Norway Maple

Few maples perform as well here.

Japanese maples get all the notoriety. They have such delightful texture and form. Many are proportionate to small spaces, such as atriums. Realistically though, they are overrated and overused. Meanwhile, other maples that work as larger shade trees remain obscure. Norway maple, Acer platanoides, gets broad enough to shade much of an urban garden, but rarely gets to forty feet tall.

Of course, Norway maple has innate limitations. It dislikes arid and harshly warm desert climates. Nor does it like to be too close to the coast. Los Angeles is about as far south as it wants to live. In the Pacific Northwest, it gets much bigger, and develops greedy roots. The non-cultivar species is invasive there. Norway maple defoliates neatly for winter, but then refoliates late in about April.

Almost all local Norway maples are cultivars. ‘Schwedleri’ has richly bronzed foliage. It is rare now, but was a popular street tree in the 1950s. ‘Crimson King’ has richer purplish foliage, but is less vigorous. ‘Drummondii’ displays delightful variegation. The deciduous foliage of Norway maple turns soft brownish yellow or gold for autumn. The palmately lobed leaves may be five inches wide.

Flowering Dogwood

Bloom like this waits for spring.

Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida has something in common with Poinsettia. The most colorful component of their bloom is not floral, but is instead foliar. What appears to be petals are colorful leaves known as bracts. Exactly four bracts surround each small cluster of tiny and unimpressive pale green real flowers. These bracts are most popularly white, but can be pink or rarely brick red.

The deciduous trees are bare now, but bloom spectacularly in early spring. Any necessary pruning should happen after bloom, and preferable after new foliage matures somewhat. Floral buds for next year are already prominent on the tips of bare twigs. Dormant pruning would eliminate some of the buds prior to bloom. For now, only minor grooming of unbudded interior growth is practical.

Mature flowering dogwood trees can be twenty feet tall, but typically stay lower. As understory trees, they prefer a bit of shelter from larger trees. Foliage can scorch if too exposed. Some cultivars have variegated foliage. All can develop vibrant orange and red foliar color for autumn, even with minimal chill. Floral debris resembles fallen leaves that fall just as new and real foliage develops.

Valley Oak

Valley oak is also known as ‘roble’.

From the north end of the Sacramento Valley to the San Fernando Valley, the valley oak, Quercus lobata, is among the most familiar and distinctive of native oaks. It is the largest oak of North America, reaching more than a hundred feet tall with trunks as wide as ten feet, which is why it is rare in urban gardens. The hundred fifty foot tall ‘Henley Oak’ of Covelo is the tallest hardwood tree in North America. The oldest trees are about six centuries old.

The two or three inch long leaves have deep and round lobes. The foliage turns only dingy yellow and then brown in autumn, and can be messy as it continues to fall through early winter, particularly since the trees have such big canopies. The gnarly limbs are strikingly sculptural while bare through the rest of winter. The gray bark is evenly furrowed.

Incidentally, Oakland, Thousand Oaks, Paso Robles and various other communities within their range are named for valley oaks. (‘Roble’ is the Spanish name.)

Collect Fallen Leaves Before Winter

Falling leaves will soon be accumulating in gutters.

The problem with all the colorful foliage that adorns so many of the deciduous trees in autumn is that it does not stay in the trees too long. Combined with all the other less colorful deciduous foliage, as well as whatever evergreen foliage happens to fall this time of year, it will become quite a mess by winter. Rainy and windy winter weather will only make it messier by bringing down even more foliage!

Contrary to popular belief, many evergreen trees are just as messy as deciduous trees are. Instead of dropping all their foliage in autumn or winter, most evergreens drop smaller volumes of foliage throughout the year. The mess is less obvious since it sneaks up slowly, but can accumulate over a few months. Only a few evergreen trees drop much of their foliage in more obvious seasonal phases.

Debris from evergreen trees is actually more likely to be a problem for plants below. Pines, cypresses, firs, spruces, cedars, eucalypti and many other evergreen trees produce natural herbicides that inhibit the emergence of seedlings of plants that would compete with them in the wild. In landscape situations, this unfortunately interferes with lawns, ground covers and annuals. Besides walnuts and deciduous oaks, not many deciduous trees use this tactic.

Regardless, any foliar debris can be a problem if allowed to accumulate too long. Large leaves, like those of sycamore, can accumulate and shade lawn, ground cover and some dense shrubbery, and can eventually cause mildew and rot. Finely textured foliage, like that of jacaranda or silk tree, can sift through most ground covers to the soil below, but can still make a mess on lawn.

Before rainy weather, debris should be cleaned from gutters and downspouts. Because some foliage continues to fall through winter, gutters will likely need to be cleaned again later. Flat roofs and awkward spots that collect debris, such as behind chimneys, should also be cleaned.

Gutters at the street are more visible and accessible, so do not often accumulate enough debris to be a problem, but may need to be cleaned if they become clogged with debris washed in by the earliest rains. Fallen leaves should be raked from pavement so that it does not get dangerously slippery, or stain concrete too much.

Ginkgo

Ginkgo is turning clear bright yellow.

Where autumn chill is minimal, the best and brightest yellow autumn color is that of the ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba. Some know it at the maidenhair tree. Except for older trees that produce messy and stinky fruit, it is a notably clean tree. Perhaps it is too clean. It drops nothing all year, but can defoliate too soon once it develops it striking autumn color. Minimal chill actually prolongs the process.

Ginkgo is dioecious, with separate genders. Modern cultivars for landscapes are male, so produce no obnoxious fruit. Female cultivars that produce nuts and fruits are not commonly available in nurseries locally. (As objectionable as their aroma is, the nuts and fruits are edible.) Some people may be allergic to the pollen of mature male trees. Many mature trees predate modern cultivars.

Trees are somewhat slender and perhaps sparse while young. They develop a broader canopy as they age. Trees can get more than fifty feet tall, with sculpturally irregular branch structure. Foliar venation radiates outward from the petioles. Leaves, which are about two or three inches long, therefore have the shape of fishtails. Leaves on current season stems are cloven into paired lobes.

Tree Of Heaven

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Tree of Heaven or tree of Hell?

‘A Tree Grows In Brooklyn’ documents the resiliency and invasiveness of the common but typically undesirable tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima. Once a single female tree get established, the extremely prolific seeds get everywhere, including cracks in concrete. The resulting seedlings conquer wherever they are not dug out. If cut down, they just resprout from the roots.

Male trees smell horrible while blooming for about a month in spring or summer. They are pollinated by flies, so naturally smell like what flies like. The tiny yellowish or tan flowers hang on panicles that can be a foot and a half long. Female blooms are not as big, prolific or objectionably fragrant. However, stems, leaves and all other parts of both genders smell rotten when handled.

Tree of Heaven, which has earned the alternative names of ‘tree of Hell’, ‘stink tree’, ‘ghetto elm’ and ‘ghetto palm’, is no longer a tree that gets planted by choice. It is typically a tree that plants itself, and on rare occasion, happens to grow into a good situation. They should not be allowed to overwhelm more desirable trees, or get too close to concrete or other damageable features.

Young trees grow very fast to about forty feet tall. Older and slower trees do not get much taller, although sheltered trees can get twice as tall, with elegant gray bark. They do not live much more than fifty years. The big pinnately compound leaves are surprisingly pretty. On vigorous shoots, individual leaves can get as long as two and a half feet, with leaflets as long as six inches.

Shade Trees Adapt To Urbanism

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Traditional shade trees get quite large.

Modern urban home gardens are shadier and more confined than older suburban home gardens originally were. Modern homes are both taller and closer together on smaller parcels. Fences are also taller to compensate for the minimal proximity of adjacent homes. Less sunlight reaches the ground. There is not as much space available for shade trees. Nor is there as much use for them.

Huddled modern homes are simply not as exposed to sunlight as older suburban homes were. Sunlight is more of an asset than a liability. Walls, ceilings and windows are so thoroughly insulated that shade is less important. Solar arrays up on roofs must remain exposed to sunlight. Smaller and denser trees are more important for obscuring views of adjacent homes, rather than for shade.

Shade trees are still useful for rural and suburban homes. Shade helps to keep older and less energy efficient homes cooler through warmer summer weather. If strategically situated to the south, west or southwest, they shade homes during the warmest time of day. Well proportioned trees do not darken too much of their gardens. Deciduous trees allow warming sunlight in through winter.

The popularity of modern urban homes is directly proportionate to the popularity of small evergreen trees. Such trees fit into smaller garden spaces, and permanently obscure unwanted scenery. Big deciduous shade trees that are practical for larger garden spaces become obtrusive in confined spaces. Defoliation in winter reveals unwanted views, and deprives the landscape of privacy.

Some of the more practical of small evergreen trees are actually large shrubbery. English laurel, Carolina cherry, photinia, hopseed bush and various pittosporums can get high enough to obscure neighboring windows. All are conducive to pruning if they get too tall. If staked on single straight trunks, or pruned to expose a few sculptural trunks, they do not occupy much space at ground level.

Tristania laurina, and some melaleucas are naturally small to midsized evergreen shade trees. Some species of Podocarpus can be pruned as midsized trees.

Himalayan Birch

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The white bark of Himalayan birch is even more striking that that of European white birch.

Himalayan birch, Betula utilis ‘Jacquemontii’, must not be confused with the more traditional European white birch! If young trees get added to established groves of European white birch, they will never fit in. Their trunks stand vertically rather than lean casually. Their limbs are upright and angular instead of softly pendulous. Their bark is actually whiter.

Mature trees can get taller than thirty feet without getting much more than half as broad, and are relatively symmetrical for birches. The form of any single exposed tree is generally conical, although several trees together adapt to develop as picturesque groves with fewer interior limbs. The shade below is not too dark for lawn or moderately shade tolerant plants.

Maintenance is not exactly minimal. Vigorous young trees should be pruned and groomed annually, or at least every few years. Pruning should not be done in early spring when sap is likely to bleed from pruning wounds. Roots want to be watered somewhat regularly, even through the drought. When they fall in autumn, the two inch long leaves can be difficult to rake from fine gravel or bark.

Bigleaf Maple

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A maple with unusually big leaves.

Its natural coastal range extends from the extreme southern corner of Alaska to the southwestern corner of California. Another inland range occupies foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, is the most common and prominent native maple here. However, it prefers the seclusion of forested riparian situations at higher elevations locally. It is rare in urban gardens.

Bigleaf maple is best in the wild anyway. It dislikes the aridity of most of the urban and suburban areas of California. (San Jose is in a chaparral climate. Los Angeles is in a desert climate.) Roots of bigleaf maple are potentially aggressive, especially if irrigated generously. They easily displace pavement. Nonetheless, where climate and circumstances allow, bigleaf maple is a grand tree.

Wild trees grow as tall as a hundred fifty feet within forests where they compete for sunlight. Well exposed suburban trees should stay lower than forty feet, while extending their canopies broader than tall. The big and palmately lobed leaves are mostly more than six inches wide. Foliage turns yellow in autumn, and is abundant as it falls. Self sown seedlings often grow under mature trees.

Pin Oak

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Pin oak is not drought tolerant.

There are several oaks, especially natives, that do not need much more water than they get from rain. Pin oak, Quercus palustris, is not one of them. It is naturally endemic to areas that are damp or swampy for part of the year. It is more tolerant than others are to lawn irrigation, but is also more sensitive to drought.

Compared to other oaks, pin oak grows fast while young. It can get two stories tall in about ten years. Then, it takes more than twice as long to double in size. Old trees do not get much more than fifty feet tall, with trunks nearly three feet wide.

The deciduous foliage turns as brown as a grocery bag in autumn, and may linger late into winter, or until it gets replaced by new foliage in spring. The distinctively deeply lobed leaves are about two to five inches long, and about two thirds as wide. Each leaf has five or seven lobes. Each lobe has five to seven teeth.