There are an overwhelming number of choices for interesting trees for the Northwest, but these trees offer year-round beauty and disease resistance. I often use them in designs.
Acer palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’
This is a small tree glowing with salmon-colored to sometimes red bark. In the rainy overcast days of our Northwest winters, it lightens up any landscape. The crown has a delicate, feathery form that grows in a V shape. It seems to do as well in full sun as part-shade though I’ve noticed its bark color fades in full sun. I’ve grown it in full shade and part-sun. The only difference is it sports a lighter leaf color in sun, a more chartreuse green leaf color in shade. The stems remain colored either way as their color depends on the cold air of winter rather than light. Autumn color is yellowish. Can be suceptible to tip die back.
This is probably my favorite tree. Stewartia monadelpha, or Tall Stewartia, features lovely white flowers in summer that are lightly fragrant and cinnamon-colored bark for winter interest. It grows in a tight tidy form that only needs light pruning once in a great while to clean up interior dead branches. This is a four-season tree since in fall it glows with an orangey-red color. I’ve grown it in part-shade several feet out on the north side of my house and in a mostly sunny west side area. Its crown is almost a flat wide V shape. It’s so low maintenance that it makes me want to give it all of my beloved admiration!
I love all of the plants in the arbutus genus: Arbutus unedo (Strawberry Bush), Arbutus menziesii (a madrona tree) and Arbutus ‘Marina’. I highlight Arbutus ‘Marina’ because it’s smaller than Arbutus menziesii (which can reach 30-35 feet) but still has glossy green leaves and peeling-bark branches. It blooms in sweet little pinkish bells. The straight madrona has white bells. I’ve rarely had to prune my ‘Marina’ because its form is lovely as is, the crown is oval-shaped. It loves heat and is slightly tender in the Seattle area. I have mine in full hot sun by my driveway and it loves to bake there.
This tiny tree blooms early in spring when little else does and sends its enchanting fragrance far and wide. The form is sparse and open when young, tighter and bushier when older. It’s nothing terribly special in summer, but those stark white blossoms in early spring make it worth including in a mixed border — although occasionally during a harsh winter, the buds can freeze and be damaged or drop. I’ve grown it both in full sun and on the west side of a house in part-shade. When shopping for one, try to find one with a single trunk as so many are multi-stemmed shrubs. ‘Royal Star’ is a common but proven cultivar. Some sites it reaches 30 feet but 15 is more common.
Cornus kousa ‘Variegata’
I like dogwoods but sometimes I wonder if their susceptibility to disease is worth their trouble. They often get anthracnose at the slightest turn toward extreme weather. Cornus kousa is nicely acclimated to the Northwest and usually grows in an upright behaved way. This variegated version, with its green and white leaves edged in pink, is a useful tree for an understory or part-shade site, brightening up corners and Eastern walls. In autumn, the foliage turns a light pink. I grow it in mostly shade with a blast of Western sun in mid-afternoon. I’ve grown them in part-shade and being understory plants in native settings, they like that. The flowers are the usual pure kousa white.
Prunus serrulata ‘Kwanzaan’
For the same reasons, I’m not really into cherries. They’re highly susceptible to disease, especially in the rainy Northwest, but this ornamental cherry is reliably disease resistant. It gets deep pink double flowers in spring that catch the eye from afar. It also has lovely coppery foliage in spring and then again as the leaves turn in fall. It can sucker if stressed, but this cherry is mostly easy to grow. The crown has a lovely V shape and it needs little pruning. It gets big as it really matures, to around 25 feet with a broad romantic crown. Here’s a picture of one in fall at my old house. The accompanying plants are Cercis ‘Oklahoma in yellow leaf and a bronze phormium.
Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’
What a sight to see the magenta flowers on the bare dark brown branches of this small tree! And then to see the purple leaves sprout afterward really makes my spring. This tree’s form is open but dense enough to make a statement. I’ve never seen a disease or pest on it. However, its weakness is that it’s not as drought tolerant as some information on the web says it is. It needs water in summer if it’s in full sun. An ideal location would be mostly all-day sun with some shade in the mid to late afternoon. Here’s a pic of a young specimen I had at my old house. Unfortunately, it perished when the next door neighbor “pruned” his tree and a branch fell and split this one in two.
Cercis canadensis var. texensis ‘Oklahoma’
This is a tight globe of glossy spadal leaves that loves to bake in the sun. It gets the same pretty magenta flowers as the species but the form is so clean and round , I love to use it in the back of a mixed border. Unlike other redbuds, the leaves are super glossy, wavy, and dark green. They turn a bright purely yellow color in autumn. Native to the Southern plain states, it’s incredibly drought tolerant. I planted one on a full sun city parking strip in Seattle and it still has never missed a beat. This photo features a very old old tree. It’s usually more compact and rounded when youngish.
Styrax japonica ‘Pink Chimes’
A lovely fairly low-maintenance tree that gets covered with sweetly scented bell-like flowers in early summer. Its crown is sort of pyramidal and is open enough to underplant with part-sun perennials or small shrubs. The branches can be zigzaggy and twiggy but are still delicate and pretty. I’ve grown it in full sun though I’m familiar with some that live in part-shade and they do equally as well. Styrax japonica usually has white flowers but ‘Pink Chimes’ features pale pink drooping blossoms, making it extra special. Its rate of growth is often listed as slow but I’ve noticed at least in the full sun location I planted it in in Seattle, it grew moderately fast. The bark on the trunk is orangeish brown with small fissures, which gives it nice winter interest.
Another easy-care Styrax relative with racemes of fragrant white flowers that are more hidden than on Styrax japonicus. It has a dense pyramidal crown with large leaves, giving it a gorgeous tropical look. Hardy to zone 5. It hangs out around 10-15 feet for a handful of years before really taking off and spreading elegantly out. This tree is an understory plant in Japan, but I’ve found they get leggy with not enough sun. The autumn color is yellow but not really remarkable. I’ve grown it in a full sun area and on the east side of a house where it receives shade from afternoon sun. It did fine in both places though its health was slightly better in the part-shade position.
Cercidyphyllum japonicum ‘Rottfuchs’
I just can’t resist a purple-leaved tree. This has a narrow oval crown that comes in quite handy when planting in the city. It gets little pink flowers that are fairly insignificant but oh, those leaves. I’ve found it keeps its purple color better in part-shade than full sun though its tag will recommend full sun. Eventually it fades to a bluish-green leaf color that’s still lovely and interesting. Like its species, it gets burnt-cotton candy smell as the leaves turn color and fall. Not all that drought tolerant. Needs water during spells of hot weather. (Photo from Broken Arrow Nursery.)