Trees are a horse of a different color

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by Courtney Llewellyn

Thanks to Instagram, TikTok and Facebook, certain varieties of plants can become wildly popular. Find the right audience, and a particular rose, sunflower, fern or fiddle leaf fig can suddenly become the “it” plant, the must-have for trend-focused customers. The virality is real for these quick-growing species. But what about the plants that take a little longer to mature?

“You don’t see the virality of trees on social media like with other plants, but it’s a possibility,” said Maria Zampini, president of Upshoot LLC, during Cultivate‘21. “It’s a marketing opportunity the industry needs to pursue.”

Zampini is a fourth-generation nurseryman with a BS in horticulture from Penn State. Her business is a boutique horticultural marketing firm that focuses on sales, marketing and licensing of new plant introductions and gardening-related products. In 2019, she partnered with Spring Meadow Nursery to develop the Proven Winners® ColorChoice® Flowering Trees program.

Her presentation at Cultivate was “More Trees, Please! New Trees to Grow and Sell,” during which she talked about the up-and-coming “superstar” trees that have been catching the attention of growers and landscapers with a longer view.

“Trees are a horse of a different color,” Zampini admitted. “We need to talk about ‘new’ trees for 10 years.” In general, though, the trends are fairly predictable: People want low maintenance trees that are water-wise, can be grown as compact or dwarf sizes and offer a wide variety within each species.

She went through the most popular trees of the moment and those that she believes will become more sought after in the near future.

  • Acer species: There are over 160 species in the Acer genus, which encompasses maples. Bigtooth maple in particular was mentioned, but growers should consider all varieties that are drought-tolerant, cold-hardy and offer deep, long-lasting autumn colors.
  • Aesculus species: This genus comprises up to 19 varieties often called either buckeye or horse chestnut. Zampini said to look for buckeyes that produce few seeds and have bright, long-lasting autumn hues.
  • Betula species: There are five subgenera of BetulaBetulenta (wintergreen oil birches), Betulaster (large-leaf birches), Neurobetula (costate birches), Betula (typical birches) and Chamaebetula (dwarf birches). Be on the lookout for species that are narrow, upright and dense. The white bark varieties are popular. Most birch are good because they’re heat-, drought- and alkaline soil-tolerant as well.
  • Carpinus species: These are hardwood species commonly known as hornbeam or musclewood. “A lot of people are coming on board with these ‘new’ trees,” Zampini noted. They tend to be fast growing with rounded crowns, and they can have very good hardiness.
  • Cercis species: There are about 10 species of redbud, the current “it” tree. There is some regionality to them, though, Zampini said. Ultimately, growers and customers both want good hardiness and color. She suggested trialing all varieties and seeing what grows best in your area.
  • Cornus species: The dogwoods can be distinguished by their blossoms, berries and distinctive bark. Buyers are usually seeking a nice flower display, and there are many options for growers – there are close to 60 species globally.

Crabapples are popular due to their spring flower flush, but some also produce desirable fruits.

  • Malus species: The Malus genus includes the domesticated orchard apple tree, but Zampini said what people are talking about are crabapples. They’re good for their small profiles and intense flush of flowers in spring. Certain varieties also create good fruits, and some will hold on to their colorful fruit all winter, adding pops of color in otherwise bleak landscapes.
  • Metasequoia species: Also called dawn redwoods, Metasequoia is one of only three species of conifers known as redwoods. Although it’s the shortest of the redwoods, it can still grow up to 165 feet tall. People tend to like it because of its golden foliage and compact habit.
  • Nyssa species: This one is known by a few names – black gum, sour gum, tupelo and black tupelo. Zampini said it’s “up and coming in popularity.” It grows all the way from southern Maine to eastern Texas and offers an important food source for bird migrating in autumn. It also creates a good silhouette.
  • Parrotia species: These are the ironwoods. “We don’t tend to use it a lot, and it’s underrated,” Zampini commented. “Give it a second look.” It grows swiftly with a multi-stemmed trunk. It’s very hardy and a good urban choice.
  • Quercus species: Even more wide-ranging than the maples, there are over 500 species of oak. When considering what to grow, you want something that will drop its leaves in autumn so it will have a better chance of withstanding winter storms.

A mature ironwood tree in winter. (Inset) Some of the bark coloring that gives the tree its name. Photos by Courtney Llewellyn

  • Styrax species: There are around 130 species of these large shrubs/small trees, sometimes called snowbells. There is a nice scent to their flowers, they have good density and Zampini said they could even do well in a container for some people.
  • Tilia species: These trees are known as linden for the European species and basswood for the North American species. The exact number of species is unknown, as they readily hybridize. Their sweet-smelling flowers are prized by beekeepers and their narrow habits are popular for landscaping.
  • Ulmus species: Courtesy of Dutch elm disease, over 75% of the elm population in North America was wiped out between 1928 and 1989. Research to select resistant trees began in the U.S. back in 1937. In 2005, the National Elm Trial began a 10-year evaluation of 19 cultivars in plantings across the country. The trees in the trial were exclusively American developments; no European cultivars were included. Based on the trial’s final ratings, the preferred cultivars of the American elm (U. americana) are “New Harmony” and “Princeton.” The preferred cultivars of Asian elms are the Morton Arboretum introductions and “New Horizon.” Growers will want varieties that have proven healthy against Dutch elm disease.

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