Quite a Specimen

Men laying new hardwood flooring

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earths flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Joyce Kilmer, 1914

Joyce Kilmers well-known poem about the magnificence of the simple tree just about says it all. We go through everyday life surrounded by trees, but how often do we consider what life would be like without them?

Besides providing shelter for wildlife and bearing nutritious fruit, trees provide shade from the hot sun in summer and shelter from wind and precipitation in winter, reducing heating and cooling costs. The very air we breathe is improved by the presence of trees. To feed themselves, trees absorb massive amounts of harmful carbon monoxide and produce life-giving oxygen. Trees filter and trap pollutants such as smoke, dust and ash, making our air cleaner. They also absorb water, which helps prevent flooding and helps disperse rainfall over a more even area. And by retaining water, trees help reduce the amount of topsoil that runs off into our sewers and streams. Fallen leaves aid growth by retaining moisture and decomposing to amend the soil. These leaves also trap chemicals, keeping them out of lakes and rivers.

Many of the abundant trees that we live with daily in Atlanta were planted decadeseven centuriesago. With good care and plenty of rainfall, 100-year-old oaks in Decatur, Snellville, Senoia, Athens and Marietta will continue to stand for many years. Giant loblolly pines throughout Georgia sway in the wind, withstanding extreme weather conditions and providing shade and homes for our native wildlife.

Atlantas explosive growth, due to its popularity as a great place to live and work, unfortunately has caused the demise of thousands of its native trees. Fortunately, recently implemented city and county restrictions on tree-cutting have slowed the loss of these trees, and developers and homeowners have joined together to replace the stands of trees that have been the pride of our area for so long.

Among the specimen trees recommended for planting in Atlanta are Paperback Maple (above), Sourwood,
and White Fringetree.
Photo courtesy of Monrovia

Specimen trees
While many of the trees that are being replanted will not reach maturity in our lifetime, the benefits they provide will enhance our environment. Newly planted oaks, maples, sweet gums, poplars and other massive varieties will eventually provide shade for homes years from now. However, there are many varieties of trees that homeowners can plant in their landscapes today and enjoy their growth and mature size within a few short years.

These trees, often called specimen trees, are recognized as such for their aesthetic appealincluding characteristics such as flower and foliage color and branch structure. While many large species of trees, such as the 80-foot-tall Gingko (Gingko biloba) and the massive 70-foot-tall Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodora), are superb specimen trees in lots of an acre or more, many newly built homes do not have the space for these towering varieties.

Our native dogwood is drought-tolerant,
pest- and disease-resistant and provides
year-round interest.
Photo courtesy of Bold Spring Nursery

Atlanta gardeners are fortunate that there are many varieties of small trees that perform spectacularly in the metro areas climate. Whether native or nonnative, trees that are drought-tolerant and pest- and disease-resistant are the most reliable for Atlanta. One very recognizable tree, our native dogwood (Cornus florida), is a traditional Southern favorite that provides year-round interest. Its early spring flowers, beautiful light-green leaves in summer, late-summer berries, gorgeous red fall foliage and beautiful branch structure in the winter months provide Atlantans with what has long been considered an almost perfect specimen tree. A nonnative dogwood that is gaining popularity, the Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), is a favorite small tree due to its superior drought and disease tolerance, later-blooming and longer-lasting flowers and beautiful shape when in-leaf. New hybrids of Florida and Kousa dogwoods, such as Celestial, Stellar Pink and Stardust, also are outstanding choices for the dogwood lover.

This redbud has the ability to perform well in a variety of soils and light conditions.
Photo courtesy of Mary Kay Woodworth

One of the earliest spring flowerers is the Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis). This spectacular native tree from the pea family has buds that cluster around branches and the trunk of the tree in an unusual manner. The redbud that most of us are familiar with is not red-floweringnone of the cultivars arebut a brilliant purple/pink color. The recognizable heart-shaped leaves turn a lovely yellow in the fall, when 2- to 3-inch seed clusters also develop.

Redbud has grown in popularity due to its outstanding resistance to drought and its ability to grow in a variety of soils and light conditions. Besides the common redbud, look for white-flowering Alba, Royal White and Dwarf White, and the purple/pink-blossoming Convey and Silver Cloud. The magnificent Forest Pansy sports dark purple new foliage, which will fade to purple/green during the summerits rose/purple flowers appear later than most cultivars. Other redbuds that grow well in Atlanta are Texas White and Oklahoma.

The Japanese maple comes in many varieties to suit any taste and situation. They can be big, small, upright or weeping, need sun or shade and have a wide color selection to enhance your landscape.
Photo courtesy of Mary Kay Woodworth

Japanese maple
No other specimen tree draws as much interest and attention as the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). Once considered too exotic a tree for the everyday homeowner, due to cost, availability, and the incorrect perception that they were difficult to grow, Japanese maples are one of the most widely planted specimen plants purchased today. Japanese maples give you such a big bang for the buck, says Atlanta landscape contractor Frank Brannon of Brannon and Company. Theyve got great winter form, some have lovely spring color, others have terrific fall color, and most have both. Migratory birds, pollinating bees and insects are provided food and shelter by the maple trees, so by planting them, youre not only helping the air, but encouraging wildlife, too.

Brannons obsession with Japanese maples began 12 years ago, when he and his wife, Beverly, received their first plant in celebration of their daughter Carlins birth. That tree has passed on, but they have since amassed a collection of more than 50 trees of all shapes, sizes and colors. This variety is what he feels draws people to this particular species. You can find a Japanese maple to suit any situation. Big, small, upright, weeping, sun or shade; orange, green, pink, yellow, maroon, or a combination of colors; and leaf texture from coarse to delicate, he says. Brannon says one of his favorites is Beni kawa, which can handle full sun, holds its glorious fall color very well and has red/salmon-colored bark thats beautiful during winter. He also swoons over Shaina, a small beauty that does well in containers, and says Corallinum is another great choice for year-round wow appeal.

Another Japanese Maple, Shaina, is a beauty option that gives year-round wow appeal and does very well in containers.
Photo courtesy of Brannon and Company

Good picks for new collectors include unusual thread-leafed Red Pygmy, Willow Leaf and Villa Taranto; laceleaf Maiku jaku (a japonicum); dissectum Green Cascade, a weeper that looks terrific next to deep red cultivars; and dwarf Kiyohime, whose light-green leaves are overlaid with rose-pink edges in the spring. Old reliables Red Dragon, Crimson Queen, Bloodgood, Orangeola and Ornatum also will make the first-time Japanese maple buyer happy. Just looking at these magnificent trees is like taking a small vacationthey create a very peaceful and relaxing environment, Brannon says.

The importance of trees seems apparent when one tries to imagine a world without them. Cleaner air and water, food for our tables and thoughts and inspiration for our senses are but a few things given to us by trees. If nothing else, they offer us an excuse to sit, close our eyes and listen to the winds rustle though their leaves. Now that fall is just around the corner, plant a tree today and enjoy its beauty forever.

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