Top Five Awesomely Trashy Trees and Why You Should Plant Them

One of reasons folks don’t plant certain trees is that they see them as “trashy.” Not hooker trashy, but messy, meaning they drop a lot of crap that needs to be raked or cleaned from a gutter. I compiled this list based on many years of working in the field and trying to convince folks that these trees are fantastic. These trees got the most complaints.

Take note: EVERY TREE DROPS SOMETHING. Leaves, acorns, twigs, sap, honeydew, and myriad other things. There is no truly trashless tree. I hope this list will help you find some merit in a few of the supposed trashiest trees. And maybe convince you to reconsider them for your garden space.

I promise to do a Terrible Tree list, in which you all can argue with me about whether Norway maple or tree-of-heaven should be on that list, and why or why not they should be planted.

5. Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Tall old growth tulip trees in North Carolina (by Kai Hagen)

Tall old growth tulip trees in North Carolina (by Kai Hagen)

This beauty is one of the tallest trees in the mid-Atlantic, reaching heights of about 100 feet on average, but can reach about 150 feet if conditions are right. These trees grow very tall very fast, often exceeding 10 feet in their first year. They usually are the straightest trees in the forest, many with two clear logs (16 feet is a log) in a single trunk before the lowest branches interfere.

Tulip poplars are not true poplars, but instead are in the magnolia family. Their flowers resemble white tulips and their buds are big like other magnolias. The tulip poplar’s leaves can be quite large and are shaped like a cat head, a unique feature that makes it easy to spot. Not only does it drop lots of flowers, it also drops small woody seeds, somewhat resembling ash seeds. Each of these alone could earn the tulip poplar the number five spot on the trashiest tree list.

It is actually aphids that truly earn tulip poplar a spot in the top five. Aphids are tiny insects that insert their straw-like mouthparts into the tree to drink the sap. They poop out honeydew, which falls as tiny, sticky droplets, making a mess of any cars, buildings, or decks below. Aphids adore tulip poplars but rarely impact their health unless their populations get out of control.

Those trashy tidbits are minor compared to the positives. Tulip poplars offer significant shade, particularly if grown in an open area. With enough space, these trees will grow large lateral branches and provide valuable energy savings. They are perfect trees for shading a taller home or offering privacy for a second story window. Given the tulip poplar’s fast growth rate and the amount of energy savings, this tree could be one of the biggest assets to a home with a larger yard. Since every tree’s gonna drop something, you might as well pick one that has some significant return on investment.

Tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, with its unique cat head leaf. (by Jenny Willoughby)

Tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, with its unique cat head leaf. (by Jenny Willoughby)

4. American elm (Ulmus americana)

American elms are making a comeback thanks to the wonders of science. Most of our old American elms died when Dutch elm disease (DED) swept through numerous main streets. DED is a fungus that is carried by elm bark beetles. The beetles are attracted to stressed trees, particularly drought-stressed trees. And they transmit the fungus between just after leaf-out through mid-summer on the crotches of healthy twigs. The worst thing you can do to an American elm is prune it in summer or run over the roots with a lawnmower.

But there are a few varieties of DED-resistent varieties of American elm. Ulmus americana ‘Valley Forge,’ ‘New Harmony,’ ‘Princeton,’ and ‘American Liberty’ varieties. All have varying degrees of resistance, but all exhibit the most important characteristic of the American elm: its vase-like shape.

Elms of all kinds are notorious for dropping thousands of tiny papery seeds. The seeds aren’t easy to rake, they stick to grass and in bare spots of the lawn and on the driveway. They also pile up in the gutters. Generally, they make a mess. They also drop leaves just like every other deciduous tree.

But American elms were once THE trees that lined Main Streets all over the country. Their vase shape means that branches create a shaded allee, giving streets a close-knit and homey feeling. They truly are one of the most stately mature trees and and create an excellent picnic location. Their prolific planting and subsequent mass demise taught arborists the value of diversity. But when planted among a variety of other awesomely trashy trees, American elms make an excellent addition to any larger landscape.

This is actually a Chinese elm, but they all have the same level of trashy-ness. You get the idea. (by Jenny Willoughby)

This is actually a Chinese elm, but they all have the same level of trashy-ness. You get the idea. (by Jenny Willoughby)

3. Red Maple (Acer Rubrum)

Red maple earned the number three spot on the awesomely trashy trees list for a few reasons. This tree is the cockroach of the tree world. It’s pretty hardy and I’m convinced it could survive a nuclear bomb and the zombie apocalypse. I’ve found that it often does well in spots that can’t support other species.

Red maple in autumn (by Kai Hagen)

Red maple in autumn (by Kai Hagen)

Red maples typically get around 50 feet tall and they have an opposite branching pattern that when recognized can make for an even and well-structured canopy. I hear that symmetry is important to some OCD people. Get red maples when they are about one or two years old and you can create a tree that is structurally sound and perfect for small to medium sized yards.

The red maple gets its name because there is always something red on the tree throughout the year. The buds are red over the winter, the tiny flowers look like little red fireworks, and the leaves have red petioles (the stem that connects the leaf to the branch) and the leaf itself turns red in the fall.

The bark on red maples is a bit hinky. Sometimes it’s smooth and gray (usually when young) and sometimes it gets blocky. And sometimes it exhibits both on the same tree. Older trees are sometimes smooth and middle-aged trees sometimes have dark blocky bark. Either way, the tree is a keeper.

Not only do the leaves clog up gutters, but the seeds make quite a mess too. The seeds are two-winged papery affairs that lots of folks call helicopters. Their real name is samaras. The samaras drop in early summer and are a challenge to get unstuck from driveways, cars, and any other surface. They will readily sprout in the bare patches of any lawn.

Despite leaving a lot of trash, red maples can be an excellent addition to a small landscape.

Red Maple leaf on rotting stump (by Kai Hagen)

Red Maple leaf on rotting stump (by Kai Hagen)

2. Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

Sweetgum ranks quite high on the “trash” list, but it makes a beautiful addition to a larger landscape. At a height of 75 feet and with a spread of 50 feet or so, this tree will maximize the shade for your home. Sweetgum typically maintains a pyramid shape when grown in the open with plenty of sun.

Sweetgum  offers some of the most brilliant autumn colors. (by Kai Hagen)

Sweetgum offers some of the most brilliant autumn colors. (by Kai Hagen)

One of the other fantastic features of sweetgum is the leaves. Brilliant green stars, they greet you happily each morning during the growing season. Autumn will bring all smiles as the leaves turn a sunny yellow or brilliant red.

The branches also have corky wings sometimes, giving the twigs an interesting texture. Sweetgum generally likes well-drained moist soil so it’s not suitable for heavy clay soils. But if you’ve just lost a tree and you can till up the yard before planting another, make the soil perfect for the tree you want. And a sweetgum is a great choice!

Now for the main reason this one nears the top of the list for trashiness. The spiky seed balls! These seed balls are green during the growing season, turn brown in early fall, and drop onto the lawn, in the gutters, and everywhere else. They’re no fun on bare feet and can become projectiles in the lawn mower. The gum balls were the top reason folks didn’t want to buy a sweetgum.

But don’t let that stop you! Now there are a couple varieties of seedless sweetgum available! The two I’m most familiar with are Liquidambar styraciflua ‘rotundiloba’ and ‘Hapdell.’ The ‘rotundiloba’ variety maintains the star shaped-leaves but the tips are rounded. The ‘Hapdell’ variety, also known as Happidaze, maintains the pointed leaf tips. These are great options if you like the features of sweetgum but don’t like the spiky balls.

Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, drops spiky balls in the fall that become projectiles when the lawnmower runs over them. (by Jenny Willoughby)

Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, drops spiky balls in the fall that become projectiles when the lawnmower runs over them. (by Jenny Willoughby)

1. Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

This tree was most problematic from a sales standpoint because of the perception of its trashiness. People just couldn’t get past the leaf, flower, and seed pod drop. Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) are a grand and stately tree, filling spaces with an elegance that no other tree really can.

Magnolias are a southern species so planting them here in Frederick, Maryland, is sometimes a gamble. Remember, right tree, right place. They are great for certain sites, like this space in front of City Hall. While they thrive in the warmer and more humid south, they also can thrive a bit farther north if given a bit of protection from the winter winds, which is the case with this magnolia. The surrounding buildings block the harshest northern winds. Magnolias prefer southern or western exposures with plenty of sun.

In spring and summer, they may drop their oldest leaves, which can make for a bit of “trash.” Though this is common for many evergreens, magnolia leaves are large and leathery. This makes raking easier, but because they need to be raked, folks don’t like magnolias.

They also have large, fragrant, white blooms during the summer. There is no mistaking the lemony spiced scent of the blossoms. They are short-lived and can leave a bit of a mess when they drop. But there really is no comparison for the scent.

Not only do they drop the flowers, they also drop fist-sized seed pods. And lots of them. Everything this tree drops is oversized and that really makes this one top the list of awesomely trashy trees. But their beauty cannot be overstated. They have a grand presence in every landscape I’ve seen them. If you don’t have the space for a full-sized southern magnolia at about 50 feet, there are several small varieties like ‘Southern Charm’ (also called Teddy Bear) or ‘Little Gem,’ that only get about 20 feet tall.

Keep in mind that southern magnolias, any variety, are very slow growers. Give them plenty of space, plenty of sun, protection from winter winds, and you’ll have a magnificent specimen tree.

Southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, in front of City Hall in Frederick, Md. (by Jenny Willoughby)

Southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, in front of City Hall in Frederick, Md. (by Jenny Willoughby)

Remember that all trees drop something! So pick a tree that’s right for your space and will bring you joy. Grab your rake, install those gutter guards, and enjoy the trashiness of these trees.


This blog entry was originally posted as five separate pieces on Jenny’s “DIRT HIPPY” blog.