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My Favorite Tree




I am often asked, "what's your favorite tree?" The question is vague and my reply can vary. For example, when I field the question (the season) can have bearing and I typically respond presuming the inquirer means species rather than specimen . . . sometimes they don't. Moreover, there are numerous factors in play. Perhaps the best way to answer is a general grade by group or category (i.e., {A} excellent/good, {B} okay and {C} poor/bad).

Again, the question is MY FAV TREE? Because there are so many from which to choose, I will limit the candidates to the 100+ species native to Indiana. Accordingly, my category A tree species are (not rank ordered): shagbark hickory, pecan, sassafras, Northern catalpa, several oaks (bur, chestnut, chinquapin, Northern red, white), American sycamore, American elm, American beech, musclewood, Kentucky coffeetree, black gum, serviceberry, Eastern red-cedar (juniper), bald cypress, tamarack/larch, Eastern white-cedar (arborvitae), Canadian hemlock, black walnut, butternut, yellowwood, persimmon, sourwood, paper birch, yellow birch, hackberry, sugarberry, redbud, tulip tree, witch-hazel, Virginia pine, Jack pine, Eastern white pine, pawpaw, quaking aspen, flowering dogwood and sugar maple. The ones in boldface are my top 15, also NOT rank ordered. It was VERY hard to narrow the field (something like a botanical Sophie's choice) and take care to understand I AM NOT suggesting these species are ALL good candidates for your property. They are species I favor -- various reasons. Furthermore, the Q was NOT what is the best ornamental tree, although I suspect most of you will interpret it that way. Many of the species listed get too big for the typical quarter-acre lot. Those species (Eastern white pine, sycamore, the oaks, tulip tree, et al.) would be fine in a park setting, just NOT recommended for a small residential lot. In some instances it is habitat (e.g., compacted poor soil) or other issues, like prone to being messy, that would disqualify (i.e, make them unsuitable) -- landscaping should be more than color coordination! Moreover, cultivars of some species are much better than the normal species in a garden setting or residential location (e.g., bald cypress, Eastern white pine and sweet gum). -- My assessment (the preceding categorization) is based on the normal species.

If I generated a similar list based on a location a few hundred miles in any direction away from Indiana the list would change. Moreover, if I expanded the qualification to include hardy nonnative taxa, but kept the same number of listees (~40), half of those named would not make the cut. Furthermore, notice that I (1) reluctantly, did not include black locust, honey locust, sweet gum and wafer ash, (2) excluded (but an easy call) river birch (see my Aug 2020 rant), basswood, pin oak (red oaks in general), and wild black cherry, (3) included no ashes (but would have before emerald ash borer) and (4) there is only one maple included despite the fact there are several species indigenous to Indiana.

Maples seem to be the most common landscaping tree. There is a large silver maple (Acer saccharinum) at my place in NE Indianapolis. The plant, probably volunteer, was here when the property was purchased and is still here ONLY because I cannot afford to have it removed. Silver maple is a fast-growing, potentially large, fracture prone and messy species, suitable for river banks and parks but not one I recommend for yards, especially if the lot is small! Likewise for red maple (A. rubrum). And, as with silver maple, red maple is a weedy native wetland/riparian species. Too many people let the native tag bias and blind them. A native messy weed is still a messy weed. I am a hardcore gardener and have three acres but NO red maples, nor will I get one even though it is a landscaping favorite and a money-maker for plant businesses, especially tree farms. Red maple, which is sometimes called swamp maple, is an OKAY (category B) tree but there are many better options. Why would I (or you) ever want or settle for an available B grade species? About the only red maple attributes I find appealing are its mostly red pendulant clusters of wind AND insect pollinated spring flowers and fall leaf color, also red -- combined they account for 3-4 weeks annually. Don't believe my assessment, consider what the eminent Michael Dirr had to say in a 2012 Indianapolis talk, "We're killing our cities with red maples." Further, I find the various forms, including the promoted red x silver maple hybrid ('Freemanii' or freeman's maple) uninteresting, a pedestrian choice. Perhaps as a parking lot tree, but no way I would consider putting a red maple in a garden. If forced to get one it would be 'October Glory', but I would probably soon dismember and place it on the burn pile. I like the weedy native green stemmed boxelder (A. negundo) even less. I profiled boxelder in my May 2022 rant. As regards the commonly used, powdery mildew prone and invasive nonnative Norway maple (A. platanoides), NEVER! This ill-advised species is distiguished by its wide-spreading paired winged seeds (forming nearly a 180-degree angle) as well as by its milky sap (visible when the petiole is broken). Black maple (A. nigrum), is often considered a subspecies or variety of sugar maple. It is a nice native tree but rarely available in commerce. FYI, the sides of black maple leaves droop, and black x sugar hybrids are common. Acer pensylvanicum (moosewood, striped or snakebark maple) is a small (20-30 feet) understory tree found naturally east, south and north of Indiana. Moosewood has interesting young bark (greenish-grey with white stripes) and compelling chains of winged seeds (samaras). Moosewood also has wonderful large (hand-sized) leaves which turn an eye-catching yellow in fall. Unfortunately, moosewood is rarely available or used. Like Oriental maples, moosewood is a forest edge or understory species, thus prefers a little shade. The very similar Manchurian striped maple AKA snakebark maple (A. tegmentosum) likewise has attractive chained racemous flowers in mid-spring. I recently was pleasantly surprised with the discovery that the flowers comprising those 4-5-inch long chains are sweetly fragrant . . . detectable from several feet distant! The cultivar 'Joe Witt' is a very nice landscape addition for those capable of tolerating a uniquely interesting benign nonnative small tree. -- Chapter 90 in my Rantings book covers maples hardy in central Indiana.

But I digressed. In my considered opinion, the top Midwest native tree is sugar maple (Acer saccharum). I dare say, a treemendous plant! Quoting Michael Dirr (re sugar maple), "True nobility . . . challenged by many, rivaled by none." There are multiple reasons I favor sugar maple. I suspect Dirr would concur :) To begin, sugar maple has outstanding fall color, a stunning radiant yellow-orange-red (see top pic). Further, the species can Iive 400+ years, exceptionally large specimens can top 80 feet tall with a corresponding canopy and old specimens (see top pic) are captivating. The sugar maple bole can exceed four feet DBH and the bark is magnificent -- wavy, irregularly plated, grey-brown, with scattered vertical zones of underbark hinting of cinnamon. The regular species is excellent and there are some interesting cultivars, perhaps a dozen -- the species has remarkable morphological plasticity. Of the regular form named variants I have seen I prefer 'Legacy' and 'Green Mountain' but another one is the most peculiar. 'Monumentale', also known as 'Temple's Upright', is a hard to find narrow mutant that gets tall but the canopy rarely more than a few feet wide. Think telephone pole with leaves -- an incredible plant! By the way, contrary to some literature reports, I have found the growth rate of 'Monumentale' to be impressive (see middle pic, 16 ft, 5 years since planted and likely 8 years old). Related, in the late 1980s, while on the way to visit a natural area (Flint Barrens, I think) in Harrison Co, IN with a group of botanists, an awesome contorted sugar maple caught my attention along a backroad (at a dogleg) in a barn lot with no associated dwelling. The small contorted leaves, branching and bizzare bark were like none I had seen before or since. I still occasionally dream about the experience! By the way, the entire plant was atypical. I continue to wonder if it was virus induced or just an incredible natural mutation. While on the topic of mutants, a small form of sugar maple should be offered. A smaller form that maintains all the characteristics of the normal species, like 'Millane's Dwarf'? However, because of the rarity, associated price and the slow growth rate of dwarfs, I suspect only genuine plant lovers would appreciate and have the patience for such a special find. Similarly, while driving to Chicago a few years ago, I spied a spectacular wild-growing sugar maple along I-69 NW of Indianapolis. I recently visited the specimen (see bottom pic above). I suspect this neglected beauty, which I christened 'Boone', is at least 200 years old. The DBH is 34 inches and the tree is 80 feet tall, but the canopy width averages just 20 feet! Not a plant one forgets. It would do well in commerce; perfect for the contemporary urban homescape. -- I find "special tree hunting" when traveling an enjoyable pastime. See also my Jan 2021 rant Silhouetting.

In addition to ornamental value, several species of maple can be tapped for syrup but sugar maple is the predominant source since it has the highest concentration of sap sugar. In case you had not noticed, the scientific name (Acer saccharum) literally means maple sugar. Trust me, tapping sugar maple trees is natural magic! I have taken to using maple syrup as the sugar in my cocktails. My friend and neighbor Christy Jacobi smartly uses the raw sap she harvests as her tea water. FYI, the sap output from a single tap is 10-20 gallons each season with the flow varying by specimen and conditions, especially temperature. Moreover, there is a marked difference between the early and late season product, both sugar concentration (~2%) and taste. The late season syrup grade is darker and has a more robust flavor. Furthermore, there is a corresponding increase between flow quantity and trunk diameter and the drill hole (a new one is required each season) does not harm the tree and it will close/heal naturally. Unfortunately, the tapping season, like fall harvest, is another tradition that has become less common as we have allowed ourselves to be less connected to the land. You can have the hyped, corporate sports, super bowl tribal madness. I'll take the proximate laborious ritual of maple tapping and the associated Sugar Moon. Beware that the harvest season varies . . . necessitates being attune to the release from winter. The ritual is a true harbinger of spring. A real extended nontheistic spiritual celebration with a sweet sacrament. Again, natural magic.

Most maple wood is inferior but not sugar maple. Referred to as hard or rock maple, the sapwood is dense, finely tight-grained, durable, and cream to pale brown. The heartwood is more reddish brown. Hard maple makes superior flooring and furniture. Moreover, sugar maple wood sometimes has phenomenal patterning or figuring (e.g., bird's eye and tiger). Tiger maple furniture is special.

Yet too much of a good thing can be bad. A major problem in our temperate forests is too high a density of sugar maple trees. This is a condition (a change) field biologists started noticing about 50 years ago. The recommended spacing for large diameter (6-inch plus) specimens in a healthy forest needs be at least 30 feet. Now, in many wood lots one often can find several dozen sugar maples in an area equal to that occupied by a single 60-foot canopy (~3,000 sq. ft). This density increases the already heavy shade produced by sugar maples -- red maple trees also produce heavy shade. This heavy shade has a negative impact on the growth of forest understory species and leads to a net soil loss beneath . . . oxidation v addition. It is important to understand that the addition of organic matter in the soil is primarily by the fibrous roots of forb and graminoid species rather than plant litter (or mulch) accumulation on the surface. However, climate change is likely to halt or at least reduce the density problem as a warmer climate WILL NOT favor sugar maple. Moreover, the warming will affect the sap/syrup harvest season (likely shortening it) and probably will impact both the quantity and quality of the output. My buddy Pete Berg, owner of the unique and impressive Woody Warehouse (Lizton, IN), recently informed me there is a problem with sugar maple seed viability. Evidently the problem has existed for several years . . . perhaps part of the anticipated change I alluded to.

Recently (Jan 2023 rant) I posted a blog on Oriental maples. Like their Asian cousins, red and sugar maples have shallow roots which makes planting beneath them difficult (both from the root mass and water hogging, plus the heavy shade). Compounding the difficulty, specimens are frequently planted improperly (i.e., the wrong depth relative to the surrounding grade) which exacerbates the exposed root problem often associated with improperly planted maples. By the way, Mother Nature always does it properly. The shallow rooting makes maple trees the most likely to cause hard surface uplift damage -- planted too close (inadequate space for roots) and not at the proper depth.

Bottom line: if you are considering a landscape shade tree, both red and sugar maples attain about the same size, but I would always choose a sugar over a red. No contest! Moreover, I do not recall having seen an attractive older red maple whereas elderly sugar maples can be majestic (see pics). I am even impressed with sugar maples in decline . . . they have a special elegance. Further, I am especially captivated by the often severe angle of sugar maple branching . . . sometimes truly 90 degrees, or more, and with variable orientation. It is easy to imagine them as anthropomorphic, like Ents and Huorns, the walking treelike creatures in Tolkien's Middle-earth. Look at the specimen (top pic above) and tell me you cannot imagine a face behind where the lower leaves obscure the trunk . . . and suddenly arms and a body appear. Neither the bark or the branching on red maple are as winsome. -- I always suspected a maple or European beech (Fagus sylvatica) inspired Tolkien's creatures called Ents, derived from the Old English word for giant, but I recently read that it was likely an English oak (Quercus robur). And, re the unrestricted list of my fav trees I suggested earlier, European beech would be near the top.

Before ending, I want to weigh-in on four related topics:

First, I will share a mantra voiced to all my gardening classes and assessees. NO woody plant (tree, shrubs and vines) stops growing unless dormant or dead. That is, ALL woody plants have indeterminate growth. The "mature size" frequently printed on labels (willingly swallowed, as gets no bigger) is helpful marketing BS. Misinformation intended to (1) not scare or alarm you and thusly (2) entice you to make a purchase. Caveat emptor! Moreover, the size range given, which varies by species (and cultivar), is suppose to indicate an average 10-year measure, but almost no one interprets it that way. And ask yourself, 10 years from when? What's more, want to know how big the thing might get, as I have heard my buddy and superb gardener Jay Park tell many people, simply multiply the potential longevity by the mean yearly increase in length. Bear in mind that the rate and species longevity may vary in relationship to the health and age of the specimen, cultivation and growing conditions (i.e., location and climate), as can the orientation of the new growth. By the way, the increase in length (i.e., height and canopy width) is referred to as primary growth. The increase in trunk diameter is called secondary growth, and is produced by different tissue. -- See also Chapter 66 (Shrubs and Trees) in my Rantings book.

Second, realize that the definition of tree, which attempts to combine growth form and size, is not without problems. Typically, that definition is any (non-vining) woody (thus perennial) species (1) with one trunk, (2) able to attain a 3-inch diameter and (3) able to grow at least 20-feet tall. However, a rigid adherence to the definition, a forced binary distinction, means that arborvitae and witch-hazel, as well as others, often would not qualify. I refer to these species, and others like them, not as trees or shrubs, but shrees -- either more than one bole and/or rarely meeting the height delimiter. Trub is another neonym combination option, but I prefer shree. Perhaps trub for those that are single trunked but never tall enough to qualify. Before you get your shorts in a knot, know that shrub and tree are manmade (fabricated) concepts, just like political parties, games and religions, and subject to refinement, at least they should be.

Third, as regards use, one needs to consider purpose (shade, food, color, blocking, etc.) as well as the species' complete profile; e.g., potential size v available space, habitat, easy of cultivation, maintenance issues, proneness to reseeding or suckering, how versatile (is it a one-trick pony?), etc., BEFORE making a choice. Moreover, most of the tree species growing in Indiana that I consider bad (i.e., C category) are nonnative. Mind you, I DID NOT say all nonnative trees are bad.
Finally, be cautious re the source for your plant and gardening advice. Much of what we get on the internet is false, insufficient or puffed-up (marketing BS) and ALWAYS be careful of "advice" from anyone trying to get you to give them your money! And, if they recommend a red maple, don't. Moreover, if getting the info one-on-one, you should always want to know whether or not the person offering the "advice" actually knows the plant(s), i.e., more than a name. What is the basis for their "understanding?" Importantly, are/were the conditions similar to yours? Lastly, why would you conform to advice if it is nonempirical? Unfortunately, much advice is just that (opinion), yet many foolishly follow. Blind mimicry. Gullible R Us. If there is authentic local plant and gardening wisdom (a guru), lucky you . . . I will hope you are wise enough to appreciate and to avail yourself. See also my Nov 2021 rant.

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