Flowering Trees

a photo of a Kousa dogwood in bloom

By Barbara Perry Lawton

(This article first appeared in The Gateway Gardener March 2006 issue)
a photo of a Kousa dogwood in bloom

Kousa dogwood, Cornus kousa, photo by Robert Weaver

Invest in your future enjoyment by planting trees wisely. For an extra added bonus, choose trees that bloom. We are familiar with the many well-known fruit trees of the rose family—apples, cherries, plums, peaches and crabapples. But don’t limit your horizons to these handsome flowering trees.

Flowering trees of other families also are worth considering. High on my list is the yellowwood tree (Cladrastis kentukea formerly lutea), a member of the pea family that is native and found scattered throughout our region. The pendulous bunches of flowers appear in late spring. A tree in full flower appears to be absolutely dripping with white pea-like blooms with a sensuous fragrance. The yellowwood needs well-draining soils and is tolerant of pH variations in the soil. This is a good medium-sized landscape tree for smaller properties. There are related species from Japan and China. There also is a pink-flowered form, ‘Rosea’—I’ve never seen this one in person but it sounds beautiful.

Also members of the pea family are our familiar native redbuds (Cercis canadensis)

a picture of a redbud tree in bloom

Redbud, Cercis canadensis, photo by Dan Billman

found in the understory of woods throughout Missouri and Illinois. The dark purplish buds appear in March and April, then open to rosy-pink flowers that appear not only in bunches along the twigs but all along the branches and trunks in older trees. There also are white redbuds—you can see them each spring at the Missouri Botanical Garden—that are spectacular ornamentals. Other redbud cultivars feature purple or variegated leaves, double flowers and bright pink flowers. There also is a related species from China. The redbuds are very adaptable to various soils and full sun to partial shade. They are equally great as single specimens or when planted in groupings.

a picture of a flowering dogwood tree in bloom

Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, photo by Robert Weaver

Every landscape should have a flowering dogwood of some sort. Cornus florida is, along with the redbuds, a native understory tree of Midwestern wooded areas. It thrives in an acid, well-draining soil that is rich in organic matter. Don’t plant dogwoods out in the middle of a sunny yard—they are much better suited for sites that are sheltered from harsh hot afternoon sun.

The flowers are those little unimportant greenish-yellow things in the center of the colorful fruiting twig. The four pure-white bracts that surround the flower cluster are what are so handsome when they appear in April to May. There are many flowering dogwood cultivars from which to choose—I counted over five dozen in one resource. Additionally, there are close relatives that may serve just as well in the home landscape. The kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) is my favorite of the relatives, with its pointy ivory-white bracts that, unlike our natives, appear after the leaves come out.

Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha) is a tree discovered by the eminent botanist John Bartram along the banks of the Altahama River in Georgia in 1770. Oddly, it was never again seen in the wild after 1790. This is a small tree that features five-petaled flowers with yellow stamens in late summer. The slightly cupped flowers are 3 inches across and fragrant. Fall color is spectacular with reds, yellows and oranges all at the same time. This woody plant must have acid soil to thrive, preferably a highly organic soil.

The southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is also called the evergreen magnolia or bull bay. This is a tall tree, up to 60 or even 80 feet in height, with gorgeous, fragrant, pearly white flowers that appear in May or June. The flowers grow singly and are 8 to 12 inches in diameter, a glorious sight in bloom. In our continental climate of extremes, this tree needs to be sheltered from winter winds and afternoon sun.

Although its native habitat is farther south than our region, I’ve seen a number of lovely specimens at the botanical garden and also in home landscapes. For the southern magnolia to thrive, it should have soil that is well draining, rich in organic matter and on the acid side. There are many fine cultivars of the southern magnolia. Also, there are many close relatives of this magnolia that would be outstanding in home landscapes.

Locusts (Robinea pseudoacacia), members of the pea family, are able to thrive in poor dry soil as well as salty soils such as found by major suburban roads or near driveways and sidewalks that are salted during icy spells. Their fragrant pendulous flower clusters appear in early summer. A subspecies (R. p. decaiseana) that bears pink flowers is worth considering.

Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO.