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Recommended trees for the Twin Cities metro area

It’s Arbor Day, so let's talk about trees! Earlier this week we introduced you to Minnesota’s backyard woods, those small woodlots that sit in the middle space between the suburbs and larger tracts of forest. In that post we highlighted a few dozen shrubs, vines and herbaceous plants we recommend for rewilding efforts in the greater Twin Cities metro area.

Map of woodlands of Minnesota, courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Today we’re sharing our tree recommendations for backyard woodlands in this same region, known as the Anoka Sand Plain, Big Woods, and St. Paul-Baldwin Plains and Moraines subsections — marked as area 7 on the map. All recommended tree species on this list meet the following criteria:

  • Native to Minnesota or nearby in the Eastern Deciduous Forest.
  • Climate resilient plants, well-suited for the area’s projected climate.
  • Beneficial to wildlife, specifically charismatic microfauna — the tiny ecological ambassadors that make forests fun, such as butterflies, bees, fireflies, birds, and bats.

Most of the trees on this list come from the Field Guide to the Native Plant Communities of Minnesota by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. From that list we prioritized species that provide wildlife benefits and are also predicted by the DNR to do better in Minnesota’s future climate.

We also included five trees that are not native but have good potential to thrive in the area. These trees are native to the broader Eastern Deciduous Forest, of which the Twin Cities metro is on the northern edge, and have been carefully assessed by the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science for their future suitability.

If you live in the greater Twin Cities metro area, have a small woodlot between 1-20 acres, and want to rewild your backyard woodland, this list is for you. Don’t worry if you live somewhere else or have a larger property. By the end of this summer we will have tree and plant lists for backyard woodlands in all of Minnesota’s 10 major ecoregions. We also have a team working on a sister project, creating lists of climate adapted trees for larger woodlands (greater than 20 acres) in each ecoregion.

Recommended trees for Anoka Sand Plain, Big Woods, and St. Paul-Baldwin Plains and Moraines

Common name Scientific name Height Width Soil requirements Light requirements
Sycamore Platanus occidentalis 75-100' 75-100' Prefers fertile soils Full sun
Cottonwood Populus deltoides 90' 60' Adaptable Full sun, Part sun
Mockernut hickory Carya tomentosa 85' 60' Prefers moist, well-drained soil Full sun, Part sun
Silver maple Acer saccharinum 80' 55' Adaptable Full sun
Shagbark hickory Carya ovata 80' 35' Prefers dry sandy or rocky soil Full sun, Part sun
Common persimmon Diospyros virginiana 35-80' 35' Well drained, sandy soil Full sun, Part sun
Bitternut hickory Carya cordiformis 75' 30' Prefers evenly-moist Full sun, Part sun
White oak Quercus alba 75' 80' Prefers well-drained Full sun
Hackberry Celtis occidentalis 75' 60' Adaptable, Prefers well-drained Full sun
Black walnut Juglans nigra 60' 75' Prefers evenly-moist Full sun
Swamp white oak Quercus bicolor 60' 50' Prefers evenly-moist Full sun, Part sun
Northern pin oak Quercus ellipsoidalis 60' 45' Prefers dry, acid, sandy soils Full sun
Black oak Quercus velutina 60' 50' Prefers droughty soil Full sun
Honeylocust Gleditsia triacanthos 60' 50' Adaptable, Prefers evenly-moist Full sun
Black cherry Prunus serotina 60' 35' Prefers well-drained Full sun, Part sun
Sassafras Sassafras albidum 30-60' 25-40' Prefers well-drained sandy, acidic soils Full sun, Part shade, Part sun
Peach-leaved willow Salix amygdaloides 50' 65' Prefers wet Full sun
American elm Ulmus americana 35-45' 20-35' Average to wet soil Part shade, sun
Eastern redbud Cercis canadensis 30' 25' Prefers evenly-moist, well-drained Full sun, Part sun
Chokecherry Prunus virginiana 25' 20' Adaptable Full sun
Pagoda dogwood Cornus alternifolia 18' 12' Prefers acidic, Prefers evenly-moist Full sun, Part sun

Some notes on the recommendations

Did you notice American elm on our list? Before you take up your pitchforks in protest, note that these need to be Dutch elm disease (DED) resistant elms. The U has been working on an elm selection program since the early 2000s, and work continues on developing DED-resistant elms. Extension has a great resource for selecting DED-resistant American elms.

These trees are all commercially available, but in some cases, rewilding might mean letting the chokecherry grow, rather than actually planting it. Speaking of planting, Extension has a great resource on tree planting that is mostly geared toward yards. You may also want to check out the woodlot tree planting guide from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Forest trees are not typically staked, mulched and watered, but they commonly need tree tubes or fencing to protect them from hungry critters, including deer and rabbits. 

What’s next in the series?

Our next article will focus on how to create a project in iNaturalist so you can track the species you discover in your backyard woods, learn about your non-human neighbors, and begin to understand what’s doing well and worth encouraging as you rewild.

In future posts, we’ll also provide greater context to the decisions behind our recommendations. We’ll discuss assisted migration, whether we should try it, and if so, where and when. We’ll talk about the benefits these trees and plants provide to our charismatic microfauna, such as the endangered northern long-eared bat. And we’ll dive into the cultural significance of some of the species. (Did you know hackberries have been used by humans for over 7000 years?) We look forward to sharing these fascinating and complex issues with you in future posts. Happy Arbor Day, everyone!

Authors: Angela Gupta, Extension forestry educator, and Emily Dombeck, Extension forestry program coordinator

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