Blog written by our AmeriCorps service member Esmeralda Figueras
The Cumberland River Compact is pleased to introduce the five hardy, wildlife-friendly trees we will be delivering this fall through the Neighborhood Planting Captain program. The list features new and old friends, trees both big and small – and all of them are Tennessee natives!
Serviceberry is another beautiful flowering understory tree that will bring all the birds to the yard! It typically grows only 15-25 feet tall. Its pale blossoms are smaller than that of Sweetbay Magnolia, but more densely clustered, almost like a North American version of a cherry tree. And speaking of fruits, the berries on a Serviceberry are edible! Resist the temptation to pluck them while they’re a vivid red, and wait until they’re plum-colored for the sweetest taste. The berries grow in abundance, so there should be plenty for you and the many birds that feast on Serviceberries. The berries typically ripen around June, which is why another name for this tree is Juneberry. In the fall, Serviceberries turn lovely shades of red and orange. This tree prefers full sun or partial shade.
Sweetbay Magnolias are some of our favorite tiny Magnolias. They have all the charm of Southern Magnolias, in half the space (or less). These multi-stem beauties typically only grow to be about 10-35 feet tall, and roughly the same width. Large, fragrant flowers bloom from their branches in spring, and later in the year give way to vibrant berry-like seeds. Sweetbay Magnolias are semi-evergreen, which means they hold on to their dual-toned leaves long after most trees have gone bare. Every part of this tree is a tasty treat for wildlife; expect to see many songbirds and other woodland creatures if you plant this tree in your yard. This tree is so tasty, in fact, that we recommend setting up a deer guard (if you have deer in your neighborhood).
Sweetbays prefer full sun or partial shade. They also prefer moist soils and can tolerate periodic flooding. Want more sweet info on Sweetbays? Check out our full-length blog here.
Swamp White Oak
Swamp White Oaks are grand, sturdy trees with dual toned leaves – glossy and dark on top, and a silvery white on the bottom. They belong to the White Oak group, meaning (among other things) that their leaves have rounded edges and their acorns take just one year to mature. Swamp White Oaks typically grow to be around 50-60 feet tall and almost as wide, making them excellent shade trees. They grow more quickly than other White Oaks, but are still very long-lived, often living over 300 years.
Unsurprisingly, Swamp White Oaks like to grow in moist bottomlands and areas with periodic flooding, but they are tolerant of a broad range of soil conditions and can even withstand drought. They prefer full sun. If you’ve been reading our blogs for a while now, you already know that native oaks are the best trees you can plant if you want to see more butterflies and birds. They host more species of caterpillar than any other plant. Their acorns are also an important food source for wildlife like deer, turkeys, ducks, and of course squirrels. For this reason, the Cumberland River Compact makes sure to include an oak in its tree species catalog each year.
Want something taller than a Serviceberry, but smaller than a Tulip Poplar? Then Blackgum is the tree for you! Blackgum, also called Black Tupelo, Sourgum, or Tupelo Gum, typically grows to be about 30-50 feet tall when mature. It is not related to Sweetgum, and does *NOT* have spiky seed pods of doom (so your feet are safe). Blackgum has tiny fruits which are technically edible but very sour, which explains its third name, Sourgum. Nevertheless, plenty of birds enjoy the berries, while the flowers are a good food source for bees and other pollinators.
Blackgum flowers aren’t particularly showy, but the foliage more than makes up for it with nearly an entire color palette! Blackgum leaves start green and turn purple, orange, crimson, and yellow – sometimes all at once. This tree grows best in full sun or partial shade.
Red Maples are aptly named: they are red, red, red, all year round. In the fall, of course, the leaves turn a brilliant scarlet. In early spring, bunches of cerise flowers and fruits burst from the trees’ twigs. Come summer, the leaves and the fruits fade to green, but if you look closely, you’ll see that the stems of the leaves stay red. Even in winter, the twigs of Red Maples have a reddish tint to them.
Maple fruits are called “samaras.” They are fruits only in the botanical sense of the word. Samaras are paper-thin seed pods that rotate like the blades of a helicopter when they fall off the tree. If you see a samara on the ground, try it for yourself! Pick it up, toss it into the air, and watch it spiral back down. Red Maples are tall, fast growing trees. They tend to mature at about 40-60 feet tall, and do well in full sun.
A quick word of warning for all the equestrians out there: wilted red maple leaves are toxic to horses and can cause serious illness. Other species of maples are apparently not a concern.
Red Maples are perfectly edible for humans, though maple syrup is primarily harvested from a different maple species.
Interested in one of these five species?
We have over 40 Neighborhood Planting Captains recruiting their neighbors to sign up for free trees right now, with the deadline to sign up of early July. Send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org with your street address, and we’ll let you know if there’s a planting captain near you.
Header image, serviceberry in fall
Serviceberry with white flowers
Swamp white oak, full mature size