These sturdy beauties make the grade for brilliant fall color, tough conditions — and city approval
STREET TREES ADD beauty and structure year-round. Those with leaves that turn brilliant shades in fall are extra-special. But not all have the constitution to succeed in the restricted space, baking sun and lack of irrigation street trees often must endure.
Most cities in the Puget Sound region offer lists of tough trees approved for use as street trees. (Check out the Seattle list.) You don’t have to stick to the list, but every tree used as a street tree must be approved before planting.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is one example of a tree with great fall color that is almost always on the list. Able to thrive in almost any sunny location, Ginkgos are drought-tolerant, and capable of living more than 1,000 years. There are many varieties available with varying forms and sizes, but the straight species forms a round canopy often exceeding 50 feet tall and 35 feet wide. These trees are unique in that in mid-autumn, practically every fan-shaped leaf suddenly turns stunning bright yellow at the same time. Then, after a week or two of blazing color, every leaf falls in one day, and there isn’t a single leaf left hanging in the tree. Admittedly, the show is short-lived, but hey, you only have to rake once!
Another great street tree is katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). Katsura trees grow slowly at first, but eventually can reach more than 40 feet tall and 20 feet wide. In spring, newly formed heart-shaped leaves emerge deep purple before turning bluish green as summer progresses. In fall, the leaves turn a spectacular mix of dusky pink, yellow and flaming red. As the leaves change color, they give off a wonderful odor reminiscent of the delicious aromas I grew up with in Wisconsin when neighbors cooked down maple sap to make delicious homemade syrup. If you’re on a diet, avoid smelling katsura trees in fall. You might experience uncontrollable cravings for pancakes and French toast.
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Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) is a sturdy tree that is approved for use as a street tree under power lines. Practically indestructible, this extremely slow-growing tree rarely exceeds 30 feet tall. Exfoliating bark peels to reveal striking patches of gray, green and white on the trunk, highly noticeable in winter. In spring, the leaves emerge a silky reddish purple. In summer, the foliage turns a satiny dark green. In autumn, the leaves turn brilliant colors, but the change happens in an unusual way: Each day, a few leaves turn a different color. Some turn ruby red or deep purple, and others turn golden yellow or burnt orange. As the season continues, the transformation speeds up, and before long, the tree is filled with a stunningly beautiful multitude of individually colored leaves.
A great candidate for a street tree that isn’t included on many approved-tree lists is the American smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus). Hailing from the Southern United States, it’s the big daddy of the smoke tree species. Drought-tolerant as a rock, this sun-lover forms a canopy 35 feet tall and wide. In fall, the green, roundish leaves turn flaming shades of red, purple and orange. The display is long-lasting, with the colorful leaves often remaining on the branches until well after Thanksgiving.
Finally, I have yet to see a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) that doesn’t color up spectacularly in fall. These gorgeous trees are rarely included on approved-tree lists because few varieties can handle the baking hot sun and tough soil conditions required of a street tree. Lion’s mane maple (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’) is the exception. Unfazed by heat and drought and capable of reaching more than 30 feet tall, this beautiful tree features unusual crinkled, densely held green leaves that add fascinating texture to the summer garden. In fall, it’s among the last of the trees to change color, but the show is well worth waiting for. The blazing orange, burnished crimson autumn color is so spectacular, even squirrels burst into tears when they see it. Buy your “Shishi” in fall, when you can check out its magnificent autumn plumage, but try not to let your tears smear the signature when you sign the receipt.