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Sun-Loving Shade Trees

By Paul James

A new study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service says American cities are losing 36 million trees a year due to development of roads and buildings. Tree cover in urban areas is declining at a rate of 175,000 acres per year, and the state with the largest losses is – wait for it – Oklahoma. If that isn’t reason enough to plant a tree, I don’t know what is. But which tree should you plant?

To simplify your decision-making process, I’ve selected several of my favorite trees that love the sun and ultimately provide much needed shade based on the following criteria.

Adaptability: Not all that picky about soil type.

Pest and Disease Resistance: Pretty much problem free.

Fall Color: Variable, from decent to spectacular.

Bald Cypress

This ancient deciduous conifer will grow pretty much anywhere you plant it, including standing water. Yet it’s also quite drought tolerant once established. Some can grow to be quite large (over 50’), but the dwarfish ‘Peve Minaret’ rarely gets taller than 20 feet. I’ve got three of them, which is to say I love them. There’s also a weeping variety that is absolutely stunning. Fall color is basically rust, but in a good way. Shop Bald Cypress

Chinese Pistache

You simply can’t go wrong with this tree. It grows at a pretty impressive clip, as in up to two feet a year, and tops out at around 35 feet. It also tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, including clay. Fall color is rather variable, from yellow to orange-red, but it can be spectacular. And even though it’s from China, it’s quite happy here. Shop Chinese Pistache

Shumard Oak

Reaching a height of around 50 feet at maturity, this is another outstanding choice. It’ll grow in moist bottomlands and dry, elevated sites with equal vigor. And it’s tough as nails. Fall color comes on a little late in the season, and is most often a respectable brownish red, but can also be bright red. ‘Nuttall’ oak is quite similar and every bit as appealing. Shop Shumard Oaks


Also known as black gum, this is one of my favorite trees, especially the cultivars whose leaves emerge red, then mature to dark green, then turn yellow-orange to purple-red in fall (’Wildfire’ is my favorite). And talk about adaptability! It’ll grow in a swamp or a dry spot with no problem. Will reach close to 50 feet at maturity, and along the way the bark begins to look like alligator skin. What’s more, bees love the tiny white flowers that appear in spring, and birds love the fruit that follows. Shop Tupelos

Shantung Maple

Maxing out at around 25 feet, this is a great choice for smaller properties. Leaves start out reddish purple, then go green in summer, and in fall they appear yellow and orange, often with a splash of purple or red. Bark is interesting too, taking on the look of a cantaloupe rind as the tree ages. Great tree. Shop Shantung Maples


I’m not necessarily saving the best for last, but I absolutely adore Ginkgoes. They too are ancient  deciduous conifers, with arguably the most distinctive leaf shape of all trees. They grow slowly, but can ultimately reach heights of 75’ or more. However, most of the varieties available top out at around 40’. There’s a semi-dwarf version called ‘Jade Butterflies’ that grows to about 15’, and a true dwarf called ‘Mariken’ that matures at only 3’. Fall color is electric yellow. Shop Ginkgoes

Yes, there are plenty of other great tree choices when it comes to shade trees, but the bottom line is clear: We need to plant more trees!

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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