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  • Writer's pictureMartin Ford

Top "Classic Canadian" Trees for Urban Home Landscapes (Zone 5)

Our ‘Top Trees’ series typically highlights Martin’s favourite trees 'under 10 metres' for use in urban home landscapes – not so this time! The following trees definitely grow quite larger –such as the Eastern white pine, which can reach great heights of up to 25 metres in cultivation! AKA "the tallest tree in eastern North America."

... As we fall into fall, we thought we'd highlight some of the quintessential classics seen throughout Canada's vast landscapes.

All noted trees are designated for Zone 5 (or under), and are native to, or naturalized within, Ontario.



Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)

  • Different amongst conifers, Eastern White Pine has an open form & its needles are soft to touch

  • Branch structure is layered, extending long distances horizontally - also grows around existing structures & other trees

  • Projects a lovely ‘light’ feel - when planted in groups, it quickly gives us the recognition of northern areas & cottage country

Pinus strobus, commonly called Eastern white pine, is a rapid-growing, long-lived, five-needled coniferous evergreen tree that is native to the northeastern United States and Canada.

Eastern white pine easily lives to be 200 to 250 years old; some live over 400 years. It is known as the tallest tree in eastern North America.

Typically grows 50-80' in cultivation – but will grow to 100' tall in the wild, with records existing to over 200'. Grows approximately 3 feet (1 m) per year between the ages of 15 and 45 years – with slower height increments before and after that age range. Landscape size and shape can be controlled through pruning.

Image credits: 1. GoBotany; 2. A.J. Casson (Group of 7); 3. Ecology Ottawa

Habit & Form

Although pyramidal in its early years, Eastern white pine matures to a broad oval habit with an irregular crown. Bluish-green needles are 2 to 5 inches (5-13 cm) long and appear in bundles of five. Flexible, finely serrated and soft to the touch, needles persist for 18 months on the tree before being shed by abscission.

Pollen cones are plentiful, ellipsoid shaped, yellow in colour and 0.4-0.6” (10-15 mm) long. Seed cones are slender, 3-6” (7.5-15 cm) long; 1.5-2” (2.5-5 cm) broad when open. Seed scales have rounded apices and slightly reflexed tips. Seeds have a slender wing and are wind-dispersed. Cone production peaks every 3 to 5 years

Branches are whorled, growing spreading and upswept. Bark develops into a darker grey-brown colour, grows thicker as a tree ages, deeply furrowed with broad ridges of irregularly rectangular, purple-tinged scaly plates.

Zone, Growing Conditions & Requirements

Zones 3 to 8. Prefers well-drained soils and a cool, humid climate. Plant in full sun to part shade. Medium water needs, low maintenance.

Distribution: This species is found naturally from Newfoundland west through the Great Lakes region to southeastern Manitoba and Minnesota, and south along the Mississippi Basin and Appalachian Mountains to northernmost Georgia and Mississippi.

Eastern white pine forms mixed stands with Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), oaks (Quercus species), or American elm (Fraxinus americana). It has been naturalized in the Czech Republic's Carpathian Mountains and southern Poland due to specimens planted as ornamental trees in gardens and parks.

Highlights & Design Tips

  • A low-maintenance, rapid-growing species that makes for an excellent specimen tree in lawns, gardens and parks

  • Some cultivars are used in bonsai

  • Provides winter interest, bears showy fruit, and attracts birds

  • May be planted as a hedge and sheared regularly to train/control growth

  • Site in areas with adequate space to account for future growth

Noteworthy Characteristics

  • Eastern white pine forests originally covered much of north-eastern North America. Only 1% of the old-growth forests remain after extensive logging operations from the 18th century into the early 20th century

  • Somewhat resistant to fire; mature survivors are able to re-seed burned areas

  • Genus name is from the Latin name for pines; species name is a classical Latin term for conifer

  • Specific epithet in Greek means cone

  • This tree is known to the Native American Iroquois as the Tree of Peace

  • It is the only five-needled pine east of the Rockies

  • There are currently 131 Pinus strobus cultivars in the American Conifer Society (ACS) Conifer Database

Problems: The white pine weevil and white pine blister rust, an introduced fungus, can cause damage or death, although mortality rates from rust is only about 3% today

Sources + more info:



Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

  • This deciduous tree is fast-growing (like the Eastern white pine) - and the two often grow near each other giving seasonal contrast & presence -especially when the landscape includes rocks near their base

  • When planted in cities, red oak adapts well & provides food (as does the white pine) for birds and wildlife through the winter season

  • Lovely autumn colour & a sweeping open canopy

Quercus rubra, commonly called red oak or northern red oak, is a medium sized, deciduous tree with a rounded to broad-spreading, often irregular crown. Typically grows at a moderate-to-fast rate to a height of 50-75' (often larger in the wild) with height increases of more than 24" per year. Native to eastern North America.

Image credits: 1. iStock; 2. Shutterstock; 3. Plant Systematics

Habit & Form

Dark, lustrous green leaves (greyish-white beneath) with 7-11, toothed lobes which are sharply pointed at the tips. Leaves turn brownish-red in autumn. Insignificant flowers in separate male and female catkins appear in spring. Fruits are acorns (with flat, saucer-shaped cups) which mature in early fall. An abundant crop of acorns may not occur before this tree reaches 40 years old.

Zone, Growing Conditions & Requirements

Zones 3–8. While it prefers normal moisture, the tree has some drought tolerance. Red oak makes for good street tree, tolerates pollution and compacted soil.

Highlights & Design Tips

  • Great fall colour - leaves turn russet- to bright-red

  • Use as a specimen, street or lawn tree

  • Grows in a rounded shape

  • Offers great shade due to a dense crown

Noteworthy Characteristics

  • Grows more than two feet per year for 10 years

  • Is easier than most to transplant

  • Tolerates pollution and compacted soil

Wildlife Value: Acorns from this tree are at the top of the food preference list for blue jays, wild turkeys, squirrels, small rodents, whitetail deer, raccoons and black bears. Deer also browse the buds and twigs in wintertime.

History/Lore: A favourite of both lumbermen and landscapers since colonial times. It is believed that Bishop Compton's garden, near Fulham in England, received the first red oak transplant abroad in the late 17th century. In 1924, there were over 450 acres of red oak plantations in Baden, Germany.

Sources + more info:



River Birch (Betula nigra)

  • Provides all-season presence: trunk has gorgeous multi-coloured bark; classic yellow autumn leaf colour

  • Graceful canopy allows light to pass through & creates a dappled effect

  • Look best when classically planted in groups, which emulate their growth habit within natural settings

  • Placing a few natural stones beneath quickly creates a lovely space to sit under during the heat of summer -or any season

  • Recommended for disease resistance

Betula nigra, also known as or River Birch, is a deciduous, upright, flowering tree with peeling cinnamon-brown bark, graceful branches, and yellow fall foliage. It is perhaps the most culturally adaptable and heat tolerant of the birches.

It can be trained as either a single- or multi-trunked tree. As a single trunk tree, it develops a pyramidal habit but matures to a more rounded shape over time. Multi-trunked trees form a more irregular crown - typically considered as the superior growth habit for this species.

Vigorous and fast-growing, featuring large pyramidal upright habit, and glossy diamond-shaped green leaves with silvery undersides which turn yellow in fall.

This tree grows at a medium to fast rate, with height increases of anywhere from 13" to more than 24" per year.

Image credits: 1. Arbor Day; 2. Gardenia; 3. Home Depot

Habit & Form

Birches are considered a "pioneer" species as they tend to grow quickly when young.

River Birch features glossy green leaves are 2–3" long; margins are double-toothed and leaves are arranged alternately. Produces brown and green catkins in April and May and yields a large number of tiny nutlets after female catkins mature (typically in May and June).

Zone, Growing Conditions & Requirements

Zones 4-9. Adaptable and heat tolerant, River Birch prefers wet sites and does best in moist, acidic, sandy, or rocky, well-drained loams in full sun to part shade. The best foliage colour occurs in full sun. This species is naturally found in riverbanks, stream banks, and floodplains. Though they do best in moist conditions, they tolerate drier soil better than other birch trees do.

It will tolerate moderate flooding as well as some drought.

In the landscape, keep the tree consistently moist with soaker hoses and heavy mulches. Requires little pruning, but if necessary, prune during the dormant season. Do not prune in winter or spring.

Highlights & Design Tips

  • Prized for peeling bark - when the tree is young, bark is reddish-brown with a papery appearance. The bark peels away year-round and inner bark varies in hue from light to dark. The papery bark layers remain attached giving it an attractive ragged appearance

  • Its attractive bark is especially striking in the winter when the rest of the tree is bare

  • Due to its affinity for water, can fill in spaces where nothing else seems to grow

  • Attractive specimen and shade tree

  • Use in borders, along ponds and streams, cottage gardens, foundation plantings·

  • Low-maintenance, although it tends to drop its twigs; situate away from manicured areas of the landscape

Noteworthy Characteristics

  • Considered to be the “most culturally-adaptable and heat tolerant of the birches”

  • Easy to transplant & moderately salt tolerant

  • Can grow as either a single- or multi-stemmed tree

  • Provides erosion control; works well for holding stream banks in check

  • Most borer-resistant birch

Wildlife Value: The catkins are used by redpolls and pine siskins. Foliage is eaten by deer and other browsing mammals. Songbirds feed on its small but numerous seeds.

Problems: Prone to shedding its interior leaves during droughts and dry periods and can become stressed by summer heat and humidity. Resistant to the bronze birch borer.

Pests: aphids, leaf miner and birch skeletonizer. Diseases: Leaf spot problems.

Sources + more info:



Striped Maple - Acer pensylanicum

  • Requires a semi-shaded location; grows well when planted with other existing trees due to its moderate size, preferably planted as an “edge tree”

  • Beautifully interlaced white & green bark provides year-round pleasure

  • Features early-leaf emergence & its classically-shaped maple leaves turn a lovely yellow come autumn

  • A tree to be treasured in tough climates

A beautiful, small flowering understory tree, ideal for shady landscapes, Acer pensylanicum AKA Striped Maple stands out with its striking green and white striped bark and large 3-lobed leaves - the largest leaves of any Ontario maple.

Native to the forest understory of eastern North America, favouring cool, moist ravines and slopes; requires moisture and full to partial shade in gardens.

Striped Maple's bark and keys are an important food source for many species including moose, deer, beaver, deer, songbirds, and small mammals.

Image credits: 1. The Arb UofG; 2. NetPS Plant Finder; 3. Tree Guide

Habit & Form

Striped Maple has large, wide leaves with only 3 main lobes. Leaves turn yellow in the fall. The flowers and winged seeds hang in long clusters, maturing in the fall.

Even in ideal habitats, Striped Maples have open crowns and are relatively short-lived. They are slender, narrowly branched trees, an ideal fit between trees beneath the forest canopy.

Zone, Growing Conditions & Requirements

Zones 3a to 6b. Prefers evenly moist soils. Prefers full to partial shade, dislikes hot summer sun.

Prefers well-drained, slightly acidic soils.

Their native range forms a rough triangle: from New Brunswick to southern Ontario, down the Appalachians, and lessening in numbers through North Carolina's mountains and northern Georgia's highest elevations.

Habitat: Prefers moist and cool soils in forest understory. Site carefully in semi-shade to shade.

Highlights & Design Tips

Provides multi-season interest:

  • Distinctive and beautiful in all seasons due to its noticeably vivid colours, especially in winter as it displays bright crimson buds and blood-red twigs

  • The bark on younger trees has white or green squiggles of varying lengths

  • Bright yellowish-green flowers bloom in long clusters in May and June

  • Leaves turn a striking yellow in the fall

Noteworthy Characteristics

  • Its smooth bark is able to photosynthesize in winter; green stripes on young bark allow it to photosynthesize better in shade, even before the leaves appear in spring

  • Provides food and habitat to birds and pollinators

  • Easily identifiable due to its green-brown bark with vertical white stripes and 3-lobed leaves

  • The leaves of striped maples are the largest of any of the maple family - 7" across the base, nearly twice the size of the leaves of sugar maples!

  • Leaves are a pure green in summer; in fall - a clear yellow - indicating an absence of anthocyanin, the chemical responsible for turning other maples' leaves into red and orange

  • Its distinctive leaf shape accounts for another of its common names: goose-foot maple

  • Also known as moosewood because moose and deer love to eat the twigs in winter (protect young trees with deer netting or burlap)

Sources + more info:


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