Native tree choices for Northern Virginia
This page gives specifics about various native species. See this page for general tree advice.
These trees are suitable for a variety of landscaping situations. Besides these, here are a few other species for sale in Northern Virginia, listed at the bottom of this page, with explanations for why they were not included.
Spring flowers - short, understory trees
Your choice may simply come down to availability, but if all three are available, you could match your choice to those that grow naturally in your area, whether mountain, coastal or piedmont.All three local species can be multi stemmed, but Downy and Allegheny serviceberries are usually taller trees, up to 40 feet in the wild with a narrow crown, whereas Canada Serviceberry is a suckering shrub up to 25 feet. White flowers in the spring are followed by red to purple fruit in June, then fall color ranging from yellow and orange to red, often brilliant but sometimes drab. They are tolerant of compacted soil and salt. They grow taller in the wild but are typically shorter in cultivation. If you want to be able to eat the berries, do not plant anywhere near Eastern Red Cedar, which shares the same rust disease.
Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)
Common in all regions.
Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)
Common in mountains, infrequent in Piedmont, rare in coastal
Canada Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
Common in mountains, infrequent in Piedmont, rare in coastal
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Great for early Spring interest when planted singly or in masses where you have the space. Deep tap roots transplant poorly, so plant them while young. Short-lived (30 years). Tolerates alkaline and moderately acid soil.
Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginiana)
Drooping clusters of delicate, fragrant white blossoms. Very beautiful specimen shrub. One of the last trees to leaf out in the spring. Slow grower. For berries, you need a female and a male. Very beautiful specimen shrub. Tough in urban situations. Prefers acid soil.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Our Virginia state tree blooms in mid spring. The anthracnose fungus may shorten its life, but that’s only a reason to plant more of them! Fungus is less likely if planted in open areas, but if planted in full sun, it will need to be watered in extended dry spells. Slow growing after transplant, medium grower later. Needs good drainage.
Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
Up to 40 feet in full sun but usually shorter. Beautiful, fragrant flowers in late spring. Can be either a tree or multi-stemmed. Tolerates salt, wet, compacted soils. Needs acid soil.
Other understory trees - great for small gardens or woods edge!
American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)
Nice round shape, works as a specimen, or in a hedge or woodland edge. Good next to paths - drops its lower branches. Unusual fine texture, horizontal layered form. Scarlet, orange or yellow fall foliage, sometimes drab. Sometimes multi-stemmed. Tolerates occasional flooding and short droughts. Does not tolerate compaction or salt.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
Usually deer resistant, this is a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree with a short trunk. Large leaves give it a semi-tropical look. Tolerates wet soil briefly. In floodplains, they grow well together with Virginia bluebells and ostrich ferns. Cultivars might be sterile - use the straight species and plant several together for best results.. It takes a long time before they bear fruit, though. Works as a foundation planting. Pollinated by beetles.
Green Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis)
Scarlet fall foliage, with persistent and spectacular red fruit. Thornless and small cultivars are available. Drought tolerant.
American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
An attractive tree with reddish purple fall foliage.The delicious fruit is inedible until made very mushy by being exposed to frost or consistent low temperatures. Usually male or female, though some trees can self fertilize. Salt tolerant.
Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)
Shaggy bark, nice fall color with “hop-like” drooping fruit in summer. The hard wood makes it a strong tree and gives it its other name of Ironwood. Good understory tree for higher, dryer places than Carpinus caroliniana. Tolerates drought, moderate acid or alkaline soils, but not flooding or salt.
Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolia)
Edible fruit, sweet but astringent so cooked into pies or jams. A good tree for hedges, suckering, with thorns. Drought tolerant.
American Plum (Prunus americana)
Tough, with thorns. Suckering. Tolerates drought.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Beautiful Fall color. Unusual leaf shape. Although Sassafras grows most quickly in fertile soil, it is an appropriate tree to introduce into disturbed sites. Remove suckers to maintain as a single tree, or allow it to colonize to form a screen. Medium to fast grower. Salt tolerant.
Some of the trees for wet places
Smooth Alder (Alnus serrulata)
Typically used in natural areas to repair the soil - it tolerates damaged conditions, sends up suckers and fixes nitrogen. Excellent for streambank stabilization. Nice catkins. Space 5-10 feet apart.
River Birch (Betula nigra)
Beautiful peeling bark, fantastic specimen tree. May grow with multiple trunks. Tolerates salt, compacted soil and wet conditions and both periodic inundation and drought. Needs acidic soil. Medium to fast growing. Pretty catkins.Great for rain gardens. Use the straight species - cultivars such as ‘Heritage' may be more prone to break (though not all Heritage strains are the same). Roots are invasive - do not plant within 20’' of hardscape - and shallow roots - try to plant shrubs at the same time so they grow up together. Great to suck up water and reduce flooding. Beautiful front yard plant.
Black Willow (Salix nigra)
It’s environmental function is to stabilize waterways. Not suitable near houses - susceptible to breakage, and roots seek out pipes with water. Can be an aggressive spreader. Grows more shrub-like than tree-like.
Tall Specimen Trees
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
A large, beautiful tree with dense branching that keeps pretty much anything else from growing beneath it.
American Holly (Ilex opaca)
Small but very fragrant flowers in the spring. Birds love the beautiful red berries it produces. A male and a female are needed to get berries but there is likely to be a male somewhere within 1/4 mile. Great for creating privacy from neighbors yards. Needs plenty of space to grow, since the lower branches spread out on the ground all around. Slow to medium growth rate, very slow in the shade. Tolerates salt and compacted soils.
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Nice evergreen tree that is the nesting habitat and food source for over 54 species of backyard birds. Female trees produce the blue juniper berries. Young trees have small, prickly needles; older ones have layers of flat needles. An early successional tree, you will often spot them along roadsides where they get enough sun. Often used for screening, small cultivars as well as narrow ones are available. Resistant to salt, compaction, extremes of drought, flood, heat, and cold. Do not plant near apple trees or serviceberries, which share with it a common rust disease.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
There is something red on the tree all year long, starting with the red flowers in early spring that are one of the earliest food sources for pollinators. Avoid planting near sidewalks as the shallow root system may cause buckling,The roots also make it hard to underplant. Locate far from house foundation as well. Straight species is superior - there is no need to buy a cultivar. Tolerates compacted soils, air pollution, wet and a variety of soils but not alkaline. Medium to fast growing.
Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
Hackberry is nice for the plant collector. The warty bark is very unique. The branches spread very wide, so plant it well away from buildings. Tolerates flooding, salt, occasional drought, compaction and alkaline soil as well as moderately acid.
Sweetgum (Liquidamber styraciflua)
Very interesting star shape leaves and brilliant fall color. Salt tolerant. Medium to fast growth rate, lives up to 300 years. Needs a large area for root development. The prickly gumballs might be unwelcome on a sidewalk or where people run around barefoot, but they are full of seeds for the birds. ‘Rotundiloba' variety does not produce gumballs but fall foliage is not as good. Tolerates wet, salt, drought, flood, compacted soils.
Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
The tallest tree in our woods, with a straight tall trunk, easily identified by the flower structures which are visible year round. Fast growing. The roots do not tolerate being driven over - the tree will fall over if roots get badly damaged.
Black Sour Gum (Nyssa sylvatica)
One of the first plants to color in the fall - brilliant red foliage. Hard to transplant because of its deep taproot. Slow growing but provides shade early because of its shape. Tolerates salt, wet and compacted soils.
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
A beautiful, massive, fast growing and long-lived tree with wonderful peeling bark. Tolerates compacton, drought, salt. Not everyone likes the fuzzy balls that drop on the ground, but they are quite cool!
There is not a lot to distinguish these hickories from each other, other than that Bitternut Hickory can tolerate wetter soil, and Shagbark Hickory provides four season interest with its distinctive bark. They all make fine shade trees and have bright yellow fall foliage. They have very deep tap roots, which makes it hard to find them for sale but also makes them unlikely to be blown over in a storm.
Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)
Bitternut is present in Northern Virginia but only rarely.
Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra)
Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)
Wonderful shaggy brown bark. Only native in our area to Prince William but a very nice choice for a yard. Very slow growing, can live up to 300 years.
Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa or alba)
Shortleaf Pine and Virginia Pine are common throughout Northern Virginia. Pitch Pine is found in the mountains. Virginia Pine is an early successional plant that does well in poor soil. If planting Virginia Pine as a screen, be aware that as it grows tall, it drops its lower branches, leaving stubs behind.
Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata)
Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)
Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)
The main deciding factors when choosing oak trees are your growing conditions. Check your soil pH. All young oaks are moderately shade tolerant but require full sun to grow. Some can grow in wet, swampy areas, while others are drought tolerant, and some may be both wet and drought tolerant and therefore good candidates for rain gardens. After that, you can think about which leaf shape you prefer. Fall foliage is usually brown, but a few species turn red. All oaks produce acorns, of course, though not until they are old enough: 15-40 years, depending on the species.
If you are in a hurry to provide shade, you might want to pick one of the faster growing species, which grow 2-3 feet per year (slow growing trees only gain a foot or so a year). It is best to transplant oaks when young, preferably in early spring, to avoid transplant shock. As with all trees, it adds to wildlife value if you plant trees that normally exist in the natural areas nearest you, while at the same time adding to biodiversity by planting species that are different from all your neighbors’.
Oak trees have tremendous wildlife value. Because oaks hold onto some of their leaves in winter, many insects lay their eggs on them. When the larvae hatch in spring, warblers and other songbirds descend on the leaves to feast. Oak catkins attract wasps, caterpillars and aphids which in turn are a magnet for warblers. The leaves are food for hundreds of species of caterpillars including the Red Spotted Purple butterfly, and to 150-200 species of leaf miners.
Some oak trees have been dying recently, apparently due to multiple factors.
The spreadsheet below may be easier to view here.
White Oak Group
Red Oak Group
A few Northern Virginia native trees that may be for sale are not listed above, for a variety of reasons.
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) They are failing badly in Richmond and not native to here.
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) A fine shade tree, but it contains chemicals that are toxic to many other plants, making gardening difficult, so best planted in natural areas.
White Pine (Pinus strobus) Although it is a very handsome tree and commonly planted in our area, it is only native in the mountains. It can be blown over by wind (so don't plant it near a house).
Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is a fine native pollinator and bird food tree, and it is available for sale in native plant nurseries. It also makes a good shade tree. But it is weedy and will seed readily into gardens. It also a primary host eastern tent caterpillars in the spring, and many find the tents and early defoliation unsightly, although it does not damage the tree.
Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) An excellent pine, native just south of Prince William County.
Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a great pollinator tree and is known for producing very good honey. But it is also weedy, aggressive and produces large messy seed pods. There is some debate about its native range, but Dirr indicates it was introduced to England in 1636 where it became a must have horticultural species. This early date of introduction to Europe suggests it was present in the coastal plain and piedmont at the beginning of colonization.
American Linden (Tilia americana) We are in the southern end of its range, which may be a problematic with global warming.
Ash trees (Fraxinus species) The Emerald Ash Borer is rapidly killing them.
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) The Woolly Adelgid is killing them off.
American Elm (Ulmus americana) Dutch Elm Disease took most of these out. Some cultivars are resistant to Dutch Elm Disease but not totally immune. Other diseases can be problematic. Perhaps best planted in a remote area such as next to a stream bank where it won't be a hazard if it dies and eventually falls down. Propagating straight species leads to genetic variability which may eventually lead to disease resistant strains.
Quercus stellata - Post Oak