The best estimate for the number of tree species in the world is 23,000 to 25,000. That means that we have more to choose from than just maples, redbuds, oaks, or Leyland cypresses.
I will be the first to admit that some of the trees I’m recommending will not be easy to find, nor will you have the choice of a 3” caliper tree. Many times you will have one option and that is a stick. Let me enlighten you about sticks.
There is plenty of research that finds a smaller tree will establish faster (and less transplant shock) and grow faster in the first several years after planting than a large caliper tree. Often, a tree planted when 24-36” tall will outgrow the same species tree planted as a much larger 2” caliper transplant and actually be larger in 5-10 years.
Also, please don’t settle for whatever the garden center or nursery has on site. Many times they can order the plant you want. Ask them to do it for you so they know you are not satisfied with what they have in stock.
The following is a list of some uncommon, small, tough landscape trees for around your home. This is certainly not an exhaustive list but these are some really interesting trees.
- Trident maple (Acer buergerianum) -- 20-30' tall, rounded form, fall color yellow-red, unique leaf shape, tolerant of heat, compacted soils, and pH, exfoliating bark
- Hedge maple (Acer campestre) -- 25-35' tall, rounded form, yellow fall color, ornamental seedpods, tolderant of drought, heat, compacted soils, and pH
- Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) -- 20-30' tall, rounded form, red fall color, exfoliating cinnamon-colored bark, trifoliate leaves, grows better in good soils
- Speckled alder (Alnus rugosa) -- 20-25' tall, upright form, minimal fall color, has ability to dry out wet areas, tolerates poor soils, fast-growing
- Serviceberry (Amelachier spp.) -- 15-25' tall, upright form, red-yellow-orange fall color, blooms early, edible fruit, pH-tolerant, some good selections are 'Autumn Brilliance' and 'Lustre'
- Devil's Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa) -- 10-20' tall, open and upright form, yellow fall color, tolerates heat and dry shade, suckering, has spines, compound leaves, lends tropical look
- Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) -- 15-20' tall, pyramidal (in full sun), yellow fall color, can be difficult to transplant, no fruit if only one tree, tropical-looking
- Sweet birch (Betula lenta) -- to 40' tall, upright form, great yellow fall color, reddish-brown papery bark, bruised stems emit wintergreen aroma
- American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) -- 20-30' tall, rounded, irregular form, red-orange-yellow fall color, fluted bark looks like rippled muscles, tolerant of wet soils and pH
- Katsuratree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) -- to 50' tall, upright, rounded form, yellow fall color, heart-shaped foliage, weeping form 'Amazing Grace' only 30' tall, fall leaves smell like cotton candy
- Amur maackia (Maackia amurensis) -- 20-25' tall, rounded form, no fall color, very attractive redish, exfoliating bark, compound leaves, dull white, pea-like flower in summer
- Persian parrotia (Parrotia persica) -- 20-30' tall, upright oval form, yellow-red fall color, exfoliating bark, unusual early spring blooms, pH tolerant, best upright form 'Jennifer Teates'
- Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) -- 30' tall. upright oval form, evergreen, exfoliating bark, often multi-trunked, drought and pH tolerant, 'Silver Ghost'
- Dragon's Eye Pine (Pinus densiflora) -- 20' tall, irregular form ,evergreen, variegated needles with 1-2 yellow bands, slow-growing