Native Understory Trees: Top Trio for Thrilling Spring Trifecta

Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), redbud (Cercis canadensis) and dogwood (Cornus Florida) are rockstars of the native tree world. They really are. Spring blooms unfurl from these smaller trees in spectacularly dramatic fashion.  All are easy to grow and easy to fit in. They take shade and sunnier spots too.

Like legendary musicians, these trees keep on giving through the seasons. Berries and seed pods are followed by fabulous fall foliage.  Best of all, these trees are on the smaller side and grow well beneath larger trees.

Native serviceberry shrub
Native Serviceberry Shrub

The first to bloom are the serviceberries.  Buds emerge in very early spring, around the time of the cherry blossoms, and evolve into small white clusters of flowers dancing in the breeze. Flowers turn to red berries in early summer and then birds put on a fun show to watch, though short-lived as they eat those berries quickly.

Serviceberry shines again in fall with its brilliant gold colors. Serviceberries are commonly sold as both multi-stemmed shrubs and trees. Serviceberries are probably the least well known of the trio yet a great gift to your garden.

Native redbud tree in spring
Native Redbud

Redbud blooms closely follow on the heels of the serviceberry. Redbuds have curious buds that emerge along branches like little sea anemones on coral.  Oh, and they are not really red at all — more pink or fuschia.

The colorful blooms are followed by a graceful canopy of heart shaped leaves.  Fall color ranges from yellows to maroon.

native dogwood tree in spring bloom
Native Dogwood

Native dogwoods are the spring finale for this triple play. They are classic trees. The structure of an old dogwood is a thing of beauty. While a blight began to affect dogwoods sometime ago, those concerns are now largely past and there is no reason not to add one if you so desire. To best feed local insects, birds and wildlife, look for the native dogwood. An ornamental dogwood, Kousa dogwood is also common in our area. It blooms later and grows gumball sized berries. While birds will eat those berries, the Kousa dogwood does not provide the ecological benefit a native dogwood would.

Dogwood blossoms are soon followed by flowers. During the fall season, the small red seeds are quickly consumed by birds and fiery foliage in deep reds follows.

These three natives are commonly available in nurseries and by mail. Direct Native Plants currently has each in gallon size for around $20 (find the serviceberry under shrubs).

And now, a spring gardening moment of zen.





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Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

7 thoughts on “Native Understory Trees: Top Trio for Thrilling Spring Trifecta

  1. I live in Baltimore City and recently had to take down a River Birch that died. The arborist from Carroll Tree, Sam, advised me not to replace it with a Serviceberry. He said that, along with River Birches, they are seeing high rates of death among Serviceberries due to climate change. Can you speak to this issue? — Thanks, Sarah

    1. Hi and sorry to hear about the River Birch. Importantly, I am not an expert, just a self taught gardener. With that caveat, I had not heard anything about that but it is interesting. I garden 30 mi south of Baltimore and have 2 serviceberry trees (street trees) and 2 multi-stemmed serviceberry shrubs in the garden and all are thriving. I also refreshed myself on the zones for serviceberry – 4 through 8 – so we are in the southern part of the range but certainly not on the southern edge of it. A quick google search showed several studies looking at projected changes for the growing range of trees, given different climate change models … and one article concluded that to prepare for changes in range, plant native trees as they are better suited to conditions. So – I don’t know. I can only speak to my experience. I would think the person you spoke to is concerned about the serviceberry surviving drought – so perhaps if you want to plant it, you would want to water it regularly for a couple of years to make sure it gets well established. Thanks again for letting me know about this.

  2. Currently we have only the serviceberry, though it is the cultivar ‘Autumn Brilliance’. We had a Redbud but it got diseased and I had to take it down. I tried growing Flowering Dogwood but it was not happy. I think it is only marginally hardy here, I do have shrub dogwoods – Gray Dogwood and Red Osier Dogwood. They do well but they don’t have those beautiful Dogwood flowers.

    1. The dogwood flowers are so truly beautiful – sorry it wouldn’t be happy there. It’s interesting to learn of all your experience in your zone. As you have said many of the same plants, but certainly not all.

  3. Novice gardener here, loving “Nuts for Natives” and so glad to learn that some dogwoods are native in this area! I read on the UMD Extension website that some C. Kousa/Florida hybrids are more disease-resistant than C. Florida. Do these hybrids count as natives? That is, do they offer the same benefits to pollinators and our Maryland ecosystem? Or do you recommend sticking with C. Florida?

    1. Hi Sue! Cornus kousa would not count as a native as it is native to Asia and doesn’t provide the same ecological benefits as natives. The answer as to whether hybrid natives provide the same ecological benefit as a straight species native is complicated and beyond my expertise. Generally, there is research showing hybrids that don’t change the leaf color of a plant are generally beneficial … this is a growing area of scientific study. As a non-expert, my thought is a native hybrid is better than an ornamental (kousa) and straight species is always best. Given a choice between native hybrid and ornamental, I’d go with the native hybrid. Thanks for the great question.

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