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SMALLER Native Trees


In anticipation of hurricane season, many will begin their tree trimming practices to minimize potential hazards and tree failure due to structural defects on large canopy and street trees such as oaks, mahogany, gumbo limbo and others.  Sometimes, planners and landscaping companies forget that South Florida has a plethora of small to medium native trees that can be useful in many situations, provide a host of benefits and best of all, require less maintenance.

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of smaller native trees:

  • Turf and other plants can grow beneath and around them due to narrower canopies.  In many situations, where turf or flowering plants are desired or required, large trees can cause them to struggle due to their shade and competition.  Turf will be less stressed and healthier with more sunlight.

Orchids grow best on smaller trees

Orchids, such as this Oncidium, grow well on smaller trees because of more light, and smaller native trees provide branching at just the right height for viewing.

  • Many of the smaller trees will provide habitat and food for birds, butterflies and other beneficial insects, which help to mitigate and control the insects that cause problems.
  • Smaller trees are easer to prune and maintain to ANSI standards.
  • Smaller trees are less likely to cause damage during storms.
  • Many of these trees have colorful flowers and/or foliage.
  • Our native trees require less fertilizer and pesticide due to their acclimation to our climate, soil and rainfall conditions.
  • These smaller trees add much needed biodiversity and interest to a stagnant palette.

Why is the palette so limited?

Because landscape architects, city planners and others often get to make the decisions regarding the species of trees planted, our plant palettes become limited.  Many of these folks aren’t horticulturists or growers and don’t have the knowledge or familiarity of the vast plant palette available in South Florida.

A sampling of some great under-utilized native trees:

Here is a list of some worthy candidates where you may need a tree in a tighter space, parking lot, between homes, or in many situations where a large canopy tree is inappropriate and can become a liability.  Some may be difficult to source, but remember, if growers have more demand, they will grow more of them.  FANN or Florida Association of Native Nurseries, can help you to source them.

Bahama Strongbark (Bourreria succulenta) –upright, umbrella like growth, fragrant white blooms/red fruit year-round, attract hummingbirds and butterflies H20 X W8

Blackbead (Pithecellobium keyense) – Round canopy, airy, white fragrant puffball blooms, Host for Giant yellow Sulphur butterfly H20 X W15

Jamaican Caper (Capparis cynophallophora) – Narrow, conical growth, fragrant showy white flowers followed by reddish seed capsules, host plant for Florida White butterfly, little maintenance required, tolerant of sun or shade H10 X W4

Crabwood (Gymnanthes lucida) – Vertical growth pattern, new leaves bright orange, tidy habit, needs little to no pruning, tolerant of dry soil, fragrant catkins in spring, attract pollinators H15 X W6

Lignum Vitae (Guaiacum sanctum) – Rounded small tree with bright blue blooms in spring followed by interesting seed capsules and red seeds. Can become specimen plants, highly sought after. Good investment H10 X W8

Marlberry (Ardisia escallonioides) – Narrow growth pattern, tolerates shade, gives privacy, very showy and fragrant white blooms followed by purple berries which attract songbirds. H15 X W6

Princewood (Exostema caribaeum) – Elegant, rare, very narrow growing with fragrant white flowers; grows in dry areas, full sun. H15 x W4

Torchwood  (Amyris elemifera)–  Multi-trunked tree with very fragrant white flowers; blooms all year, Host plant for the endangered Schaus Swallowtail and the Giant Swallowtail. Fruits attract songbirds. H15 X W8

Biscayne Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum coriaceum) – Tidy, round, shrubby tree with very showy flowers; host plant for Giant Swallowtail. H10 X W8

Simpson’s Stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans)– Narrow growing small tree with interesting, peeling bark, very fragrant white flowers and red berries. Attracts butterflies and songbirds. H20 X W 8

A smaller carbon footprint

Most importantly, using smaller, native trees will establish beauty and variety in our landscapes while also providing sustainability and preservation of our natural resources.  Smaller is often, better!

List of great smaller tree replacements for exotic invasive plants often used in the landscape
List of native trees with specs

6 Comments on “SMALLER Native Trees

  1. Great information for landscape architects and city planners. Well done!

    • Thank you, Mike! I am glad that you found the information useful. We need to increase the diversity of our tree canopy for sure. We have such a wealth of tree species here in South Florida.

  2. Thank you so much, Rose! We have so many amazing trees to choose from and it’s disappointing how few folks know they exist. I am hoping that this article will encourage more of our professionals and homeowners to try them.

  3. Hi Donna,
    Yeah we are over oaked here in Collier County HOA developments. Landscape architects can actually use Fiddlewood has a large canopy tree but nobody does . Adding scientific names would be helpful also for the plants and insects, etc
    Doug Caldwell
    Commercial Hort extension emeritus Collier County, retired – but would like to work with you perhaps on this topic we need a tree preservation ordinance. I can share some pictures with you of things that are happening that shouldn’t be when live Oaks are put in small spaces!

    • Thank you for the feedback, Doug. I agree; Latin names are important to avoid confusion. Congratulations on your retirement! I would enjoy working with you on this issue of diversification in our tree canopy. Feel free to reach out anytime.

    • Hi Doug,
      I added the Latin names as you suggested and some helpful links. Thanks! Send me those pics. Mike is working on a document also about using smaller trees in urban areas.