They say the best time to plant a tree was yesterday—which means the second best time is today. This saying is especially true with shade trees, which usually take a decade or more to grow big enough to provide much shade. As the summer heats up, you may find yourself wishing the previous owners of your home had planted one decades ago, but that’s all the more reason to plant one this summer.
Mature trees are a tremendous asset to the home landscape and help to make our neighborhoods and cities cooler, greener, and more livable. It’s all about planting the right tree in the right place, however. Here are a few ideas for widely adapted shade trees that fill particular niches in the landscape.
1. Fast-Growing: Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa)
If you’re in a hurry for shade, there is no tree that grows faster than the princess tree. They also make a lot of shade, as the leaves can be up to 12 inches across. With their enormous heart-shaped leaves, they look like something from the tropics but they are actually quite hardy. Under ideal conditions the princess tree can grow 30 feet or more in 5 years. Princess trees are widely adapted to soil type and climatic zone, and are rarely troubled by pests or disease.
Before you start thinking that princess trees sound too good to be true, it must be said that they come with one major caveat: they are considered an invasive species in some areas. However, in most other parts of the country they are well-behaved and are the closest thing there is to an instant shade tree. 60 feet tall x 40 feet wide. USDA zones 5 to 9.
2. Evergreen: Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
Evergreen shade trees are few and far between. Most are skinny conifers that don’t actually provide much shade, but deep in the southeastern U.S. lurks one of the few large non-coniferous trees found in North America. Fortunately, it's adapted to most of the warmer regions of the country and is very easy to grow. Southern magnolias have 8-inch, oval-shaped glossy green leaves, which tend to blanket the ground around them, providing a convenient mulch.
Southern magnolias grow best in rich, slightly acidic soil and need regular irrigation. Unlike most shade trees that lose their leaves and become completely transparent in winter, this species provides a green screen year round. 80 feet tall by 40 feet wide. USDA zones 7 to 10.
3. Wet Soils: Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica)
If you have a low spot in the yard or happen to live in a place with a high water table, you may have found out the hard way that a large number of plants are just not cut out for soggy soil. When it comes to large shade trees, there are almost none to choose from, but there is one standout: the legendary weeping willow. With its gracefully arching branches that sway dreamily in the wind, there are few trees as romantic as this one and the wetter the soil, the faster they grow.
Weeping willows are perfect for landscaping around a pond or stream and also happen to be one of the easiest trees to propagate if you want to make more. Simply cut a branch about one inch in diameter and several feet long and stick the cut end in a bucket of water—roots will form within a few weeks and it can then be planted in the ground. 70 feet tall by 70 feet wide. USDA zones 2 to 9.
4. Drought Tolerant: Red Oak (Quercus spp.)
Water conservation is a top priority among environmentally-conscious gardeners these days. There are quite a few drought-tolerant shade tree to choose from, but few are as handsome and stately as red oaks. They are found on dry hillsides in natural forests, but they're also easily found at local nurseries and have a majestic presence when planted in the home landscape.
There are actually numerous species of red oak native to different parts of North America, but they all have pointed tips on their leaves and turn a deep crimson color in fall. Try to find one native to your area. It takes a bit of patience to grow oak trees to maturity, but they live for decades, if not centuries, once they are established. 80 feet tall by 60 feet wide. USDA zones 5 to 9.
5. Flowering: Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Most trees that are large enough to qualify as a shade tree have fairly small, inconspicuous flowers. The tulip poplar, however, is an aesthetic gem. Just as the leaves emerge in spring, the tips of the branches give birth to 3-inch green, cream, and orange flowers that resemble a striped tulip. The leaves themselves are equally delicate and refined. They have five tips like a maple leaf, but their texture is silky smooth and the color is a soothing spring green. In fall, the foliage turns a golden yellow color.
Tulip poplars are native to the eastern U.S., but are adapted throughout much of the country. They need rich topsoil and regular irrigation, but if these basic requirements are met, they usually remain healthy and are rarely bothered by pests or disease. 100 feet tall by 50 feet wide. USDA zones 5 to 9.