Choosing a specimen tree for your garden is a big decision. The tree you choose can really set the tone for your whole garden. A great specimen tree will provide interest in all four seasons, although if you spend the most time in your garden during a specific season (late summer to fall, for example, during our best Bay Area weather) take that into account when you make your selection.
Here are a few of my favorite three go-to trees to feature. All of these work well for small suburban gardens, and with no fruit, do well near patio areas. All of these take full sun. For specimen tree options in shade, see Top 3 Favorite Specimen Trees for Shady Areas.
1. Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’, “Forest Pansy Redbud”
This tree does something fabulous in all four seasons. It begins the year in March with a beautiful lavender-pink bloom on bare branches, then bursts out with deep purple heart-shaped leaves. As the leaves mature, they gradually turn deep green. As late summer approaches, the leaves begin to turn a range of amber to orange colors. By Halloween, the leaves are a fiery rainbow. When the leaves drop, the naturally layered branches are exposed, which create a wonderful shadow pattern when lit (or decorated for the holidays, if you roll like that.)
Forest Pansy trees are a wonderful substitute for Japanese maples in south-facing or hot sites where maples don’t do well, or suffer from windburn. The naturally low, open branching pattern makes it a superior choice to purple-leaf plums, which produce lots of suckering upright branches every spring, and have to be pruned much more rigorously to maintain good form. I’ve used its plain green cousin, Cercis canadensis, in groups near patios for their bloom and shade.
The large heart-shaped leaves are also a lot of fun for flower arrangers, artists, and children who want to use them for crafts.
2. Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’, “Purple Smoke Bush”
This tree creates blush colored, cloud-like puffs for blooms, held a little above deep purple leaves. It has a green species form, for those who don’t like purple leaves. Personally, I’m nuts for foliage color, it really bridges the gaps in our long seasons, providing background color and interest far longer than most blooms. The smoke bush is incredibly versatile. It works really well for very modern or southwestern aesthetics, but blends into a lot of other environments as well. It’s great for adding color to Bay Area gardens, because it handles heat, clay soil, and low water beautifully. It’s really native to Europe and Central Asia, though, so won’t work if you’re a purist about using “natives.” Since my approach is really about well-adapted disease-resistant performance over a long season, this plant fills an important niche.
3. Prunus ‘Akebono’, or other flowering cherry
The flowering cherry is a very useful tree in our climate, with a lot of varieties that offer different shades and styles of bloom over a long season. They’re reasonably trouble-free and adaptable, so they’re the perfect go-to for creating lower maintenance cottage-style and formal gardens.
Because of their interesting form and responsiveness to pruning, they can be a very interesting alternative for creating sexier modern gardens. So many modern gardens can be extremely static, with plants chosen for architectural shapes, without regard to the seasonal changes that can make a landscape interesting. The Japanese relied on cherries for centuries in spare meditation gardens, so don’t overlook the cherry!