What Tree is Right for You?

You want a tree (or two). You recognize that fall is a good time to plant a tree in the southeastern U.S. because the cooler temperatures and ample winter rainfall helps it get established. Yet, with so many trees to choose from, which one is right for you? There are just three simple steps to help you make the best selection.

Sassafras has great fall color




First – identify your needs.

Second – identify your conditions.

Third – using the information from the first two steps, identify the trees that match those conditions.





For the first step, ask yourself what you want in a tree.  It’s important to outline what you want so that you don’t get overwhelmed by the choices.  Here are some of the “wants” you might consider:

  • Shade tree
  • Small tree
  • Flowers
  • Good fall color
  • Evergreen
  • Fruit/nuts for you or wildlife
  • Fast growing
  • Specimen tree

For the second step, determine what conditions you have for a tree. Is the area sunny, shady, dry, or wet? Do you have overhead power lines or limitations like cramped space next to the house or fence or street?

Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) makes a good specimen tree.



Once you have completed identifying what you want and what conditions you have, you can start step three: identify the trees that match those wants and conditions. I’d like to offer some native tree suggestions based on the “wants” you might have identified. It will be up to you to research if those trees match your conditions.




Shade trees: these are generally medium to large trees with moderate to rapid growth to achieve the desired shade in a reasonable time. However, don’t sacrifice strong wood for rapid growth. Good choices for the southeast include oaks, maples, pines, and tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera). Because these will become canopy trees, these trees should tolerate full sun conditions.

Small trees: these are generally smaller than 25 feet. If you need something really small (under 15 feet), consider using a large shrub. Some small shrubs can be pruned to resemble a small tree. Choices might include fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), redbud (Cercis canadensis), hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), silverbell (Halesia), snowbell (Styrax americanus) or one of the tree-like viburnums (Viburnum prunifolium).

Flowering trees: all trees do flower, of course, but these would be trees with especially showy flowers. Spring blooming trees like redbud, flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) are beautiful. Summer blooming trees include sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum).

Sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana

Good fall color trees: red and scarlet oaks (Quercus coccinea), sugar maple, red maple cultivars (Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), sourwood, serviceberry cultivars (Amelanchier), hickory (Carya). If you’re looking for a particular color (red vs. orange vs. yellow) be careful to pay attention to what you choose.

Evergreen trees: pines, southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), sweetbay magnolia, wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), Florida anise shrub (Illicium floridanum), Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana).

Trees with fruit or nuts: pecan (Carya illinoinensis), hickory (Carya), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), and hazelnut (Corylus americana).

Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana


Fast growing trees: scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), red maple cultivars, pines and tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera).



Red maple cultivar, Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’









Specimen trees: these are trees that are especially beautiful in flower or form; they can also be underutilized trees. I would suggest trees like smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus), yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea), silverbell, snowbell, pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), and fringetree.


This approach to thinking about what you want and what conditions you have can be very helpful even beyond considering trees. A favorite reference book of mine is “The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists: The Best Plants for All Your Needs, Wants, and Whims” by Lois Trigg Chaplin. It is available for other regions too (by different authors). It has lists of trees for conditions like “wet sites” or “small lots” and chapters for perennials and shrubs as well. Of course I am usually only interested in the native plant recommendations in the lists … and hopefully you are too.

© 2012, Ellen Honeycutt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of BeautifulWildlifeGarden.com We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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