deciding on a small tree

dead-tree-fernThe record heat in October and November finally did in the Australian tree fern that I’d been nursing. The plant grows in full sun in its native environment, and was supposed to be able to survive full sun in coastal California. But two months of the hottest and driest weather this past year took care of what little will to live the plant had left.

The fern served as a focal point in the garden, and its passing left a big void and a sad stick of dead trunk. It doesn’t help that the neighbor’s basketball backboard lines up almost perfectly with the dead trunk.

We toyed briefly with training a small vine up the dead trunk, celebrating life and death and renewal and all that, but we couldn’t think of something that would look great as the main focal point of the space. So we were faced with coming up with a suitable replacement.

We started with some basic requirements:

  • The tree should max out in the 12-20 foot range and be not too broad–There’s a young tangerine tree nearby that we wouldn’t want to shade.
  • Some plants immediately nearby would appreciate some shade, but others are quite happy with close to full sun; a tree that could be trained to have an open branch structure would work well.
  • Something with a graceful natural form would be terrific–no big green popsicle-looking shade trees, please.
  • The plant should be pretty easy to find locally, and couldn’t cost too much.
  • This being drought-prone California, a tree that would be able to get by with much lower water requirements than original the tree fern would be a must.
  • The “look” of the tree would have to complement Mediterranean, tropical or just plain odd-looking plants.
  • Though not an absolute requirement, a native plant would be nice.

The short list came down to four trees or large shrubs.

Ginkgo biloba
Pros: Both John and I have always loved ginkgos, particularly their distinctive foliage and incendiary yellow autumn coloration. And their history of being a living fossil is cool. There are strains that range from little round shrubs to massive shade trees, with a couple options in the 12-20 foot range that could be trained with multiple trunks. Though not desert plants, they can make do with fairly low amounts of water.

Cons: Availability, mostly. Local sources carry the itty bitty bonsai-friendly subjects or the big shade trees, nothing in between. The tree grows really slowly, so getting a specimen of the small varieties would be a challenge. The final look of the plant, too, might not be perfect for the location.

AgonisBlack peppermint willow (a.k.a. Australian myrtle willow), Agonis flexuosa ‘Jervis Bay Afterdark’
Pros: Striking dark dark dark purple (almost black) leaves, and a neat weeping habit. The bark is shaggy and attractive. Rapid growth to its target size. Drought tolerant.

Cons: The plant seems to develop a dense shade-tree look as it matures–maybe too dense for the spot. The literature says this form only gets to sixteen feet or so, but it’s only been around for a decade. Call me distrustful, but I’m just suspicious that it could be more maintenance than I want to sign up for to keep it small. Mature trunks seem large in scale to the plant. There’s a bamboo nearby, and it might be just too much wispy, willowy foliage.

[ Image from Metro Trees ]

Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia x fauriei
Pros:Several clones are available locally in boxed specimen size for not too much money–instant gratification! Gorgeous summertime flowers. Interesting exfoliating bark. The fauriei hybrids resist mildew better than the pure species.

Cons: Their colors would look really similar to a pair of nearby bougainvilleas. The rigid forms of the trees would definitely pull the garden in a formal Mediterranean direction.

Dr. Hurd manzanitaDr. Hurd manzanita, Arctostaphylos x ‘Dr. Hurd’
Pros: Perfect eventual size (ca. 15 feet). Fairly fast-growing for a manzanita (though no speed demon). Dramatic red-brown stems with large light green leaves. Drought-tolerant, but also more tolerant of garden water than most manzanitas. Flowers in the winter.

Cons: Sporadic availability locally, and possibly only in small sizes. I’m worried that the spot might be just a little over-wet for even this manzanita.

[ Image from San Marcos Growers, who grew my plant ]

So what was the decision? I put a five-gallon manzanita on order and it hit the nursery a few days later. It’s more of a Charlie Brown shrub at this point and will take some patience and a few years to get to its final size. If it survives the amount of water it gets, if it attains the size I want, if it behaves well with its neighbors, it could be the perfect plant for this location. Check back in five years and I’ll tell you how it’s worked out…

Coincidentally Saturday’s Los Angeles Times had a whole page spread on manzanitas a full eight days after I put mine in the ground. I felt so much ahead of the Times…

9 thoughts on “deciding on a small tree”

  1. Isn’t it so funny when you do or think something and all of a sudden it’s a media trend. Where DO thoughts come from. Under pros for your manzanita, maybe habitat value? Hummingbirds and butterflies both use the winter flowers, and of course the ‘little apples’ are popular with wildlife too…

  2. Pam, I’m looking forward to the plant maturing and saying “California” a little louder than it does right now…

    Outofdoors, the habitat and wildlife snack potential of the plant should have been on my list, for sure. Although it’s not a “pure” species, the wildlife won’t care much. Winter food for hummingbirds should be definite bonus. A lot of their favorite plants aren’t doing much right now.

  3. How about a California Redbud? They grow slowly, but if you could afford a larger one to start, it would look stunning all year. For something that grows fast, I’d recommend Sambuccus mexicana (Blue Elderberry). That will need some water to get established but is drought-tolerant afterwards and an excellent habitat plant. Can train as bush or tree, same is true for the Redbud. Have fun!

    1. Good ideas, Mouse. In fact I looked at the redbud a couple times, including some that were available bare-root. I like the structure of the plant. I’ll have to admit I’m less familiar with the sambuca in a garden setting, although they grow near me. I’ll pay more attention to them in case another space frees up…

  4. Full sun, low water, good-looking garden trees are always challenging. I’m not familiar with the Black Peppermint Willow so am going to look that one up. For crape myrtles, the problem is that they have become so popular in front yard gardens and commercial plantings, they can seem too ordinary (can you say agapanthus and daylilies?). However, if you can find a multi-trunked specimen and you have room to let it spread more widely and are willing to prune, you’ll wind up with one of the loveliest trees around.

    Another option is a Ray Hartmon Ceanothus, trained as a standard, although it’s hard to find them already trained this way.

  5. Susan, what you mention about crape myrtles definitely entered into my thinking. They ARE awfully common. Still, when I seen them in bloom, I develop an appreciation for them all over again. But there are lots of plants that are rarer and just as cool.

    The ceanothus would have been a much quicker effect in the garden. Most I’ve seen have been glossy green mounds with less structure than I wanted. But, yeah, I could have shown some imagination. I don’t have to take the plant shape as it comes off the shelf. I do own a few pairs of clippers…

  6. I’m glad to know you chose a manzanita. I loved seeing them in the canyons of the Mojave where I used to live. Very special. Another one that might have worked is a Vitex. I’ve seen them limbed into gorgeous shapely trees, with flowers galore. I hope to one day plant one.

    1. Lynn, I hadn’t thought of vitex. I like its flowers, and the plant has a terrific structure to it. So many plants, so little space!

      Your Mojave manzanita sightings some amazing. I hope my new little plant lives up to that!

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