Growing up as a child in the 1970’s and 80’s, the game kickball was a popular playground sport. We took the game very seriously and at times we brought competition to heightened levels. With designated team captains we always had the students pick the teams. Today, our politically correct culture has what some believe to be a more fair process by counting off students. This eliminates the hardship of having the same children picked last. What does this analogy have to do with plants; the scenario conjured up images of customers, time and time again, picking the same few trees to adorn their homes. Dogwoods, Redbuds, Japanese maples, Cherry, Magnolia and Pear trees all seem to reign supreme, while other trees with remarkable attributes seldom get picked.
Korean Evodia, Evodia daniellii, is a beautiful medium sized tree for your yard. Pinnately compound, dark green leaves cloth this round-headed tree that comfortably reaches 15-25 feet tall. While heights of 40-50 feet are obtainable, they are seldom seen in residential landscapes. In early summer, Evodia has creamy white, flat-topped flower clusters that are fragrant and are a haven for bees. Red to black fruits follows these flower clusters and its bark, at maturity, is smooth and grey rounding out its overall beauty. Finally, Evodia is not fussy and is able to tolerate most soil types.
Hardy Rubber tree, Eucommia ulmoides, is another tree off the radar. Grown as an ornamental shade tree, Rubber tree has attractive elm-like, glossy green foliage and
excellent resistance to disease and insect problems. A low branched tree, it typically grows to 40-60 feet tall and has a rounded spreading crown. Dioecious, female flowers give way to flattened ash-like winged seeds. The common name gives reference to the fact that rubber can be made from the sap. However, the extraction process is too cumbersome for commercial use. Tear a leaf; peel the bark or break a branch and a stringy latex-like sap will appear. Hardy to zone 4, this tree has reportedly survived -20°F. Drought tolerant, Hardy Rubber tree is impressive to see, especially on a hot, dry summer day as the foliage is nearly unblemished.
One of my favorite trees has very little presence in todays residential garden. Amur Maackia, Maackia amurensis, has so much to give yet it remains unknown to many. A small to medium sized tree, the leaves are composed of five to seven leaflets. The new foliage is dusted with a grayish pubescence giving way to a rich green. Dull white, pea-like flowers appear in 4-6 inch long racemes in June and July, another reason for loving this tree. So many get caught up with Redbuds, Cherries, Plum and Magnolia all of which flower so early in the season. It’s nice to have a tree, whose flowers you can truly appreciate, in the months you are outside enjoying your garden. The fragrance of Maackia flowers incidentally, has been likened to that of freshly mown alfalfa. Maackia’s bark is shiny and amber colored and as it matures the bark peels into loose flakes and curls. Avoid heavier clay soils with this tree and you will have a gorgeous tree anywhere you have sun. A final footnote for Amur Maackia, the “genus commemorates a Russian naturalist, Richard Maack” (Manual of Woody Landscape Plants Michael A Dirr).
Russian-olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia, rounds out this short list of underused trees. Certainly better represented down the Jersey shore given its salt tolerance, Russian-olive, for me, has always had a Mediterranean feel to it. Its loose, light texture and oblong lanceolate silvery gray foliage is tough to beat should you want a different look all together. Silvery white to yellowish fragrant flowers coupled with silver-scaled, drupe-like fruit all add to this trees uniqueness. Tolerant of acid, high pH, saline and dry soils its no wonder it does so well down the Shore. About the only thing this tree doesn’t like, other than the shade, is heavy, wet soils. Native to Southern Europe and Asia, this little gem will grow 10-20 feet tall and wide. A vigorous grower, Russian-olive makes a great patio tree for around the pool too.
There are so many wonderful trees to consider when planning your garden. Aside from the pedestrian choices that many make, these trees offer outstanding attributes in our warmer summer months. Despite the fact that their names may not be as recognizable to you, their presence in your garden is sure to bring you happiness for years to come.