Selecting Fast Growing Shade Trees

Trees are a valuable asset to our home landscape.  In addition to blooms, texture, and fall color, trees also help reduce energy bills by casting shade on our homes during summer.  People are often reluctant to plant large shade trees because they don’t want to wait 20 years or more to enjoy the benefit. Selecting a fast-growing tree therefore is a primary concern. However, I would urge you to read about specific trees that are sold as “fast-growing” and any maintenance problems they may have before purchasing.  Bradford Pear trees are an example of a fast-growing tree, but as most people are aware, they are very short lived, often breaking apart in storms after only 20 years of growth. Other fast-growing trees that should not be planted in home landscapes due to weak limbs or other problems include silver maple, eastern white pine, American sycamore, cottonwood, pin oak, and weeping willow.

Selecting the right fast-growing tree for you starts with an analysis of your landscape. Every tree has specific environmental conditions that are needed for optimum growth.  The closer your landscape meets these conditions, the better your tree will perform.  Some conditions to consider are: temperature, sunlight, soil texture, drainage and fertility.  Additionally, overhead and underground utility lines will impact the placement of a tree and it is best to avoid these structures in order to reduce future problems. Large shade trees should be spaced one-half the distance of their spread from any structure or overhead obstruction and the full width of the mature tree from the trunk of any other large growing tree. Western, southern and southeastern exposures of your home receive the most heat from the sun and are good locations to place your large shade trees.  Although there are many trees that produce shade, the one’s listed below are considered fast-growing and very desirable and may be a good choice for your landscape.

  • Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum): H 60-100ft/W 40-50ft
    This native deciduous conifer is tall, with rich green feather-like foliage. Its leaves turn rusty orange in the fall. Very adaptable to many soil types.
  • Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrata): H 60-80ft/W 30-40ft
    Shares a similar vase-shape as the American elm. Its dark green leaves turn golden bronze and reddish purple in the fall. In time, its bark becomes gray and exfoliating. Adaptable to high heat and drought.

    chinese elm.jpg

    Ulmus parvifolia -Nancy Loewenstein, Auburn University,

  • Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia): H 40-60ft/W 30-40ft
    The dominate street tree in many cities because of its pest resistance, adaptability to soil and climate. Its best quality may be its exfoliating bark, with shades of gray, green, brown and orange.
  • Red Maple (Acer rubrum): H 40-60ft/W 25-40ft
    Red maple trees grown from seed or dug from local woods show considerable variability in the landscape. Any two red maples are not likely to have the same leaf shape or fall color. However, red maple cultivars like Brandy Wine, Red Sunset, and October Glory give reliable color and form and make a great addition to the landscape.
  • River Birch (Betula nigra): H 50-60ft/W 40-50ft
    River Birch is the most heat tolerant of all native birches. Its attractive peeling bark almost require that you grow it as a clump of 3 to 5 trees rather than a single specimen just to enjoy its bark. Fox Valley is a dwarf cultivar growing only 10 feet tall. Heritage is another popular variety.
  • Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima): H 50-60ft/W 30-60ft
    A faster grower oak than others and underused in the landscape, the sawtooth oak has handsome foliage and tolerates varied soil conditions.
  • Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera): H 80-100ft/W 30-40ft
    As our state tree, it seems only fitting to include it in this list. Fast growing in youth but slowing as it matures to its full size. This tree needs plenty of space due to its massive size. Ardis is a smaller-statured cultivar of the tulip tree with a maximum size of only 30 feet. Arnold is a unique columnar form good for screens.

Submitted by Kelly Jackson, Agent for Horticulture, Christian Co. Cooperative Extension Service