Our top choices for trees that provide interesting foliage, flowers, and fruit and, once established, only need occasional water to thrive
Lauren Dunec Hoang
– October 13, 2015
Photos Lamontagne / Getty Images
1 of12Photos Lamontagne / Getty Images
The elongated flower spikes of these Australian natives are surrounded by long, bristlelike stamens that make blooms look like bottlebrushes. Blooms are followed by woody capsules that can last for years. Some bottlebrushes are dense and compact (making good informal hedges); others are sparse and open (can be pruned into small trees). Weeping bottlebrush (C. viminalis) produces pendulous red blooms and works well pruned into a tree (particularly C. viminalis ‘Captain Cook’ and ‘Red Cascade’). Though tolerant of saline or alkaline soils, they sometimes suffer from chlorosis. Often severely damaged at 20°F (–7°C).
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2 of12Kate Gadsby / Getty Images
Coast silktassel (Garrya ellliptica)
West Coast natives prized for their handsome foliage and pendulous male and female catkins, which appear on separate plants in winter. Male catkins are longer and more decorative than female ones. Trees of both sexes must be present for female plants to produce grapelike clusters of fruit. Densely foliaged plant reaches 8–15 ft. tall and wide in gardens; can be trained as a small tree. Wavy-edged leaves to 3 in. long are dark green above, gray and woolly beneath. Excellent foliage plant; use as screen, informal hedge, or specimen. Needs well-drained soil.
Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
The signature plant for many hot-summer regions, crape myrtle have showy summer flowers, good-looking bark, and brilliant fall color. Long, cool autumns yield the best leaf display. In cool-summer regions, these plants flower less, and mildew is a more serious problem among susceptible varieties. L. indica grows to 25 ft. tall and wide but can kept to a small tree with pruning. Crinkly-petaled, crepelike, 1–11⁄2-in. flowers in white, pink, red and purple form dense clusters in spring and summer. Low water once established.
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4 of12P. Bonduel / Getty Images
Chinese natives with large, prominently veined, sharply toothed leaves that can be cut and used for indoor decoration. Can be espaliered on fence or trellis (but not in reflected heat) and make good container plants. E. japonica produces clusters of 1–2-inch-long edible fruit in spring that have a sweet-tart flavor. Trees require regular moisture to set a good fruit crop. Bronze loquat (Eriobotrya deflexa) bears no fruit, thrives with less water, and is a better choice for an ornamental tree. New leaves emerge in a bright copper color and deepen to green. Plant in well-drained soil. Both types reach 15–30 feet tall but can be kept compact with annual pruning. Subject to fireblight.
Olive (Olea europaea)
These stately trees grow well in areas with hot, dry summers similar to their native Mediterranean region. Smooth gray trunks and branches become gnarled and picturesque with age. The willowlike foliage is a soft gray-green that goes well with most colors in the garden. Trees grow slowly, typically to 25–30 feet tall and wide, but can be pruned to keep small. ‘Arbequina’ is a popular Spanish variety grown for it’s oil-rich fruits. Non-fruiting varieties, such as ‘Swan Hill’, are most appropriate for home gardens as they have no messy fruit drop.
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6 of12James Metcalf / Getty Images
Palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata)
Tough, trouble-free desert trees valued for floral display, shade, and colorful bark. Clusters of small, bright yellow flowers nearly hide the spiny branches. Lightly filtered shade is cast by intricate canopy of twigs rather than by the leaves, which are divided into tiny leaflets and quickly drop in drought or cold. Prune only to enhance form, removing crossing, wayward, or too-low branches; hold off on pruning when temperatures rise above 100°F (38°C). Flowering branches are attractive in arrangements. Trees require little water once established.
Linda Lamb Peters
7 of12Linda Lamb Peters
Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana)
These South American natives bloom in spring, bearing inch-wide flowers with big central tufts of red stamens and four fleshy white petals. Petals are delicious and can be added to fruit salads or used for jams and jellies. Oval, gray green fruit ripens in early fall and has soft, sweet to pulp with flavor somewhat like pineapple. Plants thrive in full sun and can be trained into espaliers, hedges, or small trees. Pineapple guavas are drought tolerant but moderate watering will produce a better fruit crop.
De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images
8 of12De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images
Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis)
The leathery, aromatic leaves of this Mediterranean native are the traditional bay leaves used in cooking. The plant grows slowly to 12–40 ft. tall and wide, but can easily be kept compact with annual pruning. Clusters of small yellow spring flowers are followed by black or dark purple, 1⁄2–1-in. fruit. ‘Saratoga’ has broader leaves and a more treelike habit. This is a classic formal container plant in all climates; where temperatures drop to 20°F (–7°C) or below, move to a greenhouse or cool, well-lighted room during the cold months. Not fussy about soil but needs good drainage. Subject to black scale and laurel psyllid (‘Saratoga’ is resistant to psyllid).
Linda Lamb Peters
9 of12Linda Lamb Peters
Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)
Thrives in a wide range of climates and soils, from desert to seashore; tolerates wind at the beach. In California, it is one of the best lawn trees. Attracts birds. Trunk and branches have rich red-brown, shredding bark; tend to become twisted and gnarled in age. Dark green leaves are oblong. Clusters of small white or greenish white, urn-shaped flowers and yellow (young) or red (mature), round, 3⁄4-in. fruit, like strawberries in texture, appear at the same time in fall and winter. Fruit is edible but usually mealy and bland in flavor.
Thomas J. Story
10 of12Thomas J. Story
Tea tree (Leptospermum)
A native to Australia and New Zealand, the plants produce small, oval leaves and an abundance of tiny flowers. The common name is a historical reference—Captain Cook supposedly brewed from the leaves and gave to his crew to help prevent scurvy. In home gardens, plants can be used as casual evergreen shrubs or trained into small trees. The small, velvety flowers are typically white, pink, or red. Petals surround a central cup that matures to a woody seed capsule. Plant in well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Needs little water once established. L. scoparium is shown.
rmh31284 / Getty Images
11 of12rmh31284 / Getty Images
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
This handsome evergreen plant forms a dense shrub or a multi-trunked small tree. Leathery dark green leaves are edged with bristly, pointed teeth. Profuse small white flowers in flattish clusters appear in summer; these are followed in fall to winter by pea-size bright red berries, much relished by birds. Sometimes called Christmas Berry or California holly, toyon is native to the California Coast Ranges, Sierra Nevada foothills, and Baja California. Plants have evolved to be drought tolerant but look better in gardens with low to moderate water.
Linda Lamb Peters
12 of12Linda Lamb Peters
Smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria)
Unusual and colorful small trees create a broad, urn-shaped mass usually as wide as high. They are naturally multi-stemmed but can be trained to a single trunk. The common name is derived from dramatic puffs of “smoke” from fading flowers: as the tiny greenish blooms wither, they send out elongated stalks clothed in a profusion of fuzzy lavender-pink hairs. ‘Royal Purple’ holds its brownish leaf color through summer; ‘Grace’ has vibrant orange fall color. In cold areas, plants are deciduous in winter. Perform best planted in quick-draining soil.