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Branch out to the unusual in your yard

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Gosh! That's a great-looking tree! I wonder what it is. I wonder if I could get one like it.

Good questions. Logical train of thought. For some answers, let's look at the facts.

There are many kinds of trees to consider _ good, bad and neutral. Nowhere is there a tree that's perfect for everyone. A species that's on one person's "worst trees" list may be the favorite of another person. Most of our tree choices are based on personal preferences. Let me share some of my favorites, with the hope that others will agree.

Among the better shade trees for Central Florida, I might suggest the following:

Shumard red oak (Quercus shumardii). This large tree is often appreciated by people from Northern states because it typifies the more standard opinion of what an oak should look like. Although this species is native only as far south as northern Florida, it still does well in our area. It has deep-lobed margins on the leaf and nice fall color (which appears in the winter here).

Live oak (Quercus virginiana). A wide-spreading, large tree, it has longevity equaled by few tree species. Its sheltering branches provide high-quality shade and background qualities to the landscape.

Florida is well known for tropical and subtropical flowering trees. Consider these great choices:

Trumpet trees (Tibouchina spp.). These are available in a variety of colors that can make the spring bloom period an exciting time for the homeowner. Good species for Pinellas County southward include those with strong pink or yellow blooms, which provide a traffic-stopping scene along our streets.

Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.). So many varieties have been developed in the past generation that it's confusing when you're trying to select one. Because of intensive cross-species breeding, the homeowner can choose a crape myrtle to fit almost any landscape situation. There are interesting new bark characteristics, newer shades of bloom color and leaf characteristics, and different sizes and branching habits.

Redbuds. Favored from Central Florida northward, redbuds present choice challenges when you consider species other than the native Cercis canadensis. Chinese redbuds are great bloomers, for example, and some of the white-flowering varieties, along with named cultivars of the American redbud, have much to offer for our area.

Palms. It's unfortunate that we seem so locked in to using just a few familiar species. There are a lot more choices than cabbage palm, queen palm or date palm, the old standards. For example, why not use more Chinese fan palms (Livistona chinensis), which are graceful and hardy? At the very least we could consider prettying up the massive trunks of Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) with ferns or annuals planted right in the crevices of the bark.

Many larger evergreen plants offer year-round beauty and interest. The often misused Norfolk island pine (Araucaria heterophylla), so commonly planted as a single specimen in the middle of a front yard, can become a fine grove tree when combined with several of its kind in, say, a spacious area of the back yard.

The relatively unknown Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) is a fine improvement on the commonly used bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) because it retains its handsome green foliage through the winter.

When deciding what kind of tree to plant in your yard, give some thought to choices above and beyond the same-old-same-old. Sometimes those unusual choices are harder to find, it's true, but many garden centers and landscape contractors are willing to search until they find what a customer wants. Those businesses can get current wholesale lists of tree varieties available, so it's just a matter of their extending their service a bit to help the buyer.

Hopefully my list of suggestions has inspired you to be bold when making tree choices. Be different! You'll end up with a more interesting landscape.

Jack Siebenthaler of Clearwater is a third-generation nurseryman, horticultural consultant, landscape architect and arborist. He has won numerous awards for his landscape designs; his clients have included Busch Gardens, Cypress Gardens and Walt Disney World. He writes frequently on horticulture and enjoys taking photos of Florida landscapes. This column appears here monthly.