Q. I am looking for an unusual small tree to plant as a focal point in a landscape/courtyard in my backyard. Any ideas?
A. I remember when I was a student at what is now Purdue University Fort Wayne learning about Japanese Katsura tree. Cercidiphyllum japonicum is a tree named because its heart-shaped leaves are similar to our native Redbud tree. This tree is named after a town in Tokushima prefecture in Japan and is an excellent specimen tree in the Midwest. In the spring, the leaves emerge reddish-purple, changing to blue-green as they mature. In autumn the leaves turn a clear yellow or apricot color. It is nicknamed the “caramel tree” because the leaves have a sweet, caramelized sugar or cotton candy fragrance in the fall.
Chinese and Japanese folklore says that the shadow on the moon was created when a man being punished by the gods was sentenced to cut down a giant Katsura tree.
Katsura is a dioecious plant, producing male and female flowers on separate trees. Female trees produce pods that contain winged seeds. Katsura trees prefer rich soil, so mix compost with the soil when planting. Sometimes the leaves can scorch in sunny and dry sites, so it would do well in a protected courtyard. Katsura can be grown in USDA Zones 4 to 8. Allen County is in Zones 5b and 6a. Several cultivars exist in the trades with some dwarf and weeping forms available.
One unusual small native tree is Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus). Fringetree is a small deciduous tree in the Oleaceae (olive) family. Its genus name comes from the Greek chion meaning snow and Anthos meaning flower. It generally grows from 12 to 20 feet tall and wide, with a multistemmed rounded habit, with larger leaves that resemble Magnolia leaves.
Fringetree is also dioecious (separate male and female plants), but also may have unisex flowers on each plant. The clusters of white flowers have a delicate fragrance and are born on previous year’s growth. Male flowers are showier than female flowers due to longer petals, however both male and female trees are striking in bloom. Flowers bloom from April to May.
Fringetree grows best in full to part sun. It can tolerate clay soil and also tolerates some drought. They are best transplanted when young and rarely need pruning growing about 6 to 10 inches each year.
Female trees produce showy blue-black fruits, maturing in late summer that provide a food source for birds and wildlife. The leaves turn a clear yellow color in autumn, and the bark with its scaly dark brown ridges and red furrows brings winter interest to the landscape. Fringetree is difficult to propagate, so it is somewhat difficult to find in the trades.
Another native plant that can be trained as a small specimen tree is Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium). Blackhaw has beautiful white flowers in the spring and is one of the most drought-tolerant viburnums. It produces berries in the fall that are prized by wildlife. It would be a great choice for your area.
The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other week. Kemery retired as the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County Purdue Extension Service. To submit a question, email Corey McMaken at email@example.com.