Consider that it's not much more work to plant a flowering tree than a six-pack of annuals, yet the benefits are incomparably greater. If well sited and given even minimal care, the tree should prove a permanent investment (for you, certainly -- your heirs may someday have to replant, but that's their concern).
In addition to longevity, a tree offers flexibility. A single tree can provide not only a veritable blizzard of early-season blossoms, but also a supply of colorful fruits in summer, vivid fall foliage, and an intriguing silhouette for winter still lifes.
A tree also furnishes living architecture around which you can organize your landscape. A single crab apple or cherry becomes a focal point for a vista or a buttress to anchor a bed or a border. A row of them becomes a wall to bound a garden room or highlight a path or a driveway. The irresistible attraction of such trees to the eye makes them a dramatic frame for a desirable view, or a matchless means of obscuring an unsightly one. A low-hanging moon echoed in a magnolia's pale, fragrant chalices is a Southern touchstone for romance. And who, honestly, could see past your dove tree (Davidia involucrata) -- set aflutter in mid-spring with handkerchief-like blossoms -- to notice your neighbor's rusty toolshed?
The key to all these rewards lies in two words: well chosen. Finding the right tree or trees for your garden involves careful consideration of a number of criteria.
First, of course, is climate. Some aspects of that can be moderated. For example, you can provide irrigation in an area with droughty summers. But winter cold is beyond a gardener's influence. That's why, for nearly 50 years, the standard tool for selecting regionally adapted plants has been the U.S. Department of Agriculture's map of hardiness zones. This divides the country into numbered zones according to the coldest temperature experienced locally in an average winter. If your garden lies in Zone 6 and a tree is listed as "hardy to Zone 6," that's a good indication the plant will survive in your backyard.
After climate, the fundamental considerations when choosing any tree are exposure and soil. Most flowering trees prefer an open area where they'll receive at least six hours of unfiltered sunlight every day. Fortunately, there are a number of woodland species such as dogwoods (Cornus spp.) and redbuds (Cercis spp.) that also will flourish in light shade, although in such situations they will bear fewer flowers. Most of the flowering trees available at nurseries and garden centers tolerate a range of soil types, but nearly all demand good drainage.
Something else to watch for when selecting trees is disease resistance. Inevitably, the most widely planted tree species have become targets for pathogens; plant breeders have responded by releasing resistant strains. The native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is prey to a fatal fungus throughout the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. In those regions, it's only common sense to plant one of the fungus-resistant 'Stellar' hybrid dogwoods (Cornus spp.), such as 'Aurora,' 'Celestial,' or 'Stellar Pink.' Crab apples are subject to fungal and bacterial diseases, so it's imperative to plant a resistant cultivar such as 'Autumn Glory,' 'Molten Lava,' or 'Tina.' If the garden center you favor can't help you identify resistant cultivars, call a local cooperative extension.
Typically, a single tree provides only a couple of weeks of bloom. Its display, though eagerly anticipated and intense, is relatively brief. However, by matching an early-blooming star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), for example, with a less precocious crab apple or cherry and a late-spring-blooming dogwood or hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), you can extend the show's run from last frost until summer. Tuck in a sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) and a stewartia (Stewartia spp.) and you'll enjoy encores into mid-July -- and, best of all, revivals year after year.
Regional Planting Recommendations
Chinese Fringe Tree
(Loropetalum chinense) Hardy in zones 7 to 9; full sun; 6 to 10 feet tall and wide; rounded and fast growing; fragrant white flowers in mid-spring; evergreen; peeling bark.
(Cercis canadensis var. texensis) Hardy in zones 6 to 9; sun or partial shade; 15 to 25 feet tall, 15 to 20 feet wide; fast growing; mid-spring pink flowers; brownish-black fruit and yellow fall foliage; drought tolerant.
(Vitex agnus-castus) Hardy in zones 6 to 8; full sun or partial shade; 15 to 20 feet tall and wide; fast growing; dangling bunches of fragrant lilac flowers in summer; deciduous.
(Lagerstroemia indica) 'Lipan' and 'Sioux' hardy in zones 7 to 9; full sun; 13 to 14 feet tall, 12 to 13 feet wide; fast growing; panicles of lavender ('Lipan') or dark-pink ('Sioux') summer flowers; red fall foliage.
(Eriobotrya japonica) Hardy in zones 8 to 10; full sun; 15 to 30 feet high and wide; fragrant white flowers from fall through winter; orange spring fruits; evergreen foliage.
(Cornus florida) Hardy in zones 5 to 9; sun or partial shade; 20 to 30 feet tall, 25 to 30 feet wide; white or pink blossoms in early to mid-spring; glossy red fruits in fall.
(Halesia tetraptera) Hardy in zones 4 to 8; sun to partial shade; 25 to 35 feet tall, 20 to 35 feet wide; medium growth rate; white bell-shaped flowers in mid-spring; dark, yellow-green deciduous foliage.
(Davidia involucrata) Hardy in zones 6 to 8; sun to partial shade; 20 to 50 feet tall and wide; medium growth rate; white flowers in mid-spring; bright-green deciduous foliage; handsome orange-brown bark.
(Malus spp.) A huge, diverse group; hardy in zones 4 to 8 (depending on type); full sun; shrub size to 30 feet; columnar; upright or weeping; white, pink, or red flowers from early to mid-spring; fruits in summer.
(Aesculus spp.) Hardy in zones 4 to 7; sun; typically large and spreading; 50 feet tall and wide; white or red flowers in conical clusters mid- to late spring; inedible nuts in fall; 5- to 7-fingered leaves turn yellow in fall.
(Symplocos paniculata) Hardy in zones 4 to 8; full sun, partial shade in South; 10 to 20 feet tall and wide, spreading; creamy-white, fragrant flowers in late spring; small sapphire-blue fruits in early fall.
Southwest and California
(Calodendrum capense) Hardy in zones 9 to 11; full sun to partial shade; 25 to 45 feet tall and wide; spikes of lilac flowers in early summer; woody fruits; semievergreen foliage.
African Tulip Tree
(Spathodea campanulata) Hardy in zones 10 to 11; full sun to partial shade; 50 to 60 feet tall, 35 to 50 feet wide; showy orange or yellow blossoms in fall; evergreen foliage.
Golden Trumpet Tree
(Tabebuia chrysotricha) Hardy in zones 9 to 11; full sun; 12 to 25 feet tall and wide; clusters of bright-yellow trumpet-shaped flowers from late winter into spring, most heavily when leafless; dark-green foliage.
(Jacaranda mimosifolia) Hardy in zones 9 to 11; full sun; 25 to 40 feet tall, 40 to 60 feet wide; clusters of fragrant, lavender, trumpet-shaped flowers mid-spring to midsummer; fernlike deciduous foliage; heat tolerant.
Floss Silk Tree
(Ceiba speciosa) Hardy in zones 9 to 12; full sun; 45 feet tall and wide; lilylike pink flowers in fall; avocado-like fruits; deciduous; bottle-shaped trunk; drought resistant.