By: Jackie Carroll
Ornamental trees enhance your property while adding to the resale value. Why plant a plain tree when you can have one with flowers, brilliant fall foliage, ornamental fruit and other attractive features? This article offers ideas for planting ornamental trees in zone 4.
Our suggested cold hardy flowering trees offer more than just spring flowers. The blossoms on these trees are followed by a shapely canopy of attractive green leaves in summer, and either brilliant color or interesting fruit in fall. You won’t be disappointed when you plant one of these beauties.
Flowering Crabapple – As if the delicate beauty of crabapple blossoms aren’t enough, the blossoms are accompanied by a delightful fragrance that permeates the landscape. You can cut branch tips to bring the early spring color and fragrance indoors. The leaves turn yellow in the fall and the display isn’t always brilliant and showy, but just wait. The attractive fruit persists on the trees long after the leaves fall.
Maples – Known for their flashy fall colors, maple trees come in all sizes and shapes. Many have showy clusters of spring flowers as well. Hardy ornamental maple trees for zone 4 include these beauties:
All three of these maple trees grow no more than 30 feet (9 m.) in height, the perfect size for an ornamental lawn tree.
Pagoda Dogwood – This pretty little beauty grows no more than 15 feet tall with graceful horizontal branches. It has cream-colored, six-inch spring flowers that bloom before the leaves emerge.
Japanese Lilac Tree – A small tree with a powerful impact, the Japanese lilac is loaded with blossoms and fragrance, although some people don’t find the fragrance as pleasant as the more familiar lilac shrub. The standard lilac tree grows to 30 feet (9 m.) and dwarfs grow to 15 feet (4.5 m.).
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When you’re choosing trees, shrubs, and other ornamental plants to ornate your lawn, it can be tough to pick the right ones.
There are all kinds of considerations you need to make, after all. Which plants are right for your growing zone? Which ones will do best with your particular type of soil?
And most importantly, which ones will give you the most bang for your buck?
When it comes to flowering trees and shrubs, your best bet is to choose plants that bloom for the longest time possible. You won’t fill the need to fill in your landscape with other plants to make up for the void when the plants are dormant, and you’ll also add a touch of color and fragrance that are sure to attract pollinators.
Consider these top picks as you are looking for the longest blooming trees and shrubs for your garden.
The Selection of Hardy Ornamental Trees for Midwest and Northern Climates Continues to Grow
Ornamental trees, generally 6 to 25 or 30 feet, typically add year round interest with beautiful shapes, spring flowers and fall colors, berries or seed pods. An ornamental tree can be a rose tree or a grafted evegreen, even a topiary evergreen. Use small and dwarf trees to add a point of interest, shade a patio, or enhance an entryway. Many large shrubs are easily pruned to a small ornamental tree, such as viburnums, late lilacs and winged euonymus. Some are pre-pruned to tree form at the nurseries. Be sure you are willing to maintain the pruning or your ornamental tree will quickly begin to revert to shrub form. Keep one leader branch, removing most horizontal branches from the ground up until the leader is at least 4 feet tall. Then let it branch out.
Small and dwarf ornamental trees benefit from spring fertilization. Use a slow release granular fertilizer with equal parts NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium). Sprinkle around the root zone according to directions in spring.
Aesculus pavia Dwarf Red Buckeye
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Shape: Rounded dense crown
Growth Rate: Slow to moderate
Soil Preference: Prefers moist well drained, deeply cultivated soil. Somewhat adaptable.
Moisture: Average to high moisture requirements
Foliage: Large leaves are drooping and dark green, 5 leaflet, coarse texture.
Blooms: 6-9” erect, loose clusters of carmine red flowers in late spring to early summer.
Fruit: Leathery capsules in fall.
The Dwarf Red Buckeye is one of the first to open leaves in spring, a month ahead of oaks and maples. But the leaves are also the first to drop in autumn, with no color change. The early blooms are one of the first food sources for hummingbirds. But the early blooms may be susceptible to late frosts, particularly in zone 4. Dwarf Red Buckeye will bloom when the tree is still very young. Plant in full to mostly sun for best flowering. The small tree is clump forming and can be grown as a large shrub or multi-trunk tree. Prune lower lateral branches to maintain a tree form. Excellent small ornamental tree for a woodland garden or near a patio.
Amelanchier canadensis Shadbush
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Shape: Rounded bushy crown with upright branches
Soil Preference: Moist well drained soil, Neutral to acidic pH. Adaptable to sand, clay or loam
Moisture: Average water needs, moderately drought tolerant
Foliage: Shiny green leaves that are white and fuzzy when young, elliptic toothed leaves
There is some confusion in the nursery trade and even among botanists regarding the Shadbush tree. It is often confused with the Amelendhier arborea Downy Serviceberrry. They are very similar, the only notable difference is the Downy Serviceberry blooms a bit earlier and has larger flowers. The Shadbush and Downy Serviceberry are generally multi-stemmed trees or shrubs. Minimal pruning of the main trunk and stems will keep it in tree form quite easily. Downy Serviceberry is the maintains the most tree-like form of the serviceberries. White upright clusters of flowers are produced in early spring just as the leaves begin to open. The bloom period is quite brief, but the flowery show is wonderful. Eventually the blooms give way to tiny red or blue-black fruits that are quite show and attract birds. Bright green foliage turns brilliant yellow-orange or red in fall, one of the first trees to color. Amelanchier Shadbush and Downy Serviceberry prefer a filtered shade if possible and moist to wet soil. However they are quite adaptable to drier soil if they receive adequate water when they are establishing. Amelanchier commonly produces root suckers, the grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’ is not so persistent with suckers. Amelanchier is generally not afflicted with serious disease or insect problems. May occasionally be affected by rust. leaf spot or powdery mildew or bothered by leaf miners, borers or scale. Amelanchier are typically not bothered by deer. Amelenchier have a lovely form that is perfect against a shady woodland setting or in a shrub border. With moderate salt tolerance and pollution tolerant this would also be an excellent choice for street planting.
Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Shape: Vase shaped, upright branches
Growth Rate: Moderate to fast
Soil Preference: Average well drained soil, will tolerate a wide range of soils that are well drained.
Moisture: Average water needs, moderately drought tolerant
Foliage: Blue green leaves, finely toothed elliptic leaves
‘Autumn Brilliance’ is a hybrid Apple Serviceberry tree, also known as the Juneberry tree. It can be allowed to get shrubby, or side shoots can be periodically pruned from the trunk. This Serviceberry is often sold in a tree form with a single or multiple trunks, and is fairly easy to maintain the form. ‘Autumn Brilliance’ flowers early, producing lightly fragrant drooping clusters of white blooms tinged with pink, that mature fully white. The blooms are larger than the original Serviceberry hybrid, creating a spectacular display in early spring. Small round berries follow the blooms. The berries are green when young and turn red, then when fully mature the berries are dark purple-black. The berries are edible and sweet. The leaves open purplish then are blue green in summer, turning bright orange red in autumn. The outstanding ornamental features from spring through fall make ‘Autumn Brilliance’ an excellent specimen tree in the home landscape. It is a small enough ornamental to be well suited to a shrub border. Overall it is easy to grow and maintain, despite occasional pruning of side shoots and suckers. Pruning is not generally required, but should be done in late winter or very early spring. Disease resistance is very good, but may occasionally be attacked by leaf miners or aphids. This sturdy tree is tough enough to use in the street boulevard or planting strips that are 6 feet wide, and is moderately tolerant of soil salt. ‘Autumn Brilliance’ will grow to 10 feet in five to ten years depending on conditions.
Amelanchier laevis Allegheny Serviceberry
Sun: Full sun, part shade, shade
Shape: Vase shaped irregular crown with upright branches
Soil Preference: Moist well drained soil of coarse loam, but will tolerate a range of soils, Neutral to acidic pH.
Moisture: Average water needs, may be sensitive to drought
Foliage: 1-3” simple elliptic leaves, finely toothed, shiny green
Blooms: Lightly fragrant drooping clusters of small white blooms in April or May
Allegheny Serviceberry is a multi-trunk tree or shrub that is quite adaptable to sun, part shade or shade. Flowering will be at its’ best in full sun. In more shade the crown form will be more open and graceful. Allegheny Serviceberry will be more tolerant to short periods of drought once it is well established. In consistently moist soil it will grow tall and fast. Under ideal conditions it is possible this Serviceberry could reach 30-40 feet high and wide. Clusters of fragrant white blooms form before the leaves, later giving way to berries in summer. The berries mature from magenta red to purple to dark purple-black, reaching ripened maturity in June, often called Juneberry because of it. The edible berries are a good source of iron and copper, and are juicier than those of Amelanchier arborea. The berries have a taste similar to blueberries. The leaves emerge bronzed purple and mature to a shiny green, with dense fine branching. The foliage turns red, yellow or orange in autumn. Serviceberry can be somewhat sensitive to disease and insect problems, but not serious enough to cause serious problems. Allegheny Serviceberry is very easy to grow and provides year round interest in the landscape. The flowers will attract bees and butterflies in spring, the berries will attract birds which minimizes berry litter. Allegheny Serviceberry is very similar to Amelanchier arborea Downy Serviceberry. The only notable difference is Allegheny Serviceberry has a smooth hairless leaf, purple-bronze new growth and a sweeter juicier berry. Allegheny Serviceberry is fine textured and graceful, and is a wonderful choice for shrub borders, woodland edge or ornamental accent tree. It is moderately tolerant of air and soil salt as well as urban pollution, so it will do well as a street or boulevard tree. Maintaining a tree form will require occasional pruning, easiest to maintain if purchased pruned to tree form. Unpruned in shrub form and planted 10 to 20 feet apart they will form a tall informal hedge or privacy screen.
River Birch: Full Sun to part shade zones 2-8.River Birch are great for moist areas, has beautiful exfoliating bark, and a bright gold fall color. Birch generally have multiple trunks and an oval form. Most Birch prefer cold northern climates, do best in moist soil and do not tolerate shade. River Birch produce both male and female flowers. The male flowers are long catkins and are produced in autumn, generally remaining on the tree through winter. In spring the male catkins produce a lot of pollen. Female catkins are produced in spring, are pollinated, and form fruit. The fruit is an inch long “cone” filled with seed. Some birch tend to sucker, controlling them can be difficult. Many cultivars are hardy to zone 2 and some can reach as tall as 70’. River Birch does best in a moist well drained site, but tolerates compacted soils and wet conditions. A smaller birch which is very hardy is the Betula pendula ‘Youngii’. It grows from 6 to 12 feet with “weeping” branches, drooping toward the ground. Birch tend to have a shorter life expectancy than most trees and grows quite quickly. It is hardy to zone 3.
Blue Beech:This Minnesota native will do well all over the Midwest. It will tolerate shade, and drought or heavy moisture. The foliage spreads wide, turning orange-red in the fall. Sometimes known as the musclewood tree because of the bark’s muscular twist. To 25’ high and wide.
Bradford Pear:This tree must be mentioned, not because of it’s reliable performance, but because of it’s serious weaknesses. A shame, because it is a beautiful flowering tree, and very tempting to plant. It is extremely susceptible to wind and ice damage, often losing large limbs, if not toppling completely. In northern and midwest climates, strong winter winds combined with snow and ice build up can cause serious damage to the tree. The blooms produce an unpleasant smell, and the fruit causes a bit of a mess. Still, in the right place, it is a beautiful, well shaped tree.
Amur Chokecherry:(Prunus mackii) Full sun Hardy in zones 4-6.This rounded tree displays lots of white flowers in spring and small black berries in fall. Shiny bronze bark is very showy against a snowy landscape, a primary reason for planting this tree. Requires moist well drained soil. Mackii tends to be less susceptible to disease and insects than the general Prunus genus. Reaches 20-30 feet and 25-30 feet wide. Available in clump or single trunk, and requires pruning to maintain tree form. Sometimes referred to as simply Amur Cherry, claims have been made to be hardy to zone 2.
Chinese Dogwood: (Cornus kousa) Part to Full Sun Zones 5-8. Showy flowerheads appear just after the tree begins to leaf out in early spring, lasting into early summer. The petals gradually turn from white to pink. The branching form is lovely, and in autumn the foliage is a brilliant bronze, with bright red fruit. The fruit puts on a show of it’s own, being similar in size and color to a raspberry.
Both birds and butterflies are attracted to this flowering ornamental. It will grow well in average, well drained soil with medium moisture, it does not tolerate drought well, be sure to keep watered in dry spells. It will reach 18-25’ high, and up to 25’ wide. Displays good cold hardiness, and claims of hardiness to zones 3 and 4 have been made, but is probably risky. Cornus kousa will resist disease better than Cornus florida, and will perform better in midwestern areas.
Crab Apple: Full Sun, Hardiness varies, generally hardy in zones 4-8.Fruit trees of any kind do not care for wet soils, so well drained loamy soil is required, avoid clay. Plant where they have good air circulation so the leaves stay dry, wet leaves will promote diseases that fruit trees are prone to. Many of the crabs form flower buds quite early, making them susceptible to frost damage. Crab trees hardy enough for zone 4 will generally bud a little later. The bark and young stems of Crab Apple trees are susceptible to rabbit and rodent damage in winter. Wrap the stems/trunk with a collar or hardware cloth available at garden centers to protect them. Numerous varieties and forms are available. Most spring flower shows are spectacular, especially on the larger trees. Ranging in size from 15 to 25 feet, with rounded, oval, pyramid or weeping shapes, you can find a crab tree for any spot. Look for disease resistant foliage. Some of the best varieties for zone 4 include 'Prairie Fire' (rounded 15-20', prolific pink-red blooms in May and purplish foliage and dark red bark similar to cherry tree bark. It is disease resistant and grows to a dense rounded form.), 'Sparkler' (will tolerate moist conditions, but will do better in well drained soil, ‘Sparkler’ is a wide spreading tree reaching 15’ high and up to 25 ‘ wide. It blooms a bright rose red in mid to late spring. Hardy to zone 3.), 'Indian Summer' (very disease resistant and fairly adaptable to a wide range of soils, ‘Indian Summer’ grows to 12-14 feet Rose red blooms appear in April.), 'Donald Wyman' (upright, rounded to 20'. White flowers are produced in spring and a showy red fruit in fall that does not fall and make a mess. High disease resistance.) and 'Adams' (densely rounded reaching 20-24’ high and 18-20’ wide. Red buds fade to pink blooms in May, and foliage turns orange-red in fall). The ‘Louisa Weeping Crab’ weeps gracefully, with pink flowers. So many more! Check them all out at the garden centers.
Pagoda Dogwood: Part Shade to full sun Hardy in zones 3-6.The graceful horizontal branching of this dogwood is rare in northern hardy trees (see also the Hawthorn). Creamy flower clusters appearing in spring are quite fragrant. Foliage turns purplish red in fall, and dark fruits are produced. Will tolerate some shade. This Minnesota native is hardy to zone 4, and reaches 10-15 feet, with a 20-25 foot spread. 'Argentea' should be hardy all the way to zone 3 if you can find one -try mail-order catalogs. Its' small green leaves are heavily marked with white for striking bright leaves, and produce highly fragrant white blooms.
This tall shrub reaches 15 feet high and 20-25 feet wide, and requires base pruning to form a tree. 'Venus' may also be hardy to zone 4, if you can find one. Growing to 20 feet high, and 20-30 feet wide, this fast growing tree produces 6 inch white blooms in spring. Sun to part shade. Several varieties of hardy flowering dogwood are available with standard branching structures and beautiful spring flowering. They generally grow well in most ordinary soils but prefer moist, well drained.. Most are hardy to zone 5, some to zone 4.
Aesculus x carnea ‘Briotii’ Ruby Red Horse Chestnut