Chapter Two: Which Tree Do I Choose?
Best Fast Growing Shade Trees for Your Yard
Which fast growing shade trees are optimal? Which fast growing shade trees result in the least maintenance? Here are a few:
Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)
Northeast, Southeast, Midwest (Zones 4-10)
Growing to a stately 50’-70’, the bald cypress is known for the russet-red color its needles turn in the fall. The bald cypress is a conifer, which means that its foliage consists of lacy needles rather than leaves and is a cone-bearing seed plant. Unlike the majority of conifers, however, it is deciduous, meaning it loses its needles each winter and grows a new set every spring. In the spring and summer months, the needles are flat and yellow-green. They turn the famed red-orange color in the fall months before falling off in the winter. Although native to the Midwest, the bald cypress is highly adaptable to both wet and dry conditions in acidic soils, so it is found in many geographic regions throughout the US. It is often found growing in groupings around lakes and rivers, in parks, and along streets. When growing near river banks, bald cypresses help prevent erosion by soaking up excess water and prevent pollutants in the water from spreading. The bald cypress is important to wildlife as it provides a breeding area for a variety of reptiles, and also helps prevent further soil erosion.
California White Oak (Quercus lobata)
West (Zones 7-11)
The California White Oak, unsurprisingly native to California, is one of the tallest of the California oaks and can live for 200 years or more. Hardy to Zones 7-11, and especially common in the western region of the US, this oak is very tolerant of drought. It should not be irrigated often after it’s established, and irrigation should be kept away from the trunk since root rot can occur. It does need some source of water, but should never be waterlogged. It should be planted in soils with only slight alkalinity for optimal growth and longevity. The California White Oak can be considered a fast-growing shade tree as it has the potential to grow 20’ for the first five years, another 20’ more in the next five years, before growing at a slower rate for the next hundred years. At the rapid-growing stage of its life, the oak will closely resemble an elm tree as it will take longer for a full canopy to develop. Very tolerant of weeds or lawn underneath one, but the tree should be able to grow with the lawn. In other words, planting a lawn underneath an old California White Oak will not benefit any party.
Chilean Mesquite (Prosopis chilensis)
Southwest (Zones 8-11)
The Chilean mesquite grows in southwestern US and, in spite of the intense desert heat and sun, provides ample shade. It is heat-loving and drought tolerant. The tree has lacy, dark green leaves that each have up to 40 leaflets which can be 1 inch long. This semi-evergreen foliage does not fall from the trees during the winter months, but instead, sheds in the spring as buds appear. The spring brings yellow-green catkins and the summer brings long seedpods, which many add to their diets. As can be imagined, the seedpods fall and litter the area surrounding the tree. When young, the Chilean mesquite’s foliage and stems appear to have a purple cast. The Chilean mesquite is a good choice to plant in a dry rock garden or near pathways or patios as it provides much welcome shade in the desert areas of the US. Just a word of caution that, although not all trees bear this trait, some Chilean mesquites have thorns.
Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia)
Northeast, Southeast, Midwest (Zones 5-8)
The Dawn Redwood is a fast-growing shade tree as it often grows to 70’-100’ with a 25’ spread. As a member of the sequoia family, its height and breadth is best suited where there is ample space, including large estates or farms. In the spring, the tree boasts bright green leaves, typically appearing feathery due to the flat ½” long needles. When the summer comes, the leaves change to a dark green before turning either orange-brown or reddish-brown in the fall. Since the Dawn Redwood is deciduous, it loses its leaves in the winter. As a conifer, the Dawn Redwood produces small round cones. When planting a Dawn Redwood, it is important to keep a couple things in mind. It grows best in full sun and moist, well-drained soil. Additionally, if planting in the fall, earlier is better since the roots have a chance to become established before fall frosts begin.
Freeman Maple (Acer x freemanii)
Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, West (Zones 3-8)
The Freeman Maple, a hybrid of the red maple and the silver maple, is a very common tree in many parts of the US often found lining parkways and residential streets. The Freeman Maple embodies the strong branch attachment of the red maple and the fast growth rate of the silver maple. Additionally, it is less susceptible to chlorosis symptoms, which is a condition where leaves produce insufficient chlorophyll causing a paler green color of leaves for red and silver maples. During the fall months, the Freeman Maple’s leaves turn a beautiful red-orange. There are many cultivars of Freeman Maples, which results in a variety of different appearances. The height of the tree ranges from 45’-60’+ with a spread range of 20’-40’. Annual growth rates average 2’-3’ a year, and largely depends on soil and sun. The Red Maple also has a place on this list of best shade trees, but the Silver Maple does not largely due to its aggressive, water-seeking root system. Luckily, the Freeman Maple’s root system behaves similarly to that of the Red Maple.
Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrata)
Northeast, Southeast, Southwest (Zones 5-8)
An often overlooked shade tree, the Japanese Zelkova is a beautiful appearance for any yard and provides ample amounts of shade. Medium green leaves change color in the fall to shades of yellow, red, or purple leaves. The Japanese Zelkova can tolerate most types of soils, but prefers moist, well-drained soils with pH levels lower than 7.5. It enjoys full sun, and can withstand drought, wind, and pollution. It is resistant to the Dutch elm disease, elm leaf beetles, and Japanese beetles. Care should be taken when planting this tree as it is easily susceptible to frost. This also isn’t a tree you can plant and forget about because pruning is needed in order for the tree to develop a strong structure. The beauty and shade the Japanese Zelkova provides, however, makes all the extra effort worth it!
Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)
Midwest, Southwest (Zones 4-8)
The Northern Catalpa is a highly adaptable tree as it is tolerant of wet or dry, acid to alkaline soils, hot or dry environments, and full sun or partial shade. One requirement is deep, moist soil. It is not drought tolerant. Growing to heights of 75’-100’, the Northern Catalpa is sure to provide lots of shade. The shade comes at a small cost, however, as the deciduous feature of the tree means large leaves and seed pods shed and leave a little “mess” every year. It grows on the fast side and reaches great heights, however, most don’t get too old. Catalpas, in general, litter the ground with many shedding flowers, small branches, large leaves and seed pods so bear this in mind when choosing a tree to plant in your yard.
Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
Northeast, Southeast, Midwest (Zones 3-5)
The Northern Red Oak, native to the midwest, is hardy to zones 3-5 and also grows throughout the northeast and southeast. It falls into the fast-growing shade tree category as it typically grows at a rate of about 2’ a year for 10 years then continues growing at a slower, steady rate until it reaches its mature height of 60’-75’. The Northern Red Oak is tolerant of salt and air pollution, and makes a good street tree. In the spring, its bristle-tipped leaves first appear pinkish-red before turning dark green in the summer, and changes color to a bright red in the fall before falling off as the cold weather moves in. The leaves have 7-11 waxy lobes and are 4”-8” long. The tree produces pale yellow-green catkins in the spring and drops acorns. This tree has been a favorite of lumbermen and landscapes since colonial times as the coarse-grained wood is strong, heavy, hard, and durable. The wood of the northern red oak has many uses and is exceptionally popular as a firewood.
Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)
Northeast, Southeast Southwest (Zones 2-7)
The Paper Birch is known for its smooth white bark and bright yellow fall leaves. It is a tree that looks exceptionally nice in the winter, when compared to other deciduous trees, because of its white bark. This birch flourishes in full sun and well-drained, moist, acidic soils. It does not do well in harsh conditions including heat and is not tolerant of pollution. It grows 13-24” a year, on average, until it reaches 50-70’ with a 35’ spread. Rarely living for more than 140 years, it is considered a short-lived tree. The paper birch’s leaves are 2-4” long. It produces green and brown catkins in the spring, and drops very small, smooth seeds nestled between two wings. The name of the paper birch originates from the thin paper-like bark of the tree, which was once used to write messages on.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, West (Zones 3-9)
The fast-growing Red Maple will provide color for your yard year-round. The red maple has been identified as the most prevalent tree in eastern US by the US Forest Service. If you happen to live in this region, you’re probably already aware of the red maple simply because of how many there are! The leaves are red in the winter, bright red or yellow in the fall, and green during the rest of the year. A slight red color can also be found in the flowers, twigs, and seeds. The red maple grows to 40-70’ with a 30-50’ spread. The further south these trees are found, the shorter they generally tend to be. If planting a red maple in your yard, it is better to select a cultivar that is more appropriate for landscaping purposes. This is because the root system can sit close to the surface of the ground, causing mowing problems and sidewalks to buckle.
Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima)
Southeast, Southwest (Zones 5-9)
The Sawtooth oak is an Asian species of oak that was introduced to North America in the 1920s. It is a fast-growing shade tree that grows 13-24” a year, and provides a large amount of shade because of its leaves. The sawtooth oak has oblong leaves that are up to nearly 8” long and have a bristle at the end of each vein. They are a bright yellow in the spring, dark green in the summer, and golden brown in the fall. The sawtooth oak also produces golden catkins about 4” in length in the springtime. It also drops acorns, which deer love.
Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides)
Southeast (Zones 5-9)
The southern catalpa is also known as the caterpillar tree and fisherman’s tree. It acquired the name of fisherman’s tree as it was often grown so that its flowers would host catalpa worms, which is often used as a fisherman’s bait. The tree is highly adaptable to a number of conditions and is quite tolerant of various adverse conditions. Catalpas have large leaves that provide ample shade. Its heart-shaped leaves can be 12” long and 6” wide and has short hairs on the underside. They are bright green in the summer, and appear colorless in the fall. The tree also produces seed pods that can be up to 2’ long, and may remind you of a green bean. Similar to other catalpas, the constant dropping of flowers, leaves and seed pods may cause issues if planted by a sidewalk, for instance. It is best to plant this tree in the middle of a larger yard.
Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana)
Southeast, Southwest (Zones 7-10)
If you have ever seen a movie shot of a long southern driveway, chances are pretty good southern live oaks were in that shot. You definitely need a bunch of space in order to have a southern live oak (or a whole row of them), but if you have the space it is definitely worth it because they are quite beautiful. Their branches head down towards the ground before facing up towards the sky again. They are evergreen trees, which don’t shed leaves. There is a short period in the spring in which the leaves are replaced. Good for almost all kinds of soil and tolerant of salt spray. Reaches heights of 40-80’, but even more impressive is the 80’ spread. If you have the space for this tree, definitely consider planting one.
Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, Midwest (Zones 4-9)
The tulip poplar tree, also known as the tuliptree, is a fast-growing shade tree that grows throughout the US. The tree’s bright green leaves closely resemble tulip flowers when looking at them from an angle. The leaves turn a golden yellow in the fall. The tuliptree loves full sun and well-drained soil. There are records of this tree reaching an astounding 190’ in height, but most end up being 70-100’ tall. It is a hardwood tree unlike many other fast-growing trees. Poison ivy and other vines can damage the tree by preventing sunlight and weighing the tree down. The bark of the tulip poplar was historically used as a medicinal tea of typhoid and malaria.