10 Small Trees for Small Yards in Massachusetts
Massachusetts is a diverse northeastern state that offers warm summers and snowy, cold winters with coastal landscapes to the east and forested areas to the west. These differing landscapes provide the state with varying soil types, sun exposure, soil pH, and moisture levels that can impact what plants will grow and survive. Therefore, before choosing plants for your own gardens, you need to understand what type of habitat you are starting with.
The information about your garden’s habitat that you can gather ahead of time includes the amount of sun and shade your garden receives, the soil type, soil pH, and soil moisture. You can provide a soil sample to your local extension office to get a soil report of your garden.
The below tree species offer multiple growing conditions in which they can thrive. While most plants do prefer moist, well-drained soils, some species may be tolerant of drier conditions. It should also be noted that while certain plant species may grow in your garden, it may not be an ideal habitat for them, causing a greater risk for disease and pests.
Massachusetts is home to larger cities such as Boston and Worchester, where large backyard gardens and green spaces may be limited. Therefore, if you have limited space for a garden, small trees can provide many great benefits to your landscape. These trees can provide shade and windbreaks, can fit in smaller areas, serve as soil stabilizing for other plants, create privacy, allow for beautiful spring and fall foliage, and can provide value to many wildlife species. However, due to the nature of the size of a smaller tree, most of these options are classified as a small tree or large shrub.
This list provides native trees to Massachusetts, however, if these plants do not meet your needs, please check the Massachusetts “Prohibited Plant List” before choosing any plant to add to your landscape. It is important to ensure that non-invasive plants are being chosen to be planted on landscapes, even for small gardens! You can find plenty of options below to meet any of your needs!
1) Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum)
The striped maple is a smaller deciduous tree that stands anywhere from 20 – 30 feet high and has a diameter of 4 – 8 inches. This tree has wide, dull green, maple-like leaves with very broad lobes. In fall, the leaves change colors to a vivid yellow. The fruits are long, paired, samaras that appear in fall as well. It has very conspicuous yellow flowers that bloom in the late spring. However, most notably, this maple receives its common name from the obvious white stripes that appear on the bark. This striping makes this tree distinctive in appearance and is a wonderful option for smaller areas that are looking for unique aesthetics.
This is a slow-growing tree that requires shade to grow in. It commonly prefers to be an understory tree because of this need for shade. It grows in moist and cool habitats and does not tolerate disturbance very well. However, it is a good tree for combating erosion problems. In full bloom, this small tree is an excellent option for providing shade and privacy in a small area, as well as providing beautiful fall colors in the fall.
The fruit of a striped maple provides food for small mammals, and the foliage is browsed by moose, deer, red squirrel, snowshoe hare, and porcupine. It can also provide good nesting habitat for small birds such as warblers.
Maple trees have a few common diseases and pest issues to be aware of. These include leaf scorch, tar spot, leaf spots, anthracnose, mildew, wilt, aphids, boxelder bugs, cankerworms, and others. Therefore, be aware if you notice any signs of abnormalities including discoloration of leaves or large numbers of insects.
2) Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
One of the most popular ornamental small deciduous trees is the flowering dogwood. It stands at a height of 15 – 40 feet and has a diameter of 6 – 12 inches. Due to its popularity as an ornamental, there are about a dozen cultivated varieties. The leaves are simple, broadly elliptic, with an abruptly pointed tip. The tree fruits in the fall with a wide, oblong drupe with shiny red berries. This fruit persists throughout the winter. However, most notable is the white, sometimes pink-tinted, showy flowers that are produced in the spring.
Flowering dogwood prefers moist, well-drained soils. It does not tolerate drought or extreme moisture and flooding. This tree does best in full sun in the north. Logging and commercial flower harvesting have decreased populations in the wild, resulting in the flowering dogwood becoming endangered in Maine, threatened in Vermont, and vulnerable in New York.
Flowering dogwoods provide shelter and habitat for many wildlife species. The seeds are consumed by a variety of birds and mammals. These include songbirds, upland game birds, rodents, cervids, black bears, furbearers, and other game species.
The spread of anthracnose fungus (dogwood blight and spot anthracnose), which kills the tree tissue, is now the greatest threat to the species. However, there are other threats as well such as the dogwood borer larvae that can enter through wounds on the trunk, so avoid hitting your flowering dogwood with weed eaters and mowers. Twig borers and dogwood club-gall midge are also risks to the flowering dogwood.
3) Red mulberry (Morus rubra)
Red mulberry is a small deciduous tree with simple leaves standing at a height of 20 – 60 feet with a diameter of 1 – 2 feet. The leaves can be shaped differently, including either a heart-shaped leaf or a leaf with 2 – 3 wide lobes. Leaves are dull blue-green with a bright yellow color in the fall. Red mulberries produce huge quantities of distinctive blackberry-like fruit clusters that appear in early to mid-summer. These fruits are very juicy and sweet, making them attractive to many wildlife species. They can also be used to make a multitude of foods including jams, jellies, pies, desserts, wine, tea, and beverages.
Red mulberry grows well under multiple conditions including multiple soils and soil pH. It grows best on moist, well-drained soils and in the open, but it will tolerate some shade. Red mulberry is commonly found naturally in moist forests along streams and woodland borders. Once established, mulberry trees do require some maintenance, such as occasional watering, mulching, annual fertilization, and pruning. Beware when pruning, as these trees tend to bleed, but pruning <2 inches of the lateral branches of young mulberry trees will help to facilitate new growth.
Red mulberry hybridizes with white mulberry, an exotic species, that has become naturalized in the eastern United States. This hybridization has contributed to the decline of naturally occurring red mulberries.
Many small and medium mammals eat the fruit of red mulberry including gray squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and fox squirrels. A large list of birds commonly consumes the fruit as well. This includes wood ducks, eastern kingbirds, towhees, vireos, woodpeckers, indigo buntings, and more. Twigs and foliage are browsed by white-tailed deer and beavers consume the bark.
There are a few diseases and pests to be aware of for red mulberry. These pests and pathogens have contributed to the declining natural populations of red mulberry. Root rot, bacterial blight, popcorn disease, mildew, leaf spot, scales, whiteflies, and more.
4) Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
The sassafras tree is one of the larger tree suggestions here, standing at 30 – 60 feet with a diameter of 1.5 – 3 feet. It produces 3 distinct leaf shapes, and the leaves are aromatic, which makes this tree unique. These shapes are an unlobed leaf, a mitten-shaped leaf, and a 2-lobed leaf. They are bright green in the spring and summer months but produce beautiful fall colors of yellow, orange, purple, pink, and red, making this tree a very popular choice. Sassafras fruit is a long, round fleshy drupe that produces dark blue berries in the late summer that persist into the winter.
Sassafras is a medium- to fast-growing tree that requires little care. It is open to diverse habitats and will grow in abandoned fields, dry ridges, woodlands, and bottomlands. It is adapted to dry, sandy soils, however, they do best in fertile, moist soils in partial to full shade.
The fruit is readily eaten by wildlife including birds who disperse the seeds such as quail, wild turkey, kingbirds, mockingbirds, sapsuckers, phoebes, and more. Mammals such as black bears, beavers, rabbits, and squirrels eat the fruit, bark, and wood. White-tailed deer browse twigs and foliage.
Sassafras can develop a variety of insect and disease problems but are generally not serious. Insects will eat the foliage but rarely entire leaves.
5) American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
American witch hazel is a small tree standing at 15 – 30 feet with a diameter of 4 – 11 inches. American witch hazel has spreading branches that are nearly as wide as it is tall, and it can form thickets. The leaves are obovate with an asymmetrical base and are a striking dark green that turn yellow in the fall months. Witch hazel has many interesting attributes including fruit that splits open and audibly explodes the seeds many feet and the flowers are bright yellow, fragrant, curled petals that form a spidery splay. The flowers appear in fall and persist into the winter. Witch hazel blooms late in the fall in the northeast when other plants are going dormant.
American witch hazel should be planted on the northern sides of homes where semi-shaded habitats are more common. This plant prefers rich moist soils and requires regular watering when being established. Witch hazel should not be planted in full sunlight. In the northern part of its range, it can be found naturally on drier and warmer sites of slopes and hilltops.
The fruit is eaten by many game species including upland game birds and white-tailed deer. It can also be consumed by beaver and cottontail rabbits. American witch hazel fruit also serves as a minor food source in the fall for black bears in western Massachusetts.
Aphids can be a pest on witch hazel plants. Leaf spots and mildew can impact witch hazel plants as well. All of these primarily affect the aesthetics of the plant and will not harm the overall health or longevity of witch hazel.
6) Eastern hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)
Eastern hophornbeam is a small tree that stands at a height of 30 – 50 feet and has a diameter of 9 – 15 inches. It is a slow-growing tree with elliptic leaves that have an abruptly pointed tip that are dull yellow-green in the summer. The color changes to a full yellow during the fall and the leaves retain that fall yellow color into the winter, making this a popular ornamental tree. The fruit of the eastern hophornbeam is a long nutlet and each nutlet is contained in a cream-colored husk that hangs in clusters. They appear in late summer. The eastern hophornbeam nutlet resembles true hops that are used for the production of beer.
The eastern hophornbeam tree is very hard, durable, and wind-firm, meaning you likely will not lose a lot of stems and branches during heavy windstorms, making this tree perfect for backyard landscapes. It is also very tolerant of urban environments. However, it does produce a large amount of pollen in the spring which can be less than desirable for folks who suffer from allergies.
The eastern hophornbeam prefers moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soils. The tree is readily adaptable to wet, dry, poor, or alkaline soils – but the tree will grow slower, which can be a downfall because the tree already has a slow growth rate. It is a low-maintenance tree that requires no pruning and limited watering. Eastern hophornbeam is also sensitive to polluted sites.
The fruit of the tree is a winter food for ring-necked pheasants, rabbits, grouse, turkey, deer, squirrel, and some songbirds. Additionally, the eastern hophornbeam is relatively free of insects and disease problems making this species easy to care for.
7) Gray birch (Betula populifolia)
A small tree standing at a height of 20 – 30 feet with a diameter of 6 – 12 inches. Gray birch has a long, triangular leaf with a pointed tip and coarsely double-toothed margins similar to aspen-shaped leaves. Its fall color is a pale yellow. Gray birch has flowers of drooping catkins that appear in the early spring. Gray birch fruit are long, conelike clusters of brown that appear in early fall.
Gray birch grows best on moist, well-drained soil, but will also grow on dry, sandy soils. This tree will grow well on disturbed sites where other plants may not be able to survive. It stabilizes soils and allows other trees to grow. If you are having a hard time growing other plants, this one is for you! Often used as a winter landscape tree, this tree is a rapid grower but only lives about 20 years. Planting gray birch in an area that gets full sun or only partial shade is ideal for this species. Once the tree is established, there shouldn’t be a need to water it except for hot summers. Pruning in the late summer or early winter can be beneficial if you are removing dead or closely growing branches.
There is wildlife value in every part of this tree! Beavers and porcupines chew the bark, sapsuckers consume sap, songbirds consume seeds, ruffed grouse eat the catkins and buds, snowshoe hare, moose, and white-tailed deer browse the twigs, and gray birch can provide cover for species.
Birch leaf miner is a pest that will affect the foliage of a gray birch tree but will not kill the tree. Bronze birch borer can cause sap flow cut off that will cause branches to die back. If the birch tree is kept in optimum conditions, the risk of pests and disease is much lower.
8) American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)
The American hornbeam is a 20 – 35-foot tree with a diameter of 6 – 12 inches. The leaves are elliptic with double-toothed margins and an abrupt pointed tip. They are blue-green on the top during the summer, have a beautiful fall color of orange to deep scarlet, and purple spring coloring. It has smooth gray bark that has ridges resembling muscles, hence the nickname musclewood. The unique look of the bark lasts year-round and provides a uniqueness to your landscape!
The American hornbeam does prefer to be in a shady position, where it is tolerant of drought, however, if it is in full sun, it will need to be provided some moisture. Therefore, it does prefer deep, fertile, moist, and slightly acidic soils. American hornbeams are best planted in the spring and once established, need limited maintenance. It is a slow-grower and can be difficult to transplant but is worth the beautiful spring and fall colors!
Songbirds commonly use hornbeam trees for nesting sites. Ruffed grouse and wild turkey also consume American hornbeam nutlets. The American hornbeam is resistant to most pests and diseases.
9) Dwarf chinkapin oak (Quercus prinoides)
Do you love oaks but don’t have enough space in your yard or area of interest to grow one? This may be a great option for you! The dwarf chinkapin oak, whose name alludes to its size, is a smaller tree with all the oak benefits. Standing up to 15 feet tall, this moderate-growing tree is sometimes considered a subspecies of chinkapin oak. The leaves are very similar to a chinkapin oak – long, ovate, with pointed tips. In fall they produce deep yellow, orange, and brown colors. It produces an abundance of acorns starting at 3 – 5 years of age. These acorns are long, ovoid, and brown and they fall in the fall.
It is a very undemanding, low-maintenance tree and is adapted to sterile, acidic, and dry soils, however, in these conditions, it may become shrubbier. It does not require pruning or watering after establishment. Because of this, it is easily adaptable to gardens and backyard landscapes. However, it does prefer full sunlight, so if your backyard is primarily shaded, this may not be a great option for you.
Dwarf chinkapin oak acorns are a primary food for many bird species, including wood duck, ruffed grouse, quail, wild turkey, grackles, jays, nuthatches, thrashers, titmice, towhees, and woodpeckers. They are also eaten by mammals such as bears, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, and peccary.
Some common pests and diseases of chinkapin oak include fungus oak wilt, cankers, root rot, anthracnose, gypsy moth, and orange striped oakworm. It is best to keep an eye on the foliage to evaluate tree health.
10) Pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica)
Pin cherry is a small tree reaching 10 – 30 feet in height and 4 – 12 feet in diameter with narrow leaves that have finely toothed margins. The leaves are yellow-green in the summer and bright, beautiful yellow mixed with orange in the autumn. Pin cherry flowers are a gorgeous creamy white with 5 rounded petals that bloom in the spring. The fruits are a wide, round, cluster-like drupe of bright red berries.
Pin cherry prefers full sun on dry acidic soils, where it can have some shade tolerance. It is commonly found in clearings and along roadsides and is absent from wet sites. It will establish quickly and stabilize the soil for other species. It can play a large part in helping to regenerate eroded landscapes. It responds well to pruning and is quick-growing but doesn’t last for many years. Therefore, due to pin cherry being a short-lived plant and thriving in disturbance, it may not be a great option for many backyard landscapes. However, if you enjoy changing up your garden throughout the years, this may be a good tree for you!
Pin cherry is an important winter browse for moose and deer. Foliage and bark are important for snowshoe hares and cottontail rabbits. The bark is the preferred fall and winter food for porcupines.
Some diseases of pin cherry include leaf spot, mildew, rust, leaf curler, trunk rot, and black knot which is most common. In pin cherry, black knot is likely to infect the tree and form swollen, black growths called “galls”, but pin cherry tends to tolerate black knot well.