Trees can provide generous shade during the hot summer months and will bring nature into your home.
A JAPANESE MAPLE was the deciding factor in our decision to move to a new condo in Seattle a few years ago. The old tree, right outside the front windows, brings the living presence of nature into our home. I love how the crows and squirrels hang out in its branches. But I never expected that the maple tree would have such a huge effect on the temperature, light and comfort of living in the condo.
From April through October, the light that filters in through our wall of south-facing windows is soft and tinted green from the maple leaves. It stays cool without any air conditioning. In winter, we get full-on winter sunshine to heat the condo and raise the spirits.
In hotter climates than ours, people have long planted deciduous trees along the south side of their house. The point being to shade out the hot summer sun, and then when the leaves drop, to let in light and any warmth to be gained from the winter sun. Our dependence on the maple tree has given me a new appreciation of this dynamic, and of shade trees in all their variety.
Stewartia and snowbell trees, mountain ash and dogwoods, zelkovas and magnolias, all cast their unique quality of shade. The degree and nature of the shade depend on a tree’s size and shape, the spread of its canopy, the texture and denseness of its leaves. And those leaves come in a wide range of colors, from cool blue, to warm red, gold and vibrant yellow.
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Don’t be taken in by a slim little whip in a five-gallon pot; trees mature to quite different shapes than you might expect. Be sure to check out the eventual height and girth of potential shade candidates before planting. The Great Plant Picks website gives detailed information. And check out the useful drawings of leaves, bark and mature shapes of more than 2,000 varieties in “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees,” by David More and John White (2nd edition, Princeton University Press, 2013).
The golden locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’) is a fast-growing tree with foliage so brilliant that it actually casts bright shade. Its soft, ferny leaves come on chartreuse and mellow to a rich gold as summer progresses. It’s a tough tree that does well in urban conditions, including clay soil. Once established, it’s quite drought-tolerant. You can expect it to top out at over 30 feet wide and high.
If you like darker, more dramatic shade, consider Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ with its burgundy-purple, heart-shaped leaves. It’s a moderate grower, reaching 25 feet high and 20 feet wide, and needs regular watering during dry spells. Despite its rich foliage color, the leaves are so translucent and the tree so airy, there’s no sense of heaviness or deep shadow from this beauty.
Himalayan white birches (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii), with their glowing white bark and pale, soft leaves, are ideal for creating a shady grove. They put up with most kinds of soils, and don’t need supplemental water once established. There are many beautiful birches, but this variety boasts a delicate, graceful branching pattern and the snowiest colored bark of all the birches.
And don’t forget Japanese maples in all their tempting shades and shapes. Every day of summer I’m grateful for the generous shade cast by a single tree.