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GardenSMART :: Trust Tree Cultivars To Deliver Predictable Beauty And Performance

Trust Tree Cultivars To Deliver Predictable Beauty And Performance

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

Choosing the best trees for your landscape can be a daunting task, or an exciting adventure. Because they are such critical design elements that contribute so much to the beauty and utility of your yard, it’s important to apply the old but golden rule of “right tree, right place.” Choosing cultivars takes much of the guesswork out of picking trees that will fit your space while fulfilling your hopes and expectations for how that tree will look and perform as it grows to maturity in your garden.

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“Cultivar” is horticultural shorthand for “cultivated variety,” a term that describes a plant that is propagated asexually (from a cutting or graft) from a superior parent plant. Cultivars may originate from a standout tree in a nursery row, an unusual tree growing in a park or natural area, or along a city street. Many originate from university or arboretum breeding and selection programs. Our nursery has propagated, evaluated and introduced or co-introduced more than 100 unique tree cultivars over the past 50+ years. We grow and sell them to other wholesale growers and to garden centers across the continent, and to some international customers, too.

Some of our newer cultivars are featured in a recent GardenSMART episode, along with details on how and why we think it's so important to always be on the lookout for new and improved tree cultivars. GardenSMART host Eric Johnson and I toured our nursery fields and arboretum, talked about the how and why of cultivars, and highlighted a dozen or so trees that caught his eye, and some of our favorites. If you missed the episode on your local PBS channel, you can view it on the JFS YouTube channel.

In a nutshell, cultivars are the key to predictable performance. If your goal is to have predictably great fall color, fabulous flowers, cool shade, insect and disease resistance, heat and drought tolerance, predictable form (columnar, rounded, dwarf, spreading, etc.), or all of the above, cultivars are the answer. The cardinal rule in our tree development effort is that “NEW” is not a good enough reason to introduce a cultivar – it must be “BETTER” than trees of its type currently in the marketplace. We share a few of our favorites:  

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Redpointe® Maple is a rising star among maples. Symmetrical branches sport a dense canopy of brilliant red leaves as they point skyward in autumn. Leaves emerge in spring with a reddish blush and mature to dark green in time to provide cool shade on hot summer days. Improved resistance to disease and insect pests, superior performance in higher pH soils, and heat and drought resistance are reasons to choose this exceptional Red Maple (Acer rubrum) cultivar.

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Royal Raindrops® Crabapple (top photo) greets spring with eye-popping, pollinator-pleasing, magenta-pink blooms that smother the branches of this symmetrical, easy-care tree.  Flowers are followed by bronze-purple, deeply cut leaves that mature to deep purple in summer. Tolerance of heat, drought and cold, plus superior disease resistance and adaptability to varied growing conditions make this a tree for all seasons.

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Streetspire® Oak is the product of a 30+ years effort to develop improved cultivars of hybrid oaks. Introduced in 2012, it stands tall and narrow amid the grove of columnar oak trees in the J. Frank Schmidt Jr. Arboretum. Dark green, disease-resistant leaves turn rusty red to orange and drop cleanly in late autumn. Tough and storm resistant, it’s a great fit for narrow spaces and small yards where a tall privacy screen is needed. Because Streetspire® Oak is relatively new (introduced in 2012), it’s likely to be hard to find. Crimson Spire™ Oak, its older “cousin” from the same hybrid cross of Columnar English and White Oaks (Q. robur x Q. alba), is a great substitute – offering rusty red fall color rather than orange.

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City Sprite® Zelkova is an exciting and unique new addition to the Japanese Zelkova family. Maturing about 2/3 the size of typical cultivars, it grows relatively quickly in youth as it matures into a perfectly shaped, small-scale shade tree. A perfect fit for modern home landscapes and for planting near utility lines, its leaves are small and darker green than is typical of Zelkova. Fall color is a rich golden orange.

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Pink Cascade® Cherry is a springtime delight as a prolific crop of bright pink flowers smother the gracefully weeping branches. Dark green, fine-textured summer foliage turns bright orange in autumn. Developed at North Carolina State University, it is proven to have superior disease resistance and heat tolerance than is typical of ornamental cherries. Vigorous and easy to grow, this brand-new cultivar is worth waiting for.

Caution! Before you fall in love with these remarkable trees and decide you must have one or more of them in your garden, consider that they are new, and that it takes patience and time to develop and grow high quality trees. Each of the featured trees took 15-25 years or more to hybridize and select, evaluate and test for superior performance. Of the trees featured here, Royal Raindrops® Crabapple (introduced in 2003) and Redpointe® Maple (2006) are most likely to be available at your favorite independent garden center in climate-appropriate regions. Be prepared for a treasure hunt for the others: Introduced between 2012-2016, they are unlikely to be widely available on the retail level for several more years. Our best advice is to ask your favorite garden center if they are a customer of Schmidt. If so, they may be willing to place a special order to be added to their next order.


All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.

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