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Columnar Trees Squeeze Shade Into Tight Spaces

Columnar Trees Squeeze Shade Into Tight Spaces

By Nancy Buley, Director of Communications, J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
Photographs courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.

Columnar, fastigiate, slender, narrow, or skinny: By any name, columnar trees are ideal for today’s landscapes where real estate is at a premium. Whether you have a big house on a small lot like the one pictured below, a narrow planting strip between your sidewalk and the street, or a postage stamp yard, there’s a deciduous tree tailor-made to fit your space. Several of the trees presented here are narrow selections of North American native species, and others are top-performing hybrids. All are genetically destined to grow tall, straight, and narrow, so the best care advice is to plant them, stand back, and let them grow.

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It’s a real challenge to find trees for today’s homes that are nearly as large as the lots they sit on. Fortunately, columnar trees like these Slender Silhouette Sweetgums are a perfect fit.

To maintain a columnar tree’s narrow shape, it is important to identify and maintain its central leader, taking care not to damage or prune out the top bud that leads the growth skyward. If necessary, tip the ends of any side branches that may be competing for that leading role. For general pruning guidelines, see Structural Pruning of Young Trees. For expert help, contact a local ISA Certified Arborist.

Choosing an appropriately narrow tree that will mature to fill its place in the landscape without topping or heavy pruning will allow the tree to attain its unique character and prevent future maintenance headaches. Deciduous trees will provide shade in summer and solar gain in winter after the leaves fall. By choosing cultivars (a word blend of cultivated + variety), you can be confident that the asexually propagated (cloned) tree will grow up to deliver the same narrow shape and other characteristics of the parent tree.

Here’s the skinny on some columnar tree cultivars that are tailored to perform in tight spaces or where a strong vertical design element is desired. Those grown as hedges are effective visual screens, while single specimens mature to become landscape exclamation points. Those described should be reasonably available from independent garden centers in areas where they perform well. Some are also offered by mail order nurseries.

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Slender Silhouette Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’)

One of the tightest, narrowest trees available, this unique selection of a North American native tree forms a striking column of dark green foliage that will eventually reach 60’ in height with a width of only about 8’. Autumn tones are a medley of orange red to burgundy red, with tints of purple and yellow. Named a Gold Medal Plant in 2011, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society website calls it a “very narrow low maintenance cultivar.” The lead photo in this article demonstrates how a pair of Slender Silhouette Sweetgums is a perfect fit for framing the front stairway and entrance.

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Tokyo Tower Chinese Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus ‘Tokyo Tower’)

Four-seasons of beauty recommend this small-stature, narrow tree that is delightful in springtime when its stout, upright branches are smothered in white, fringe-like vanilla-scented flowers. Glossy dark green leaves of summer turn bright golden yellow in autumn and are accented by small blue-black fruits. Golden-tan exfoliating bark lends winter interest to its narrow winter silhouette. A good choice for patios and courtyards, the mature height and spread of this USDA Zone 5 tree are only 20’ x 10’.

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Mountain Sentinel® Aspen (Populus tremuloides ‘JFS-Column’)

This leafy landscape exclamation mark brings columnar form to our native quaking aspen, presenting the same golden yellow fall color and magically unique sound of fluttering leaves that make the species such a popular landscape tree. Its slender green column of trembling foliage turns golden in autumn. Eye-catching even in winter, its silvery-gray bark glows in stark contrast to a backdrop of dark evergreens or cloudy winter skies.

Ascending branches form an extremely narrow and upright tree of about 35’ height and 8’ spread at maturity. Its excellent performance in our mild, maritime USDA Zone 8 climate and hardiness through Zone 3 assures its adaptability over a wide planting range.

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Beacon® Oak (Quercus bicolor ‘Bonnie and Mike’)

This unusually narrow form of Swamp White Oak brings a new dimension to a top-performing and widely adaptable North American native that is recognized for its adaptability to compacted and alkaline soils. Its stout upright branch structure and dense green foliage form a narrow leafy column as it matures to a height and spread of 40’ x 15’. Tightly columnar and urban adaptable, it was discovered by Dr. Michael Dirr and brought to our nursery for trial and evaluation. Introduced in 2012, it is proving to be an exciting addition to the columnar tree lineup. Still rare in the retail trade, Beacon® Oak is a great choice for gardeners who wish to support native pollinators but don’t have the space to grow the species that is typically wide-spreading to 45’ or more.

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Javelin® Pear (Pyrus ‘NCPX1’)

Pink buds that open to white flowers in early spring are soon followed by glossy leaves that emerge purple and mature to dark green. Hybridized and selected by Dr. Tom Ranney of North Carolina State University, it has superior fireblight resistance and has proven to be resistant to heat and drought. A strong central leader and upright branches with open angles promise ease of care. Extremely narrow form makes this ornamental pear hybrid a perfect fit for the space between sidewalk and street and other space-challenged landscapes. Hardy through USDA Zone 5, its mature height and spread is 35’ x 10’.

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Armstrong Gold® Maple (Acer rubrum ‘JFS-KW78’)

This slender shade tree sets a new gold standard for columnar maples by outshining its popular predecessor, Armstrong Maple. Bright golden orange fall color is among its many attributes. Stout branches with open angles contribute to greater branch density and a more compact growth habit. A mature height of about 40’ with a spread of 12’ make it equally useful as a tree for narrow streets and a handsome visual screen when our low-branched liners are chosen. Hardiness is Zone 4.


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