Star magnolia
Magnolia stellata – star magnolia


Sweetbay Magnolia
Magnolia virginiana (sweetbay magnolia)


Japanese Stewartia
Stewartia psuedocamellia (Japanese stewartia)

Nothing beats sitting under a spreading shade tree on a lazy summer day, enjoying something fresh from the garden, or an ice-cold drink. Many of us do not have the space for a full-size shade tree, or prefer not to have a large tree by the patio or close to the house. But, do not worry, there are plenty of options of small to medium-sized trees that fit the bill of providing shade in the garden, while also being in scale with smaller spaces, and not overwhelming the area in which they are planted.

By medium-sized trees, I am referring to trees that grow to between 15-25 feet within approximately 20 years. Think of these as plants that grow to between one and two stories tall, and you can get a sense of how they might work in your landscape.

With so many options to choose from, it is hard to pick just a few. Here are three to get you started:

  1. Magnolia stellata – star magnolia: native to Japan, it is one of the earliest magnolias to flower, with bright white flowers in late March and early April.
  2. Magnolia virginiana (sweetbay magnolia): one of the most adaptable magnolias, of all of the trees on this list, it is probably the best for urban conditions or heavy soils. Sweetbay is notable for its small, but fragrant, flowers in mid-June. Some varieties (M. virginiana var. australis) such as ‘Milton’, ‘Henry Hicks’, and ‘Green Bay’ are evergreen, holding their leaves throughout the winter.
  3. Stewartia psuedocamellia (Japanese stewartia): is probably the most finicky plant on this list, and one that prefers a rich, well drained soil, high in organic matter. However, this is a plant that rewards throughout the year, with beautiful exfoliating bark, early summer flowers, and fantastic fall color. If you can grow this plant, it is one of the best to have in the garden.

Happy planting, and sit back and enjoy for years to come.

For even more small tree suggestions and information, join our new tour on Saturdays (June 13, 20, 27), Small Trees For Small Spaces.

Article contributed by Anthony Aiello - The Gayle E. Maloney Director of Horticulture & Curator, Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania
Photos: Paul W. Meyer