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Grow Native: From smelly leaves to nuisance nuts, make sure you know your trees before you plant in the spring.

Scott Woodbury

October 22, 2020

4 Min Read
A close up of berries on a tree with red leaves
FALL COLORS: The black gum tree offers an array of fall colors from orange to red, which is pleasing to a landowner’s eye. But it also has a nutritional bonus for wildlife — small berries. Photos courtesy of Scott Woodbury

In fall and early winter, some tree leaves can offer a beautiful sight and aroma.

For instance, wet, fallen sycamore leaves produce a fragrance like bay rum or bay leaves. It is more noticeable when the leaf litter is damp or wet. It’s a subtle odor, although it is unmistakable when you discover it.

But sycamore is not the only tree extending the desire to be in nature long after summer. Here are a few more trees full of surprises:

Kentucky coffee. Once awarded “Best Tree for Solar Benefit” by the American Society of Landscape Architects, when this tree is planted on the south or west side of a house, it provides shade in the summer and heat in the winter. Its leaves do most of the work; they are massive in the summer. But the stems are oddly coarse in texture, having half the stems and branches of a maple tree, so more sunlight passes through its canopy in the winter. The result comes in home energy cost savings.

Yellow bean pods hanging in a tree

ENERGY SAVER: The Kentucky coffee tree is one that provides energy savings when planted around the farmhouse. Its leaves cast the greatest amount of shade in the summer, and its stems cast the least amount of shade in the winter, allowing the sun to heat up the home.

Chinquapin oak. While many homeowners shy away from large oak trees because of their large acorns, the chinquapin’s acorns are tiny — smaller than a dime — and its leaves are the smallest of all the oaks in the northern Ozarks. The fine-textured leaves and small acorns are easy to sweep into planting beds and virtually disappear. All that is left is mulch for overwintering butterflies and moths. Also, chinquapin oak grows quickly and tolerates high pH soil that occurs near driveways and house foundations.

Black gum. This is a fall color showstopper. It has the best burgundy, yellow and orange fall color. Its small leaves also sift into planting areas without the need for raking and, therefore, support wildlife. It produces many purple berries that cedar waxwings gorge on from October through early December.

Sweet gum. This species is often confused with black gum. It also has fantastic red-orange fall color, but with five-lobed leaves. Still, there is a drawback — messy gumballs. They can be large and need raking for fear of someone twisting an ankle when stepping on them. However, there is a fruitless cultivar of sweet gum called "Rotundiloba" that has rounded leaf lobes and burgundy fall color. It is slow-growing, upright and fits into small spaces better.

Black walnut. This tree is a trickster in late summer and early fall. When I was younger, I cut a big, black walnut tree down thinking it was dead, although it was very much alive. Black walnuts lose their leaves early. In dry years, leaves start coming down in late August, and trees are leafless by September. So, don’t cut them down, unless you want firewood.

Witch hazel. Young witch hazel trees at times have a quality that some may find unattractive. The dried winter leaves stick to the stems through its bloom period from November through February, hiding the winter flowers. This normally happens on young trees (younger than 5 to 7 years old), but sometimes lasts for more than a decade.

Because of genetic diversity, some seedlings are more prone to this condition than others. This also occurs on oak seedlings during a period of juvenile vigor, when plants are growing rapidly. Most oaks outgrow this before they turn 10, but not all. However, the persistent dried leaves on witch hazel and young oaks do provide a privacy screen, which is an attractive quality.

Arrowwood viburnum. Be careful with this tree. Its leaves smell like old gym socks when it rains. Unless you like this odor, plant them as far away from your nose as possible. They have nice burgundy or pinkish fall color, dense stems that birds prefer to nest in, and clusters of purple berries that birds devour.

There are so many different ways to use trees to spruce up your farm landscape while promoting wildlife. Plant trees with purpose.

Woodbury is a horticulturist and curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Mo. He also is an adviser to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program.

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