Going native with Michigan trees

Michigan is home to dozens of native trees that connect us to Michigan’s natural heritage, enhance our landscapes and improve the diversity of our urban and community forests.

Michigan is home to a wide array of native tree species, many of which make outstanding landscape trees. Here are just a few reasons to consider natives when selecting trees for your landscape.

Connection to Michigan heritage. Michigan has a fascinating natural history. Climatic conditions, the churning of soils through glaciation and fire have produced a mosaic of vegetation types and unique ecological assemblages throughout Michigan. Incorporating natives into landscape designs provides a linkage with this rich natural heritage.

Increase species diversity. Whether species are native or exotic, diversifying the mix of species in an urban or community forest helps to reduce the risk of catastrophic tree loss.

Michigan natives are great landscape trees. Although some natives, such as silver maple or black locust, are dubious choices for landscape or street tree planting, there are many Michigan natives that are outstanding landscape trees. Here are just a few examples:

  • Hornbeam (Carpinus carliniana) is a small- to medium-sized tree that is native to cool, moist, understory sites. This is a small tree with a big character. Another common name is musclewood, which refers to the muscled appearance of its trunk. It produces a nice display of yellow to red fall color.
  • Kentucky coffee (Gymnocladus dioicus) tree is becoming an increasingly popular choice as a landscape tree. In fact, in some locations, demand may outpace supply. This is an interesting medium-sized tree. Once established, coffee tree is considered drought hardy and relatively salt tolerant, making it a common choice to fill the void left by ashes. Its bipinnately compound leaves make it botanically interesting. Yellow fall color adds to its ornamental appeal.

As a group, the oaks may be considered the “forgotten” landscape tree, but they should not be overlooked. Once established, oaks are dependable landscape trees. There are a number of oaks that are native to Michigan. The ones listed below are not especially noteworthy in terms of fall color, but they are durable trees that are good growers once established. Acorns produced from oaks also make them good choices as trees that are useful for wildlife.

  • Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa). The ultimate “tough tree for tough places.” Bur oak is extremely drought hardy and can handle adverse sites.
  • Swamp white oak (Q. bicolor). As the common name implies, this tree can handle heavier soils and poor drainage better than most oaks. Aside from lacking fall color, this tree probably comes the closest to filling the role of ash in urban and community forests.
  • Chinkapin oak (Q. muhlenbergii). Another overlooked but reliable tree. Chinkapin oak is part of the chestnut oak group meaning it has leaves with serrated margins, similar to chestnut. It is adapted to alkaline soils and has better fall color than bur or swamp white oak.

Michigan has several native maples that make outstanding landscape trees. Maples, however, provide a good example for the “look around rule” for diversity; before you select a tree, look around to see how widespread it is already. Many of our communities are already very heavy into maples.

  • Red maple (Acer rubrum). An outstanding landscape tree. Easy to grow, tolerates wet and acidic soils and outstanding fall color. Numerous named cultivars are available and trees produced from seed are available from nurseries specializing in native plants.
  • Striped maple (pennsylvanicum) and Mountain maple (A. spicatum) are small trees or large shrubs that are best adapted to moist, cool sites. Both have rough textured leaves with good fall color; striped maple turning bight yellow, mountain maple turning a mottled orange.
  • Hophornbean or Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is a small, understory tree. It is noteworthy for its fruit, which resemble clusters of hops. Ostrya is regarded as difficult to transplant but easy to maintain once established.

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