Arbor Day focus is good time to plant spring-flowering trees

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 21, 2012

Arbor Day is celebrated in Louisiana on the third Friday in January, which this year fell on Jan. 20. It’s a day we set aside to celebrate and appreciate the role living trees play in improving our lives and our environment, and many people plant trees to celebrate the occasion. Trees, through the photosynthesis process, convert carbon dioxide to carbon and oxygen, which we can then breathe. Trees also provide shade for cooling our homes in the summer and for recreation outings, lumber for building homes, paper, pencils, food for wildlife, beauty for landscaping, sound barriers along highways, visual barriers along property lines, wind breaks and many more benefits.

Spring-flowering trees are among the ones to consider planting in your landscape since they will add so much color and beauty over the next few months. Now through early March is an excellent time to plant these and other types of trees in the landscape.

At 40 feet tall, the largest of the spring-flowering trees is our native swamp red maple (species Acer rubrum var. drummondii), which is coming into bloom about now. This tree species separates the sexes into individual plants, so there are male swamp red maple trees and female swamp red maple trees. It is the females that put on the more attractive display in the spring. Not only are their flowers showier but those flowers turn into attractive fruit. You may notice these trees in your area – with their deep-red, burgundy or rusty-red, boomerang-shaped fruit clustered all along their leafless branches.

The swamp red maple also makes an excellent shade tree. Although it grows in swampy areas, it adapts readily to well-drained urban landscapes. It is a deciduous tree, which loses its foliage in the winter, with an upright oval shape and a moderate to fast rate of growth.

Another choice, the Taiwan flowering cherry (Prunus campanulata), produces deep pink flowers in great abundance before the leaves emerge. Flowering generally begins in mid to late January and extends over two to three weeks. This is one of the few flowering cherries that grows and blooms reliably this far south. It prefers to grow in a sunny to partly sunny location with excellent drainage. The ‘okame’ flowering cherry is another type that will grow successfully in Louisiana. Pale pink flowers are produced in March or April.

The oriental magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) is one of the most spectacular of the spring-flowering trees because its flowers are so large. Unlike the evergreen southern magnolia, the oriental magnolia is deciduous and loses its leaves in winter. The fragrant flowers, which appear in January and February, before the foliage comes back, are tulip-shaped, 4 inches to 6 inches across and may be flushed pale pink to purple on the outside and white on the inside. Long-lived and reliable, oriental magnolias grow 15 feet to 20 feet tall and need a sunny location with good drainage.

The related star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is smaller, growing 10 feet to 12 feet tall, and is more shrub-like. Its white or pale pink flowers are star-shaped and wonderfully fragrant. Blooming in late January or February before the foliage reappears, the star magnolia is an excellent choice for small space gardens.

The native silver bell (Halesia diptera) is a lovely tree that is often recommended as a substitute for dogwoods and is less fussy about its growing conditions. The trees do not really resemble each other that closely, but the silver bell does bloom at about the same time with small, four-petal, white flowers that hang down in large numbers from the branches. The thin leaves allow light to filter through, creating a lovely effect under the tree. They grow well with light shade or in full sun and mature at about 25 feet to 30 feet.

The hawthorns are a wonderful group of native trees that provide spring bloom as well as fruit for human or wildlife consumption. One of my favorites is the parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii). Growing 15 feet to 20 feet tall, it is an excellent choice in patio or small space plantings. The clusters of white flowers appear in March or April and are soon followed by the foliage, which looks like flat Italian parsley, hence the tree’s name. The small red fruit that ripen in the fall are relished by mockingbirds. Parsley hawthorn is tolerant of poorly drained soils and grows in full sun to part shade. When the trees are young they possess thorns.

Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a delightful native tree that thrives in well-drained locations with full sun to partial shade. The flowers are greenish white and are produced in masses all along the branches. The narrow petals and hanging habit give the flowers a fringe or beard-like appearance. In the wild you usually see them growing on the edge of the woods. The Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus) also grows well here and is even showier than our native species.

Another excellent spring-flowering tree is the redbud (Cercis canadensis), which usually blooms in late February or March. Small, pinkish-purple, pea-like flowers are produced in unbelievable profusion along the branches (and even on the trunk!) before the leaves appear. This habit of blooming before the leaves grow out is fairly common among the spring-flowering trees and really adds to the impact of the flowers. Redbuds are relatively fast growing once established and prefer full sun and a well-drained location.

For more information on trees and shrubs, visit the LSU Ag Center’s website at Publications may be ordered online or may be picked up at the local LSU Ag Center extension office. You may also contact your local parish county agent.

If you have any questions, please contact your local LSU Ag Center County Agent. You can contact David Pichon, County Agent-St. John Parish at 985-497-3261 or by email at