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New trees and shrubs add variety to your landscape

New varieties or species of trees and shrubs tend to enter the marketplace a bit slower than petunias, for instance, and for good reason—trees and shrubs take a lot longer to field-trial and evaluate before release, and even longer to produce enough of them to be ready to stock garden centers and nurseries.

Here are some things to think about when choosing new trees and shrubs for your yard and garden:

  • What could work in the short term and what would be good for the next few generations.
  • Consider adding color, either season-long or autumn color.
  • Factor in size, fragrance, shape and growth rate.
  • Will new plants fit into your landscape and add variety. 

We'd encourage you to think like an urban forester, and select plants that will benefit the community without being too hard to maintain and that won't attract insect pests or diseases. The trees and shrubs listed here try to satisfy many situations and hopefully generate a little excitement to carry you through the winter months.

Trees and shrubs for the impatient gardener

These plants will grow fast yet are still pretty good for the landscape. They will fill in spaces created by storms, emerald ash borer or oak wilt and get the landscape back to looking good in a reasonable amount of time.

‘Silver Queen’ silver maple is on the market and at least one large wholesale nursery is supplying the trade. It grows fast like a silver maple but has a much better architecture. Gone are the weakly-attached branches and multiple leaders. It won’t get as big as the rest of the species, but will still grow to be an excellent shade tree with a more upright shape and growing up to around 50 feet. It generally produces fewer seeds than other varieties, too.

‘Accolade’ or ‘Triumph’ elm are Asiatic elms that have been around a long time and haven’t proven to be invasive. These are recommended over the American elm varieties because they are not only speedy growers, but they are well-built. You won’t need to put an arborist on a retainer with these elms as you would if you planted ‘Valley Forge’ or ‘Cathedral.’ Accolade and Triumph look pretty much the same, but Triumph has shinier leaves. Both have excellent resistance to Dutch elm disease.

close up of tulip tree leaf
Tulip tree leaf

Tulip poplar or tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). Tulip poplars grow quite well in southeast Minnesota. The tulip poplars at our research nursery survived the late winter of 2018 while we lost well-established Autumn Blaze and red maples. No one knows how big tulip poplars will get in Minnesota since they don’t have a long track record, but they’ll most likely grow at least up to 40 to 50 feet. They’re straight as an arrow, eventually develop an interesting, muted tulip-like flower, and have leaves that look like t-shirts hanging on the clothes line.

Little Devil ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Donna May’). This is a really nice, medium sized (about 4x4 feet) shrub with deep burgundy foliage. Little Devil has good resistance to powdery mildew, so it looks good month after month. Best in full sun, although it does alright in light shade .

Smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria). One of the more striking shrubs for a southeastern Minnesota garden, it’s fast-growing and easy to care for. Cut it back to the ground every year or two (sometimes the rabbits take care of that for you) and it still grows upwards of 6 to 8 feet each summer. ‘Royal Purple’ has deep purple foliage through the growing season, which looks pretty cool when mixed in with evergreens or other dark green leaved plants. A new purple-leaved variety on the market, ‘Winecraft Black’ stays a bit smaller. They will grow in full sun to light shade but the sunnier the site, the fewer issues with powdery mildew.

For the autumn color lover

These selections are for the discerning gardener who loves fall color, especially red. 

Tree with orange, yellow and green leaves in a yard
Pacific Sunset maple

Pacific Sunset maple (Acer truncatum x platanoides ‘Warrenred’). This is a newer release that should do well in the southern third of Minnesota, certainly from the Twin Cities south. It’s a hybrid between Shantung maple (one of my favorites) and Norway maple. If you’re going to plant a maple, at least plant one that has a good relationship with climate change. Pacific Sunset is much more tolerant of heat and drought than sugar and Freeman maples, and has a lovely autumn foliage of oranges and yellows. Grows into a 40 to 50 foot shade tree at maturity.

‘Frontier elm’ (Ulmus ‘Frontier’). This should satisfy your “better red” demand for autumn color. Another tree for the southern third of Minnesota, it does have deep red autumn foliage, very small leaves, good resistance to Dutch elm disease and it stays small (25 feet or less). Also, since it’s an elm, it is ready to take on the assaults of climate change. It is an Asiatic hybrid, so it’s much easier to maintain than the American elm hybrids.

Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) should do well in the southern half of Minnesota, providing the site is okay. It is in this category because of its autumn foliage, which can range from sugar maple oranges, yellows and reds to spectacular wine red. It does very well in waterlogged soils as well as more moderately moist sites, grows in full sun to partial shade, and is another medium sized (40 to 50 foot) shade tree. If you ever see this tree in its autumn glory, you’ll want to adopt one.

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) is a native large shrub that has a wonderful reddish-burgundy autumn foliage, blue berries with a little white to them, and clusters of flat-topped white flowers in the spring. It grows in sun or shade and is an excellent shrub for rain gardens and attracting pollinators and birds.

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is another site tolerant shrub native to Minnesota. It doesn’t have a red autumn foliage, but the female plants are covered with bright red berries from October through December and are spectacular. It is native to wet areas (it’s found in drainage ditches or swampy areas) but does quite well in moderately moist landscapes. There are so many varieties of this plant that you can almost pick a size and there’s a cultivar that will give it to you. Very easy to maintain (cut it to the ground every 3 to 5 years or so) and very problem-free.

For the practical gardener

Though most of these have been around for a long time, they may be new considerations for anyone who hasn't thought about growing fruit or nuts before. 

Serviceberry/Juneberry/Saskatoon/Shadblow (Amelanchier species). This tree or shrub has more common names than most other plants. They all have delicious fruit in mid-summer, are native to the upper Midwest, and are very site tolerant (even of deicing salt spray and runoff). They have lovely white flowers in the spring before the leaves emerge, and brilliant autumn foliage. The variety ‘Autumn Brilliance’ is brilliant red. Serviceberries make a very tasty pie.

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is another native shrub with good-for-you fruit, beautiful white flowers in the spring and wine-red autumn foliage. It’s tempting to eat the fruit when it looks dark blue and ripe, but it’s as bitter as goji berry. Wait until there’s a frost to pick them, then eat the fruit and it’s not too bad. Chokeberry supposedly has more antioxidants than blueberries, so make a juice of the fruit and add it to other fruit juices or sweeten it a bit and drink it alone.

‘Jefferson’ filbert (Corylus avellana 'Jefferson'), also known as hazelnut, is a large shrub with the largest fruit of the filberts. This newer variety likes full sun to light shade and is resistant to filbert blight. Autumn color is primarily gold. If you try growing filberts, your biggest challenge will be out-competing the squirrels. You'll need to plant this one near another hazelnut tree as it needs a pollinator to produce nuts (Theta filbert is recommended). The nuts are delicious.

small, red apple in the palm of a hand
Chestnut crabapple

Blueberries (Vaccinium species) come in lowbush and highbush varieties. Most blueberry farms grow highbush blueberries. Most back country hikers fall in love with lowbush blueberries. Highbush blueberries have larger fruit, but some claim they are much less flavorful than lowbush blueberries. There are blue blueberries, pink blueberries and white blueberries. They are very high in antioxidants. There are so many varieties suitable for Minnesota that you’ll have a hard time picking two—and you should pick two. Even though they will self-pollinate, you’ll have better fruit if you have a cross-pollinator.

Chestnut crabapple (Malus species) is a lovely, white-flowering crabapple. It produces lunch-box size apples with a nutty flavor. Crabapples are 2 inches in diameter or less and Chestnuts are about 2 inches, just the right size for a snack. Bred by the University of Minnesota and released in 1949, it is very cold hardy with high resistance to apple scab and fireblight. 

Gary Johnson is an Extension professor of urban and community forestry in the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota.

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