It is almost never planted in home gardens, but the native red willow, Salix laevigata, has a sneaky way of getting where it wants to be. The minute seeds go wherever the wind blows them. Because it is a riparian tree, red willow prefers well watered spots. If not detected and pulled up in the first year, it can grow rather aggressively, and overwhelm more desirable plants, although the somewhat sparse canopy makes only moderate shade.
With a bit of grooming, red willow can be a handsomely asymmetrical tree, with upright branch structure. However, even the healthiest trees rarely get more than thirty feet tall, or much more than forty years old. The leaves are a bit shorter and wider than those of the more familiar weeping willow, and do not color as well in autumn. There are actually a few other native willows that are also commonly know as red willow. Some are quite similar, while others are very different.
Sweetgum, flowering pear and Chinese pistache are the most reliable trees for flashy autumn foliar color, especially in such mild climates. They may not seem like it this year though. After a late start, only sweetgum is coloring well. Flowering pear trees that are beginning to show color farther inland seem to lack their typical bright yellow and orange, and are showing more dark rusty red.
Like so many flowers that bloom in spring, foliar color in autumn is as variable as the weather. Temperature and humidity can either inhibit or enhance color. It is impossible to say what caused the disappointing color so far, or if foliage that colors later will be just as bland. A sudden chill could change things for Chinese pistache that are still behind schedule.
Maidenhair tree (gingko) is the best for bright yellow, but lacks any other color. Fruitless mulberry, tulip tree and various poplars can be nearly as bright yellow in a good season, and may still color well. Of the various willows, only a few color well, and they tend to be more sensitive to weather. Early rain can rot their leaves before they get much color at all.
Although elms are not known for coloring, some of the modern varieties turn remarkably bright orange. However, the few oaks that color well in colder climates turn only dingy brown locally. The few North American maples that can provide color do not hold their colored foliage very long. All sorts of trees have all sorts of personalities.
Eastern redbud, smoke tree and crape myrtle are shrubs or small trees that color as well as larger trees in autumn. Crape myrtle can be as bright yellow, orange and red as sweetgum. Some Japanese maples color better than others, and some can be quite impressive, but only if their foliage does not get roasted by warm and arid weather through summer.
Where it can be accommodated, Boston ivy is an aggressively clinging vine that provides all the remarkably colorful foliage on freeway sound-walls. It is out on the freeways for a reason though. It can ruin any other surface that it clings to.
Several native species and varieties of poplar are known collectively as cottonwood. Not many are actually planted. They just have a sneaky way of appearing in well watered parts of the garden that are as damp as the riparian areas that they naturally inhabit. Only Fremont cottonwood, Populus fremontii, gets planted, rarely, and only in big spaces that can accommodate its grand scale.
Although too big and too thirsty for most refined landscapes, cottonwoods work well for shade or erosion control in big parks. However, they need to be in a lawn or irrigated landscape if they are not close enough to riparian areas to disperse their roots into soil that is somewhat moist through most of the year. Even in riparian situations, young trees need irrigation until their roots disperse.
Cottonwoods grow fast and big, with aggressive and potentially destructive roots. They should not be planted too close to pavement or septic systems. Vigorous trees might sometimes need to be pruned to reduce excessive weight. Big trees might grow to nearly a hundred feet tall, with wide canopies. Bark is handsomely furrowed with age. The deciduous foliage turns yellow in autumn.
This ain’t no ordinary maple. Although there are other maples with trifoliate leaves (divided into three distinct palmately arranged leaflets), box elder, Acer negundo, is the only maple with pinnately compound leaves (divided into three or more distinct leaflets that are arranged pinnately on a central rachis). Leaflets might be solitary too. Almost all other maples have palmately lobed leaves.
Box elder is considered to be the ‘trashy’ maple. It grows fast, but only lives for about half a century. The happiest barely get to be twice as old. Because it gets more than forty feet tall, possibly with multiple trunks wider than two feet, it can become quite a big mess as it deteriorates and drops limbs. Yet, it is aggressive enough to have naturalized in many regions where it is not native.
Despite all this, and the lack of good foliar color where autumn weather is mild, a few cultivars of box elder have been developed for landscape use. ‘Flamingo’, which is likely the most popular, is variegated with white through summer, after pink new growth fades. ‘Violaceum’ develops smoky bluish growth in spring. ‘Auratum’ starts out yellowish. Mature leaflets are about three inches long.
It may not be the biggest or best deciduous shade tree, but European white birch, Betula pendula, is famous for tall and elegant white trunks with wispy pendulous stems. It is a very informal tree that typically leans in one way or another, but is somehow right at home in refined landscapes. It is rarely alone, since it is usually planted with two or more friends, and sometimes in groves.
Not many of the biggest European white birch trees are more than fifty feet tall locally. (They can get bigger in cooler climates.) The slender trunks do not get much more than a foot and a half wide. As trees mature, the smooth white bark develops rough black furrows. The small triangular leaves turn soft yellow in autumn. The somewhat sparse foliage makes only moderate shade.
‘Laciniata’ has lacy lobed leaves, and stands straighter and narrower. ‘Youngii’ is so pendulous that it can barely stand up without staking.
The most popular hardwood in California is essentially unavailable in nurseries. California black oak, Quercus kelloggii, provides between a quarter and a third of the hardwood timber harvested in California. One would not know it by its sporadic appearance within mixed forests of the Coastal Ranges. It is much more common in the Sierra Nevada, which might be why no one grows it.
Mature trees can top out at thirty feet with broad canopies if well exposed, or might be more than seventy feet tall and relatively slender if they must compete with other trees. The biggest trees are more than a hundred feet tall. The sculptural trunks are usually less then four feet wide. Trunks of old trees are commonly rotten inside. Gray and smooth young bark gets rough and dark with age.
The distinctively lobed deciduous leaves of California black oak are not much more than four inches long. They can get nearly twice as long on the most vigorous growth, or where shaded. The dark green foliage will slowly turn brown or yellow through autumn, and then defoliate through winter. It can turn a brighter yellow or orange, but then defoliates faster, if the weather gets cool fast.
Now that they have been so popular for so long, the deficiencies of flowering pear, Pyrus calleryana, (which is also known as Callery pear), are becoming increasingly evident. The dense branch structure and compact form that are so appealing while trees are young compromise structural integrity as trees mature. Symmetrical trees can be severely disfigured if limbs get broken by wind.
In the past, flowering pear had been quite resistant to disease and insect infestation. However, now that there are so many of them within minimal proximity of each other, it is nearly impossible to avoid infection with fire blight. To make matters worse, they share this very contagious bacterial disease with fruiting pear, evergreen pear (fruitless) and apple (fruiting and flowering crabapple).
Otherwise, healthy and well structured trees provide some of the best autumn color for mild climates. Foliage that was rich green through summer becomes bright yellow and orange on a weak season, with more bright red and burgundy with a good chill. The white spring bloom is likewise more colorfully profuse after a colder winter, although some find the fragrance to be objectionable.
‘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.