20 Tough Trees for Midwest Lawns | Midwest Living
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20 Tough Trees for Midwest Lawns

Whether you’re looking for small ornamental trees or taller shade trees, here are 20 ideas for trouble-free trees that will thrive in the Midwest.
  • Best trees for the Midwest

    Planting a tree is a long-term investment that, if chosen wisely, will provide a lifetime of added beauty to your Midwest yard. “Too often people plant what their neighbor has, but that’s not the best thing to do,” says Andy Schmitz, director of horticulture at The Brenton Arboretum in Dallas Center, Iowa. “We need to be diversifying our urban landscape by planting different tree species.”

    Additionally, Schmitz notes, it’s important to avoid a one-tree-fits-all mentality because each yard has different variables. Factors to keep in mind include soil type, whether the tree will have enough space when mature (especially if there are power lines) and whether it is cold-hardy in your area. 

    Click ahead for eight ideas for small ornamental trees and 12 top picks for larger trees for shade.

  • Crab apple

    Crab apples (Malus selections) are some of the easiest and most beautiful trees to grow, if you choose a disease-resistant variety with persistent small fruits that won't make a mess when they fall. Andy likes ‘Adirondack’ with its strongly upright branching for smaller spaces. It has showy white flowers in spring, medium-green leaves and deep orange-red fruits well into fall. ‘Golden Raindrops’ is another disease-resistant favorite, chosen for its profuse white flowers, distinctive small yellow fruits and deeply cut ornamental leaves that turn an outstanding orange-red in fall. Both varieties will thrive in inner-city conditions as long as they have full sun and well-drained, neutral to acid soil. Zones 3-8. 

  • Japanese tree lilac

    A superb accent plant and the most adaptable lilac for challenging sites, Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) bears showy plumes of creamy-white flowers in early summer when other lilacs have faded. In winter, its coppery red bark stands out in the landscape. This low-maintenance tree doesn't produce suckers, seldom suffers from disease and requires little pruning. Plant in full sun. It prefers loose, well-drained soil but will tolerate clay. Allow enough space for good air circulation. Zones 3-7.

  • Pagoda dogwood

    This attractive native (Cornus alternifolia) is a favorite of wildlife gardeners and a welcome choice for northern landscapes. “Its architecture and scaffolding branches are very ornamental, and it has a nice 15- to 25-foot height and spread,” Andy says. Expect fragrant clusters of white flowers in spring followed by blue fruits and purple fall color. Plant in sun or partial shade in moist, rich acidic soil for best results. Avoid streetside plantings where urban pollution is a problem. Zones 3-7.

  • Korean fir

    Prized for their pyramidal shape and ornamental cones, Korean firs (Abies koreana) bring an architectural form to the yard. ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ (pictured) has green needles with bright white undersides that curve upward to simulate a flocked look. ‘Aurea’ is another stunner, featuring golden new growth that fades to light green. Both grow to 30 feet with a 20-foot width. Zones 5-7.

  • Serviceberry

    A four-season beauty, serviceberries (Amelanchier selectionsprovide showy spring flowers, edible berries, spectacular fall color and ornamental gray bark. This highly adaptable tree has no serious diseases or insect problems. Recommended cultivars include ‘Autumn Brilliance’ (pictured) with delicious dark blue summer fruits and remarkable red fall foliage. Saskatoon serviceberry ‘Regent’ (Amelanchier alnifolia ‘Regent’), a mounding, compact type, is another great performer for the Midwest. Plant in moist, well-drained soil in sun or shade. Zones 2-9.

  • American hornbeam

    This attractive, slow-growing tree reaches a height and spread of 20 to 30 feet and has nice yellow and red fall color. Free of serious pest or disease problems, American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) can grow in part sun or shade, even thriving as an understory tree. Though it prefers moist, rich soil, it also grows in average or clay soils. Zones 3-9. 

  • Seven-son flower

    Handsome peeling bark, fruit, seed heads and fragrant white flowers that mature to pinkish red in fall makes one wonder why we don’t see more of this fast grower. If you’re still on the fence, add in that it’s drought-tolerant, has no serious insect or disease problems, and can thrive in a wide range of soils in full sun or part shade. Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides) can be grown as a multistemmed shrub or trained as a single-trunk tree. Zones 5-9.

  • Photo: Plant Database/Auburn University

    Dwarf chinkapin oak

    “People think of large specimens for the oaks and there are some great ones, but there’s also a notable dwarf that grows about 15 feet in height,” Andy says. This smaller white oak (Quercus prinoides) can set small acorns in just three to five years and is a wonderful wildlife plant. It also offers striking red and orange fall colors. Plant in full sun or part shade. Zones 4-8.

  • ‘Cully’ Heritage River Birch
    Photo courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.

    ‘Cully’ Heritage river birch

    Looking for larger trees? This and the next 11 slides feature trees that will add shade and diversity to your yard.

    ‘Cully’ Heritage river birch (Betula nigra ‘Cully’), a cultivar of the native river birch, has more spectacular exfoliating bark colors of cinnamon and creamy white than typical river birch and is usually grown as an attractive multistem tree. It is less susceptible to disease and more drought tolerant than European white birch. Plant in full sun or light shade, and watch this fast-growing tree climb to 60 feet. Zones 4-9. 

  • Black gum

    The autumn color of black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) begins with glossy foliage that turns yellow, orange and scarlet. Thirty to 50 feet tall with a pyramidal shape, the slow-grower, also known as sour gum or black tupelo, has up to a 30-foot spread. Plant in full sun or partial shade in moist, well-drained, acid soil. Zones 3-9.

  • Bald cypress

    A Southern tree native to the swamps of the southeastern United States, bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one tough tree, noted to survive northern winters with temperatures dipping to 30-below. Likewise, it tolerates soil conditions ranging from somewhat dry soils to wetter urban clay soils to soils in standing water. Pyramidal in form, it grows 50-70 feet tall with a 30- to 40-foot spread. And though it looks like an evergreen, this deciduous conifer’s feathery needles turn rusty orange and drop in fall. Zones 4-9. 

  • Bitternut hickory
    Photo courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.

    Bitternut hickory

    One of the faster growing hickories, Bitternut (Carya cordiformis) has sulphur yellow leaf buds and a clean bright yellow fall leaf color that is the best of the hickories, Andy says. This medium-tall tree grows 60-75 feet in height with a 40- to 50-foot spread. Though its nuts are inedible for humans, many animals consume them. Hickory grows best in moister soil, but it adapts well to dry sites and poor soil, too. Zone 4.

  • Accolade Elm
    Photo courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.

    Accolade elm

    If Dutch elm disease makes you wary of ever planting elms again, Accolade elm (Ulmus japonica wilsoniana ‘Morton’) may be the hybrid to change your mind. (Its trade name is Accolade; ‘Morton’ is its cultivar name.) It has excellent disease and insect resistance, thrives in urban landscapes and is notably drought-tolerant and cold hardy.

    Accolade has the classic American elm vase shape and tops out at about 60 feet with a 50- to 60-foot spread. Its deep green glossy foliage stays crisp all summer and fast growth rate make it a standout tree. Plant in any soil other than those that are excessively wet. Hardy to Zone 4. 

  • Hackberry

    Cold hardy and tolerant of winds and varied conditions, this native is as well suited for the plains and rural areas as it is for urban sites. Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) grows 40 to 70 feet with a 50-foot spread and has a broad crown with arching branches, much like American elms. Zones 3-9.

  • Northern red oak

    The fastest-growing oak, this tree is not as prone to chlorosis as pin oak and makes a beautiful shade tree for large lawns that can handle its 60- to 80-foot height and 40- to 60-foot spread. Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) tolerates pollution and various soils, including compacted soil. In autumn, enjoy brilliant orange, brown and red foliage. Zones 3-9.

  • Concolor fir
    Photo courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.

    Concolor fir

    Long-lived concolor firs (Abies concolor) are valued for their soft needles and strong fragrance. Evergreen, they provide privacy and attract birds with a spot for winter rest. ‘Candicans’ is one notable variety suited for Zones 3-7; it features silvery-blue leaves and a columnar shape that reaches 50 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Zones 2-7. 

  • Chinkapin oak
    Photo courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.

    Chinkapin oak

    Though it prefers deep, rich bottomland soils, this species (Quercus muehlenbergii) adapts to many soil types, including the Midwest’s more alkaline and limestone soils. (If your pin oak gets chlorosis, here’s your answer.) A magnificent specimen for larger lawns, it grows 50-60 feet tall with a similar spread, and its sweet nuts are highly prized by wildlife. Plant in full sun. Zones 4-7. 

  • Kentucky Coffeetree
    Photo courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.

    Kentucky coffee tree

    “Kentucky coffee tree has been a favorite of mine for a long time,” Andy says. “I like the uniqueness of this species. It’s kind of an ugly duckling when first planted, but then it grows into a tree that’s soft textured in the summer, and it has no disease or insect issues.” Growing 60-75 feet with a 40- to 50-foot spread, this unique native (Gymnocladus dioicus) is tolerant of urban conditions, limestone soils, and dry or moist settings. Ornamental seed pods ripen in fall and last well into winter. Zones 3-8.

  • Swamp white oak
    Photo courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.

    Swamp white oak

    A great choice in wet areas that could drown other trees, swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) also withstands drought and heavy clay soil. It reaches 50 to 60 feet with a rounded head nearly as wide as it is tall. Fall color may be yellow or reddish-purple. The distinctive light brown, flaky bark adds winter interest. Plant in full sun in neutral to acid soil. Zones 3-8.

  • Silver linden
    Photo courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.

    Silver linden

    Among lindens, the silver linden (Tilia tomentosa) is the star. It's even more tolerant of heat and drought than its cousins, and Japanese beetles and other insect pests tend to ignore it. Reaching 45 feet in height and and 35 feet in width, this durable tree survives most ice storms. When the wind blows, you can see the silvery undersides of dark green leaves. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil. Avoid planting anywhere honeydew from aphids might drip on cars. Zones 4-7.

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