. The smooth silvery bark of young trees eventually becomes dark and uniformly checked with maturity. The distinctive deeply lobed leaves are about five inches long, and turn gold, soft orange or even brownish red before falling in autumn.
The parents of this unintentional hybrid are supposedly American sycamore and Oriental sycamore. No one really knows. London plane, Platanus X acerifolia, appeared within a private collection in London at the middle of the Seventeenth Century. It became popular there two centuries later, through the Victorian Era, because of its resilience to pollution.
Mature London plane trees might be taller than a hundred feet. Few here are old enough to be much taller than sixty feet though. Regardless, defoliation of such grand deciduous trees might be overwhelming through autumn. Foliar tomentum (fuzz) can be surprisingly irritating while raking too much foliage. Autumn color is unimpressively brownish yellow. The specific epithet ‘acerifolia’ translates to ‘maple foliage’, because the foliage resembles that of Norway maple.
London plane remains among the most common of street trees. It really is commendably adaptable to inhospitable urban situations. However, it is not perfect. Its roots eventually displace pavement. The foliar canopies can eventually grow disproportionately broad for compact urban parkstrips. For some people, the foliar tomentum can be a major allergen.
This might be the most spectacular and most reliable of autumn foliage available locally. Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, begins to develop a brilliant blend of yellow, orange and red in response to the earliest mild chill of autumn. It defoliates slowly to retain much of its colorful foliage through the earliest rain and wind of winter, and perhaps even later.
Sweetgum leaves are palmate, and about four inches wide, with five pointed lobes. One very rare cultivar has hierarchically lobed leaves, with lobes on lobes. Another has blunt lobes. Some cultivars as well as individual trees favor particular foliar colors for autumn. ‘Burgundy’ exhibits more dark red color than typical, and retains foliage later than typical.
Mature trees can grow fifty feet tall, but are not very broad. They can get taller and lankier to compete with other tall trees. Their upright form conforms to grove arrangement within large landscapes and parks. Unfortunately, their aggressive roots can displace concrete. Their branches can be structurally deficient. Their spiky and hard fruit can be obnoxious.
The excellent and remarkably brilliant shades of yellow, orange, red and burgundy of the foliage in autumn suggest that sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, is from New England. However, it is native between New Jersey, Florida and the eastern edge of Texas, as well as isolated forests of Central America. It actually prefers mild climates to where winters are too cold. Mature trees are generally columnar (relatively narrow) and less than fifty feet tall where well exposed, but can get more than twice as tall to compete in forests.
Unfortunately, mature sweetgum trees can be somewhat problematic in urban gardens. Limbs are often weak enough to break in wind, or if they get too heavy from the weight of their own foliage. Also, the abundant round seed pods are outfitted with nasty spikes, like little maces almost two inches wide. They are painful to step on, and can actually be quite hazardous.
The state tree of Missouri produces the state flower of North Carolina, which are both the state tree and state flower of Virginia, but no so exploited by the state that it seems to be named for! The American dogwood, Cornus florida, is such a classic American tree that last year, young trees were given to Japan to commemorate the gift of Japanese flowering cherry trees from Japan a century earlier.
Profuse early spring bloom is not what it seems to be. Tight clusters of minute flowers would not be much to look at, but are surrounded by four big white bracts (modified leaves) that really put on an impressive show before green leaves develop. Many modern varieties have pink or nearly brick red bracts, and a few get variegated foliage as bloom dissipates. Foliage can get quite colorful just before it falls in autumn.
In the wild, American dogwoods are ‘understory’ trees that are happiest in forests of larger trees that shelter them from harsh sun exposure and drying wind. In relatively arid western climates, they want rich soil, regular watering and partial shade at least after noon. They are sensitive to reflected glare and wind, as well as alkalinity and salinity. (Too much fertilizer will roast the foliage.) Since American dogwood trees rarely get more than fifteen feet tall in cultivation, they are proportionate to sheltered atriums. Wild trees do not get much taller than thirty feet.
They start out simply enough, as weirdly twisted bare stems in fancy floral arrangements. By the time the last flowers fade, the submerged parts of these bare stems develop roots and perhaps leaves. These now rooted cuttings then graduate into pots or gardens. Most curly willow, Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’, is therefore unplanned. It is rare from nurseries.
Mature trees should not get much taller than fifteen feet, with awkwardly irregular branch structure. Regular pruning and grooming eliminates congested and structurally deficient growth. Alternatively, pollarding or coppicing during winter dormancy promotes vigorous growth. Healthy trees can drop overburdened limbs, and might live for only twenty years.
Curly willow, which is also corkscrew willow, is popular more for distinctively curly stems than as a small deciduous shade tree. Specimens that provide such stems for cutting do not need to be very big. If cut and dried while dormant during winter, stems can not grow roots in water. Nor will they require plucking to remove their leaves, which are also curly.