The perfect accessory for your yard

A specimen tree can bring the rest of the garden into very clear focus

In The Garden

January 12, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | By Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

We love a star: someone or something that stands out from the crowd.

Which is why we love specimen trees, those singular punctuation marks in the landscape that draw our attention, appreciation and sometimes even awe.

A specimen tree can be anything -- a crimson Japanese maple (Acer japonicum) at the beginning of a walkway, a tall Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) standing sentinel near a house, a flowering crabapple (Malus) dressed in frilly pink blooms in a shaded yard. But its star quality stems less from its particular characteristics than from the fact that it's a counterpoint to its surroundings.

"A specimen tree is a single contrasting element to the rest of the landscape," says Joel Lerner, owner of Environmental Design, a landscape design firm in Chevy Chase.

Jeff Miskin, president of Ace Nurseries and Ace Tree Movers Inc. in Gaithersburg, believes a specimen should also be an exemplar of its kind.

"It embodies the perfect characteristics of that plant in form and health," he says. Though Miskin advises on arboreal quality, he often encourages his customers to choose the individual tree they view as perfect, "because beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

Since virtually any tree species that will thrive in a given spot can be used as a specimen, the number of choices is vast.

"The hard part is choosing," says Catherine Mahan, partner in Mahan Rykiel Associates, a landscape architectural firm in Baltimore. "You probably have room for only one or two or maybe three specimens on your property."

Specimen trees add that certain something to a space, like the perfect accessory to a little black dress.

A specimen can be chosen for a single virtue -- fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) for its fragrant white flowers, weeping willow (Salix babylonica) for its graceful movement, American chestnut (Castanea dentata) for its perfectly arched branches etched against a winter sunset (though it smells awful in bloom). Or a specimen tree can make a multiseason contribution to a place of honor.

"For specimens, I use trees that have gorgeous exfoliating bark, berries and fall color," says Lerner. "I'm enthralled with any cultivar of Stewartia, for example. It flowers in summer, the fall color is outstanding and the bark in winter is beautiful."

Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) is another multiseason choice.

Spring-flowering, it wears burgundy leaves in fall and bears late-summer fruits like small red ornaments that are a favorite wildlife snack. Additionally, kousa is immune to anthracnose, a scourge to American flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), though there are now kousa / florida dogwood crosses that are anthracnose-resistant.

Shade trees can also be effective specimens. For example, the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) -- usually 30 to 35 feet tall and almost as broad -- makes a big splash in late spring with long-lasting red flower spikes. Conifers, too, can be magnificent specimen trees. A big blue spruce (Picea pungens) can define a yard, while a dwarf Siberian pine (Pinus pumila) can act as the focal point for a small garden.

To choose a specimen tree, ask yourself some questions to narrow the choices.

* What kind of soil do I have?

* Is the spot sunny or shady, moist or dry?

* How large is the space? Cedars, which can grow to 100 feet, won't do beside the swing set or the foundation.

* If it drops fruit, catkins or whatever on the patio, will I still love it?

* Is anyone allergy-prone in the family or circle of friends? (I like hemlock but have a close friend who is highly allergic, so I won't have one.)

* When will I be most likely to enjoy the tree? By the barbecue? Then plant something that flowers and fills the air with perfume in summer.

The next step is to go to the experts -- nurserymen and the local extension service -- for information about a particular tree's growth habit, cultivation needs and potential problems.

"Ask the expert at the local garden center," Lerner advises. "Catalogs just don't give enough information."

Catalogs also rarely accentuate the negative -- like a tree's invasive potential. For example, a single serviceberry (Ilex amelanchier ) can produce a colony of serviceberry stems. This isn't a problem for those willing to exchange its beauty for the maintenance required to keep it in check. Or plant it where you can mow around it.

"But if a tree doesn't work," advises Lerner, "dig it [up] and put it somewhere else, or trade it with a neighbor."

Specimen trees add that certain something to a space, like the perfect accessory to a little black dress.


Joel M. Lerner Environmental Design

P.O. Box 15121

Chevy Chase, Md. 20825


Mahan Rykiel Associates

800 Wyman Park Drive, Suite 310

Baltimore, Md. 21211


Ace Nurseries / Ace Tree Movers

8901 Brink Road

Gaithersburg, Md. 20882

301-258-0008 or 800-258-4223

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