Greening Milwaukee, ornamental bay tree.

Greening Milwaukee, ornamental bay tree.

Greening Milwaukee, ornamental bay tree.

Norway Maple (Acer plantanoides) is a common street tree in the Milwaukee area. There are a number of varieties available. This tree is over used. The fall color is not as spectacular as the Sugar Maple, sometimes a good yellow. This is also a large shade tree with a medium growth rate. Milwaukee would look more like the forest that was here before Europeans arrived if we planted more native shade trees on our streets.

Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) is a fast growing shade tree native to Wisconsin. It can reach 70 feet in height. This is usually not a great tree for fall color. The silver lining of the summer leaves is attractive. If you want shade quickly, plant a Silver Maple, but be careful. They are weak limbed and could crash down on your garage, your home, or your neighbor’s house in a bad storm.

The lowly Boxelder (Acer negundo) is a native Maple tree that you might find in your yard. It is considered a weed tree because it will aggressively grow just about anywhere. It is fast growing but like the Silver Maple, weak and can cause damage if broken limbs hit your home. Still, it is all around us, so enjoy.

Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) is a smaller ornamental maple. It is a slow growing tree that reaches a height of about 20 feet. The leaves are interesting in shape and may develop good fall color. This is an excellent tree. We have long winters here, and this tree is beautiful without its leaves. The bark peels away as the tree ages and is a wonderful brown color. This tree is not very common, but its bark is a sight to behold. If you find one of these at the plant nursery, buy it. This Maple has three leaflets on each stem (trifoliate). There are several other small ornamental trifoliate Maples available in the market. Check the labels for characteristics of these trees. They all can be great additions to your landscape plan.

Ailanthus altissima is the Tree of Heaven. It was made famous by the story “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” You may have one in your yard now. A weed tree, Ailanthus will grow next to your building or between your toes if given a chance. The long leaves with many leaflets can be quite attractive. Fast growing, adaptable, pollution tolerant, this tree is so anxious to grow you probably cannot buy it. You may find it in your yard, and if it has chosen an appropriate place it will quickly grow and provide you with shade. It will grow to 50 feet or more in height. Stand back, as it can grow 4 feet or more in a year.

You can find Alders (Alnus glutinosa) growing along the Milwaukee River’s banks. Like Willow trees, Alders can handle wet soil. The leaves are nice but no fall color. This tree has interesting looking fruit. A cone-like nutlet along with a catkin remain on the tree thorough the winter. It grows 40 feet or more in height. This is a European tree that has naturalized in our area. If you have a low wet area in your landscape, this may be the choice for you.

The Redbud (Cercis Canadensis) is a beautiful small tree. It grows to 25 feet on average with branching starting close to the ground. It has beautiful pinkish flowers in the spring. The flowers burst from the branches including the older stems and the trunk. It can be used as a specimen or grouped to form a border. Fall color is iffy but if you are lucky, can be a good yellow. It is native to the eastern U.S.

Dogwoods are common in the south where more showy flowered varieties are hardy. The most common dogwood here is the red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), which is a native shrub with red stems poking through the snow in the winter and white berries loved by the birds in the spring. There is a yellow twig form of this shrub as well. For Dogwood trees we do have some choices and the Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is one hardy one. It has an interesting horizontal branching form and fragrant yellowish white two inch flowers in late May. If Dogwoods interest you, visit Milwaukee County Boerner Botanical Gardens in the spring to check on varieties that are hardy and have interesting flower characteristics.

There are numerous species and varieties of Hawthorns (Crataegus). Kids often call them thorn apple trees. And thorns are one of the more interesting characteristics of this group of small trees. Birds love hawthorn trees for food and protection from predators. Early Robins may sit in Washington Hawthorns (Crataegus phaenopyrum) for weeks, waiting for the weather to break and the snow to melt and eating the abundant thorn apples, refusing to leave the tree until the snow has started to melt. If the thorns bother you or your kids but you like the tree, there are thornless varieties. Look for the thornless Cockspur Hawthorn (Crataegus crusgalli var. inermis). Variety inermis means no thorns. Usually the Cockspur has two to three inch impressive thorns.

These trees have multi-seasonal interest. They have flowers in the spring, fruit in the summer and usually good fall color and persistent fruit in the winter. Some people find the scent of the flowers disagreeable.

Jim loves Jodi, carved in the bark of a tree, this would a Beech be. The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is another of the major trees of the Wisconsin mature forest. It is a beautiful large tree with great smooth gray bark. Its leaves change from spring’s silvery green to summer’s deep dark green to fall’s bronze. You need a pretty good size area to plant one because they can grow to 70 feet in height and almost the same in spread. Wildlife enjoy eating the nuts. Not a fast grower, so plant a Beech when you are young or for your children. Thankfully there are many mature ones to admire planted in our parks by our forefathers and in the woods by the squirrels.

The White Ash (Fraxinus americana) and Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) are both native trees that are common in our area. They can grow to 50 to 60 feet in urban areas. Cultivated varieties (cultivars) have been developed that exhibit excellent fall color (yellow, purple). The City of Milwaukee plants many types of trees along the streets and Ash is one you often see. These trees are fast growing, particularly the Green Ash. Green Ash are said to be more adaptable to tough conditions and White Ash have more landscape beauty. Bareroot Ash trees have been planted in incredibly poor soil without any improvements to the soil and they have thrived. If you want to shade your yard or home these trees will accomplish the task in a reasonable number of seasons. It is worth the search to find a named cultivar (read the label) to have a reasonable expectation of good fall coloration. Ash and Maple have winged fruits (seeds) called samaras. They fall from the tree in abundance, spinning to the ground like helicopters. Some folks do not want anything falling from their trees and consider this a nuisance.

Honeylocust trees are abundant in the urban landscape. They are variable in size depending on the cultivar but range from 30 to 60 feet in height. The variety you usually see is the thornless type (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis). They are planted along the streets and in parks and yards. They are in the pea family and sometimes you will see a tree laden with large pea-like pods. The horticulturists try to breed seed and thorn production out of the plants but are not completely successful with the seeds. You will only see the species with thorns in the wild, and if you do they are certainly impressive. This tree has its uses, which is why it is so often planted. The leaves are composed of many leaflets on long stalks. The tree has an airy feel and produces only light shade. Numerous varieties have been developed with qualities such as different early leaf color, shapes, and size. You can still have a lawn under these trees, as the shade is not dense. This tree is overused but if you must have dappled shade then this may be your choice. Note that Honeylocust is late to leaf out in the spring. We have long winters here in Wisconsin and most of us look forward to that early green in spring. Everything else will be leafed out and growing and the Locust trees will look dead as midwinter. On the plus side, the leaves can have a good yellow fall color. On the minus side, it loses its leaves very early in fall. Our summers are short enough without having the Honeylocusts delaying spring and rushing winter.

This is a good choice for the urban landscape- nice bark, good form, tough. Avoid the Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila), which also appears on the market but does not have the desirable qualities of the Chinese Elm.

You can still see some streets in the near north suburbs of Milwaukee with tall stately American Elms (Ulmus americana). This was the street tree of choice for Milwaukee and many midwestern cities. Its tall vase shaped form with the leaves touching mid street created a cool, cathedral-like feeling on city streets. Single specimens can be seen in parks and backyards throughout the area, but the plague of Dutch Elm Disease devastated the American Elm and the urban forests here. We are still replacing our urban tree canopy because of the loss related to Dutch elm disease. There is no tree that really can replace the look and form of the American Elm. That may be a good thing, because city foresters have learned to now plant a variety of species on the streets of our cities. If a disease strikes a particular species, now it does not devastate the entire urban forest. There are other elms, one without the same shape as the American Elm, but resistant to Dutch elm disease — the Chinese or Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia).

Evergreens: Trees that keep their leaves all winter. There are some broad leafed shrubs that keep their leaves all winter in southern Wisconsin; Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is one. But this shrub needs winter protection and will not grow very tall in our climate. If you want leaves in winter, you’ll want to plant coniferous (cone bearing) trees and shrubs in our climate. These trees have needle-like or scale-like leaves that persist through the winter months. The pines, spruces, firs, junipers, cedars, and yews comprise the majority of winter green we have in Milwaukee. Note: There are dwarfed forms of many of these evergreens available on the market.

Fir Trees (Abies)

Concolor Fir (Abies concolor) grows at a moderate rate to a height of 30 feet or more and about half that in spread. The needles are 2 to 3 inches long and are soft and pliable to the touch. The needles can have a silvery blue color that is attractive. It is native to the western U.S. but grows well in the midwest. Consider this tree as an alternative if you were thinking of planting a spruce tree. This tree is softer in appearance and to the touch than the spruces. The Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) can be planted as an ornamental evergreen in Wisconsin and will do well. It does not like a hot, dry location. You maybe most familiar with this tree as a cut “Christmas Tree.”

From low growing ground covers to tall trees, it is hard to summarize this large group of evergreens. The wood of the Redcedar is used for cedar chests, paneling, pencils, and fuel. Juniper’s fleshy cones (berries) are used in medicine, varnish, and to flavor gin. These are versatile plants. They are tough and will grow in almost any situation. They prefer sunny locations. You can grow this plant. There are literally hundreds of named cultivated varieties. Boerner Botanical Gardens in Whitnall Park has an excellent evergreen garden that will help you choose Junipers and other evergreens. The Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) is a native species and grows to 40 feet or more in height. Juniperus procumbens ‘nana” is a slow growing dense ground cover that only reaches a foot in height and slowly spreads across the ground. The group has cultivars that would meet a broad range of size, shapes, and leaf color desires.

These are large trees that can be difficult to use in the landscape. Typically a homeowner is attracted by the color of a blue variety of the Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens) and proceeds to plant it in the front yard. The tree soon outgrows its spot and crowds the entrance walk and obliterates any view of the home. Often the trees suffer from a canker that seems to be soil related and causes the bottom branches to die off resulting in a shabby form with maturity. This tree is widely used. It has a stiff and formal look. There are dwarf forms that capture that initial interest in the plant that make better specimens for most home landscapes. Not all Colorado Spruces are blue, the color is a cultivated form.

The Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is another large evergreen that is hard to use in the urban landscape. It is probably best left for parks and large areas, although you will see both of these trees towering over homes on city lots. The Norway Spruce will grow to 50 feet or more in height and about half that in spread. The needles are a good green and are held on branches that droop from main branches that are horizontal or angle upward from the trunk. Both trees are beautiful, particularly in the winter with snow sitting on the branches. Both of these trees are large specimens that need to be placed carefully in the urban landscape.


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