Top 5 Virginia Trees

I like lists. I’m a sucker for anything that sounds like it’s going to cut to the chase, pare down to the essentials. So when I recently taught a class on garden design, I challenged myself to make Top 5 plant lists in a variety of categories. It was difficult, and in the end I was almost tossing a coin, but it was a great exercise that made me stop and think for a while.

If you could only have 5 kinds of trees, what would they be?

If space were no issue, here’s what I’d pick:

  1. Magnolia virginiana– the Sweetbay Magnolia. Much smaller than the Southern Magnolia (10-20+’), our native variety is more finely branched, and deciduous or semi-evergreen. It leafs out in April with white blooms in late spring, well after the Magnolia stellata and Magnolia soulangiana have finished. It supports wildlife (even butterflies), and tolerates wet feet (stormwater issues, anyone?), hence it’s other name, the Swamp Magnolia.
  2. Betula nigra– the River Birch, a tree loved by classic garden designers and modernists alike. River Birch are planted for their peeling bark, multi-trunk habit, graceful leaves, and fantastic ability to take up water. Choose ‘Heritage’ or ‘Duraheat’ for a slightly smaller variety (~40′). (Sadly, the only dwarf variety is more of a shrub, and not the proportionally scaled-down version we all wish for.)
  3. Nyssa sylvatica– the Blackgum Tree. The fall color alone is reason to plant this tree! The green, shiny leaves turn brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow in a superb display. The Blackgum (or Black Tupelo) is an incredibly tolerant tree that will take sun or shade, wet, dry, or even gravelly soil. It has a horizontal branching habit and can easily reach 40’+, so it needs space. If you have it, plant this tree.
  4. Cornus alternifolia– the Pagoda Dogwood. The botanical name of this gorgeous tree comes from its alternating, horizontal branching pattern, a graceful form that just floors me when I see it. Take a walk in a beautiful woodland garden like Macrillis Garden in Bethesda to see it in a magical setting. Use as a specimen tree or a wonderful understory tree at the edge of a wooded area for a layering effect.
  5. Taxodium distichum– the Bald Cypress. I wish I had a big pond so I could plant these all around it! The little needles seem as if they’d be evergreen like a Hemlock, but aren’t. The tree’s ‘knees’ are considered a highlight and make them easily identifiable. The species can hit 100′, so look for a smaller cultivar like ‘Peve Minaret’ if you have a small garden but want to try one.

What, no evergreens?

Yikes! Number 6, Pinus strobus, Eastern White Pine, and Number 7, Pinus parviflora, the Lacebark Pine.

Lists are all well and good, but I’m glad I don’t actually have to stick with them. I get to live vicariously through my clients and enjoy all kinds of variety. How about you? Maybe we could pick out some new trees together for your garden!