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Small Trees Can Make Big Statements


QUESTION: Can you think of a small evergreen (or nearly evergreen) tree to plant in a little area? I'm hoping to find something without invasive roots but more interesting than the usual carrotwood, Brazilian pepper, oleander or crape myrtle.--S.B., West Hills

ANSWER: After talking with several experts, including Thousand Oaks landscape architect Ken Smith, who wrote the excellent "Western Home Landscaping" (HP Books), landscape architect Bob Perry, who wrote "Landscape Plants For Western Regions" (Land Design Publishing, Claremont) and Donald H. Hodel with the UC Extension, who is compiling a new list of recommended street trees, I can recommend some good small trees.

Because no tree is perfect, look each up in "Sunset Western Garden Book" or in Perry's encyclopedic reference to make sure it's right for you and to make sure it grows in your area. None of these should be unusually messy or have invasive roots.

For really small spaces, consider Raphiolepsis 'Majestic Beauty' or pineapple guava Feijoa sellowiana, big shrubs trained as small trees.

Most of these other trees are around 25 feet tall at maturity, perfect for small gardens.

Several small willow-like trees make elegant, draping backgrounds, including Australian willow (Geijera parviflora), (Podocarpus gracilior) and the peppermint tree (Agonis flexuosa), though this last willow-like tree is not hardy in the San Fernando valley.

The very trim Tristania laurina looks a little like a cajeput (Melaleuca quinquenervia), but grows to only about 10 to 15 feet tall in that many years.

For a very formal, dense look, consider the small kinds of evergreen magnolia, like the dwarf 'Little Gem' or compact 'Saint Mary.' Bronze loquats (Eriobotrya deflexa) also have big leaves, but the effect is coarser. Carolina laurel cherry (Prunus caroliniana) makes a dense, formal, glossy-leaved small tree.

For a completely different, spare look, consider the architectural palo verdes (Cercidium) and Parkinsonia. Both are deciduous.

Although their hardiness is in doubt in the Valley, other readers should know that there are several spectacular flowering trees that stay on the small side, including the narrow and upright firewheel tree (Stenocarpus sinuatus) trumpet tree (Tabebuia), red-flowering and coral gums Eucalyptus ficifolia and E. torquata and gold medallion tree (Cassia leptophylla).

Several species of the orchid tree (Bauhinia) will thrive in the Valley, and the fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus) flowers heavily inland.

Although common, crape myrtles are one of the best small flowering trees for the Valley and shouldn't be scratched off the list. Coastal gardeners can't grow this one because it mildews so badly. Even inland, look for the new mildew-resistant varieties, like 'Muskagee' or 'Natchez.'

Chitalpas (Chitalpa tashkentensis) are fast-growing, tough, deciduous trees that grow only to about 30 feet. The Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) is another small to medium deciduous tree that turns flaming orange in fall in the Valley and other colder areas. And red buds are handsome small deciduous trees, especially Cercis canadensis, or the variety with burgundy leaves named 'Forest Pansy.'

You could also try sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) and use the leaves in cooking, or the strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo or A. 'Marina.' Both are slow and reasonably small and strikingly handsome with deep green leaves, the latter with reddish bark.

Be sure to check each and carefully weigh the pros and cons. Selecting a tree is a gardener's biggest and most important decision.

Tree Must Withstand Wind Off the Ocean

Q: We're looking for a tree for our frontyard, where we get a lot of "house-directed" wind. Previous trees in that spot have blown down, produced prominent ground-level roots or had so many "droppings" that they killed the grass. What's a good choice?

--B.B., Huntington Beach

A: Most of the trees listed above are sturdy, but Metrosideros excelsus, the New Zealand Christmas tree, is one tree that can really take your ocean wind, even salt spray if it has to. In New Zealand, it grows right at the ocean's edge.

It is vaguely bottlebrush-like in appearance but much softer and fuller--a really lovely tree--with wider leaves and bristly scarlet flowers in summer (Christmas time in New Zealand, hence the common name). It grows only to 20 or 25 feet and is slow, adding about 1 1/2 feet of growth a year. It looks best (and is strongest) as a multi-trunked tree.

It can grow in lawns but is happier with little or no irrigation if planted in heavy clay soil. It's not very messy and needs little pruning. Frost tender, it doesn't do well inland, but you can see handsome old specimens in many beach-side parks, including along the bluffs in Santa Monica. If you can't find it at a local nursery, try Coastal Zone Nursery in Malibu.

For smallish wind-proof beach-side trees, Bill Long at Coastal Zone also suggests the native Catalina ironwood (Lyonothamnus), which really dislikes irrigation and clay soils but looks handsome planted in small groves; the fast primrose tree (Lagunaria); the shrubby, slow-to-become-a-tree Melaleuca nesophila; twisted or Hollywood juniper; various leptospermums; and the boring but speedy and tough-as-nails myoporum. Eucalyptus ficifolia is a spectacular small tree for the coast when in full flower, as most are now. All these trees are evergreen.

Got a burning question about a plant, pest or gardening in general? Send it to Garden Q&A, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or fax your question to Garden Q&A, (213) 237-7355.

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