Underrated Trees In Central Texas

Driving around the Austin area, I notice that a handful of tree species dominate the urban landscape. With some exceptions, most of the most common trees in our area are native to our environment and thus are thriving because of they can grow in our alkaline soils and endure prolonged periods of hot and dry weather.  Live oak, red oak, pecan, & cedar elm trees are our most common landscape trees, and they are all fine choices should you decide to add one or a few to your landscape.

However, I always find myself recommending other (less commonly found) trees when I am asked for recommendations on what tree to plant. When selecting a tree, I recommend choosing one that requires minimal treatment for disease and insect problems and will also not require frequent pruning. Unfortunately, most of our most common landscape trees tend to be high maintenance, both in pruning requirements and susceptibility to pest and disease outbreaks. Live oaks and red oaks are susceptible to oak wilt and need frequent pruning to remove deadwood buildup. Bacterial leaf scorch is also becoming a more frequent problem for red oaks. Pecan trees require frequent pruning to prevent limbs from breaking due to excess end weight. Cedar elms are highly prone to limb failures during  windy conditions and thus require frequent canopy thinning and mistletoe removal to help mitigate this risk.  

Here are some better alternatives for you to consider when it comes time to plant a tree.

The Monterey oak (Mexican white oak) will grow into a medium to large sized tree and is resistant to oak wilt. I very rarely see disease or insect problems for this tree, and it is drought tolerant too. As a semi-evergreen tree, it might be the best choice for a fast growing tree that will provide year round shading and screening. I’m seeing more of them being planted in new housing developments which is very encouraging to see.

If you want a tree that is near bulletproof, the Chinese pistache might be the tree for you. I can’t recall ever having to treat one for damaging insect or disease infestation. Another fast grower, its leaves will turn a beautiful orange and red before dropping for the winter. I’d recommend getting the male, as it has no fruit (less mess).

Another oak to consider instead of the live oak or red oak is the chinkapin oak. It shares many of the same attributes as the Monterey oak. Oak wilt resistant? Check. Pest resistant? Check. Fast grower? Check. It’s also a medium to large sized tree when it reaches maturity. It’s definitely a tree I wish I saw more of in our area.

I just recently planted a Shantung maple in my front yard, and I’d encourage you to do the same if you like colorful fall foliage and want a low maintenance tree. I rarely see this tree in our urban landscapes, and that’s a shame. It’s a great choice if you have a small to medium sized yard and want a tree that won’t get too big.

Sticking with maple trees, the Autumn Blaze maple is a good option if you are looking for a larger maple tree. It’s a hybrid of the red maple and silver maple, taking the best properties of those two maples. It will grow fast and can grow in poor soil conditions. Did I mention the fall color? Just google some images of this tree. You won’t regret it.

If you are in need of an evergreen tree, the Arizona cypress is the way to go. It can handle our hot and dry summers, and I cannot recall the last time I got a call to go look at one that was under duress from insect or disease activity. It is definitely the superior option to the more commonly found Leyland cypress, which suffers from issues associated with canker fungus.

Another common tree found in our area is the American sycamore. However, there is another sycamore in our area that is much less common BUT is a much better option for you. The Mexican sycamore. It is more heat and drought tolerant than its American cousin, which is susceptible to bacterial leaf scorch that causes canopy die back.

If you want to plant an impressive looking oak tree, the bur oak will fit the bill. Like the chinkapin and Monterey oak, it is a white oak and therefore not going to get oak wilt. It has huge lobed leaves and giant acorns, so maybe plant somewhere in the yard with less foot traffic. It’s considered a fast grower, and it will shed its leaves in the winter. It will grow into a very large tree, so find a nice wide open spot for it too.

Again, I have nothing against the live oak or the pecan trees. I’d just like to see more tree diversity in our neighborhoods, and these trees not only make our landscapes more interesting to look at, but they also don’t require the constant pruning and spraying to keep them healthy. That’s good news for your wallet too.

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