Trees are a marvelous harbinger of the seasons, especially when they sport the new green of spring, the full emerald of summer or the brilliant colors of autumn. And there’s nobody who loves — or knows — native trees as well as arborists, so we asked the Arborist Services team of ISA Certified Arborists about their favorite native trees. Chances are you’ve got one in your backyard.
Commonly found throughout the Eastern U.S., the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) stands out in any landscape. Its typical growing height is 50 to 70 feet, although it can reach heights well in excess of 100 feet. Its leaves turn a brilliant yellow in the fall, but the most unusual feature of the American beech is its smooth, silver bark. This is one of the few trees in the U.S. whose bark retains a sleek surface even after it matures. For that reason, beech bark often serves as a carving block for people looking to immortalize their initials. However, those incisions kill sections of the tree’s bark and can cause great harm to the tree. To see a phenomenal example of a mature American beech, visit the virgin forests of Warren Woods State Park, just outside of Sawyer, Michigan.
— Levi Durham
Few things announce spring more clearly than the magenta blossoms of the Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis). With a mature crown height of 15 to 30 feet, the Eastern redbud is a shade-tolerant understory tree with vase-shaped, dark-brown, twisted and furrowed bark and branches and large heart-shaped, dark-green leaves. Pink, purple and sometimes white flowers can be seen on seemingly dormant tree branches from early to mid-spring at forest edges, streams and rivers and in urban, suburban and rural landscapes.
The Eastern redbud makes an excellent planting choice to attract pollinators such as honeybees and bumblebees, and its foliage plays an important role in sustaining certain native caterpillars on which a number of native songbirds rely. Few, if any, plant diseases or destructive insects significantly affect the Eastern redbud. It grows best and most abundantly in moist, fertile and cool growing conditions and adds a splash of color while performing its important role in the ecosystem of sustaining native wildlife.
Of all the magnificent species of oak trees native to Southwest Michigan, the bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) may be the most spectacular. This tree’s normal growing height of 70 to 80 feet is not the tallest of the oaks, but what it lacks in height is made up in its crown diameter, which can easily exceed its height. The bur oak planted in open fields will develop branch architecture that, as it slowly matures over decades, twists and turns, forming an intricate lattice arching down toward the ground below and back toward the sun.
The bur oak establishes an extensive root system, allowing for survival during harsh droughts, and its thick, furrowed bark enables this resilient species to withstand severe wildfires. Fire suppression efforts have likely led to the decline of the bur oak for a number of years, as the evolutionary advantages that made it the dominant species on the prairie have ceased to be of use in modern times. An exemplar of the venerable species in its nearly untouched state can be seen growing at the northeast corner of Sprinkle Road and Romence Road.
— Mark Kubas
American hornbeam is a rare native gem of the swampy woodlands of much of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and portions of its Upper Peninsula. Commonly called ironwood, blue beech and musclewood, Carpinus caroliniana is a small, 15- to 25-foot-tall tree with delicate branching and smooth blue-gray muscle-like bark. It is often found growing by itself or in sparse populations in cool, moist and fertile locations, with woody plant species such as basswood, sugar maple, tulip tree and nannyberry viburnum nearby.
The tree’s leaves are pointed, ovate, double-serrated and alter-natively arranged along slender, zigzagging branches, and it produces pale green flowers called catkins in late April through mid-May. American hornbeam wood is extremely hard, heavy and strong and was used by early settlers to make tool handles, wedges and pry sticks.
The American hornbeam is rarely found in modern landscapes. Fastigiate, a compact and upright cultivar of the tree, was popularly planted in the 1970s in space-limited urban areas. An American hornbeam does best where growing conditions are consistently moist, fertile and shaded from afternoon heat. Combined with its delicate aesthetic, this small, rare tree just might be a good match for the right landscape.
— Ben Yost
Eastern red cedar
One very important, underrated and valuable tree native to Michigan is the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). This woody species defines toughness, beauty and adaptability. How many other trees can you find growing in wet, dry or poor soils? Bring on the storms and pests! Very few insects and diseases cause great harm to this plant, and it is pliable and wind firm. Selfishness is not in this tree’s vocabulary — many bird species rely on it for shelter and food during migration and in adverse weather conditions. Furthermore, humans have discovered many benefits of red cedar. The beautiful, aromatic and rot-resistant wood has found its way into many homesteads across the land, being used for many things from lining closets and chests to outdoor furniture. Its aromatic berries have been used to treat coughs and colds and to expel intestinal worms. The largest Juniperus virginiana in Michigan is in Ionia County; it is 66 feet tall and has a trunk that is 35 inches in diameter.
— Jesse Teunissen