An ornament is anything which enhances the appearance of a person, a place, or an object.  A gorgeous piece of vintage Miriam Haskell costume jewelry can dress up a simple black dress.  Christmas decorations collected over a lifetime ornament a tree, and the family traditions that come with the celebration of a holiday.  Hand screened en grisailles wallpaper from Zuber in Paris can supply a room with all the ornament it could ever possibly need.  A good friend just opened the door for me on this particular kind of ornamental-thanks, M.  The decorative arts spans as many cultures as it does centuries.  Early 20th century handmade American quilts ornamented many a bed and bedroom.  Hand made furniture, hand embroidered linens, a vase of cut flowers, hand made candles, hats suitable for church on Sunday, letterpress wedding invitations, chandeliers, great shoes-ornament celebrates every aspect of daily life.


Ornamental is a word frequently applied to those trees whose sole function is about beauty.  We grow lime, lemon, pecan and avacado trees for the fruit they provide.  We grow shade trees in hopes for a cool spot in the garden in the heat of the summer.  Some trees are farmed for their wood, their apples, or their rubber.  Ornamental trees are cherished for their extraordinarily beautiful leaves, flowers, fruit, bark, shape, or fall color.  This group of trees ornament the landscape.  The crabapples blooming are the ballerinas of the spring.  Those clouds of white, pink and carmine flowers can be breathtaking.  There is that spring moment when all the talk is about the crabapples blooming.  The magnolias provide strikingly large and architectural flowers and large leaves.  Yellow magnolias are unusual, and are ornamental for that reason additional to their lustrous bark, large leaves, and architectural shape.


The dwarf Japanese maples delight the eye with their forms and leaf colors. The standard acer palmatum features beautiful bark, lacy leaves, and a mature size around 25 feet.  Princeton Gold maples shower the garden below with lime green in the spring.  The white flowers of chionanthus fluttering in a spring breeze-delightful.  The kousa dogwood features flowers that bloom late enough to escape our early spring frosts.  Old kousas are prized for their exfoliating bark.  Witch hazels bloom early enough in my zone that their subtly wispy flowers attract attention.  Tree lilacs bloom later in the summer.  Flowers overhead-ornamental.  The substantive and shiny foliage of hellebores is enough for any gardener to plant them.  The early spring flowers thrown in spite of cold weather-they ornament the garden.


Ornament for the garden-I have a big interest.  I am not particularly partisan.  I like figurative sculpture in the garden.  I like French cast iron urns from the 19th century.  I like Belgian wood planter boxes.  I like English hand carved stone troughs.  I like classically shaped and hand made Italian terra cotta pots.  I like braided steel cable fencing.  Galvanized horse troughs available at the local feed store make great containers for vegetables, or lotuses.  I like to see a mix of all of the above, selected  by that particular gardener with confidence.


I all but covered this 20′ long table for spring in the shop some years ago.  This would not be a table about to host a dinner-where could you possibly put your plate?  It is strictly ornamental.  Just for the sheer visual joy of it.  Memories are made from how every gardener chooses to ornament their gardening life.  I remember each and every detail of those gardens that strike a chord with me.  I ornament my landscape as if I had a very important garden party looming.  Though chances are good I will never host a garden party of any consequence, I like strikingly beautiful landscapes and gardens.  When I do my best, I sleep well.



Pots planted with spring flowers are not especially utilitarian.  I have never eaten a pansy.  But my eyes have feasted on the shapes and colors of spring flowers planted in pots.  To say pots such as these enhance the appearance of my garden is an understatement.  Buck tells me that organic matters.  He is so right.  But the manner in which that organic gets delivered matters too.  This means the fencing and the gates to the vegetable garden matter, in the visual scheme of things.  This means that a gardener with a very small property needs to choose those few ornamental trees which delight them the most.  Ornament is so much about the result of the process of choosing.


This is my driveway.  I pull up here at the end of every day.  What I see first when I get home-ornamental.  My idea of ornamental-mine and Buck’s, that is.  Our idea of ornamental-that what makes our house and garden truly ours.

Flowering Trees

paperbark maple


Every spring, I swing by my Mom’s house last house.  She died in 2002-so yes, this yearly visit is a pilgrimage of sorts. I had occasion to visit a regular client in the same neighborhood about what we would do this year, so I drove through the neighborhood. The landscape looks entirely different than when she owned it, save for an old record breaking size paperbark maple on the left side of this photograph.  She grew this tree from a twig start from Musser Forest (do I have the name right?)-I am guessing better than 25 years ago.  Paper bark maples are highly esteemd for their shaggy, cinnamon colored bark.  Why am I talking about it?  The girl that grew this maple taught me how to garden-and to love trees.

dawn redwood  This dawn redwood down the street from my Mom’s old house is an astonishing tree.  It is thriving in an urban neighborhood, just a few feet from a driveway.  The driveway of a gardening person, I might add-the yard always looks well cared for.  In my twenties, I loved visiting this tree before or after I visited my Mom.  Sometimes we would walk down the street to look at it together.  Forty years later it is still well worth the visit.  The woody trunk and branches are beautifully sculptural.

weeping cherry

As for ornamental, or smaller growing flowering trees-what do you make of them?  Some years, I cannot get enough of them. That cloud of spring pink is intoxicating.  The cherries, apples and crabapples have thousands of small blooms that flutter in the slighest breeze.  They can also be swept away in an afternoon, if the wind is strong enough.  They bring ballerinas and tutus to mind.  The flowers are just plain pretty, and that is sufficient reason to grow them.  Maybe more importantly, those blooms are seductive.  They may encourage a not so gardening minded individual to actually purchase and plant a tree.  Who knows where that could lead.  A few years later, perhaps they might be planting katsuras, or weeping Japanese white pines.  I love them the most for this reason.

bradford pearsA neighborhood street lined with Bradford pears  is a good spring look. This is a large growing ornamental tree whose fruit is small, and better suited for birds than people.  Bradford pears are highly susceptible to wind and storm damage.  Plant a good cultivar, such as Cleveland Select, and give it room.  They are not so broad, but they may grow as tall as 60 feet.

I have no idea what this pink flowering tree is, but it is certainly exuberant, blooming in front of a red shingle house. I like the nerve of this.  It takes the edge of of all of that sugary sweetness.  Some years, flowering trees strike me as silly. Somehow a petunia handles being pink much better than a tree.  All that frou frou and fluff, on a tree, for heaven’s sake.  But the fairy tale part of the tree is very short lived.  The bloom span might be two weeks, in the longest and best spring ever.

yellow magnolia

Every last bud on my 8 Butterflies magnolias frosted off a few nights ago.  I imagine this tree in my Mom’s neighborhood suffered likewise.  Magnolias are much more dramatic in bloom than cherries or crabs.  The individual flowers are much larger.  In the years when the flowers frost, there is a whole season ahead in which to enjoy a tree that has beautiful bark, leaves and attractive structure.

This dark foliaged crabapple lives in the traffic island across the street from my shop-I can see it out my office window.  Every year it virtually defoliates by late summer-usually from drought and fungus. Once in a white we will clean up around the base, and prune.  But every year in the spring it is a happening.  This showgirl has a heart of steel.

This is a fairly large tree-I have no idea what it is.  It’s the wrong shape for a Bradford, and it looks too symmetrical to be an apple.  But it is breathtaking in bloom, whatever it is.

weeping cherry

Weeping trees leave me cold.  But I rather like how this tree is trimmed on the bottom.  And it certainly is willing to bloom.  Such a stark landscape for such a tree with such a romantic air.

pink flowering trees

My favorite part of small growing flowering trees?  They lend themselves to being planted in groves, blocks, or swirls. They are quite comfortable being the star of a show.  The flowering branches are great in a vase.  All this pink?  Just a little fleeting frosting.


Flowering Trees


All trees flower; the spent chartreuse blooms from the Norway maples in my neighborhood have begun to blanket the streets like an algal bloom on a pond.  I do so appreciate that vibrant spring green; I feel deserving of it, after my winter. Green flowers seem appropriately dignified, for a tree. But those early and girly pink flowering trees-do we love them? This old weeping cherry-is it beautiful, or is that candy pink ballerina’s tutu too too much?   

I am very fond of all the magnolias that manage to survive in my zone.  The saucer magnolia has opulently scaled pale pink blooms.  They flop open in a decadent and provocative manner.  The slightest frost stains the pale flowers with rust; the slightest heat finishes the flowers off in moments.  The ground beneath them will be littered with decaying petals-no other tree makes such an ostentatious display in bloom.   It is the Sarah Bernhardt of flowering trees; do I like this?  Whether I do, or not, I like seeing this play, every year.   

These weeping willows are astonishly dramatic, at the blooming and leafing out stage. This grove is dripping yellow green spring. No small part of how beautiful they look is the large space that was given over to allowing them to be what nature intended.  Willows are perfectly splendid in the spring. 

This old crabapple ignites, and lights up the sky behind my neighbor’s garage; it is in full bud right now, ready to burst forth on the scene from my terrace.  I do not even see this tree the entire rest of the year.  The next 10 days, it turns the air pink.  Do I like this?  Would I have this?  Am I happy to have it right now-yes.

Across the street is an old top grafted cherry.  The trunk bark is split open like a weak seam on a tight shirt-who knows whether lightning, scald, or other damage created such a giant wound.  But the tree has put on its frothy petticoat every year I have lived here, despite the fact it gets no care of any kind. Some days I marvel at the contrast of its dainty blooms, and its scarred trunk-other days I cannot bear to look.  Are grafted, weeping and blooming trees an alien nation- born of man’s misguided meddling with nature?  No matter my answer to this question, would I have inherited this tree, I would care for it, and treasure its persistence.  

My big Norway is in its glory right this moment-chartreuse and blue never looked so good.  This stage will be gone, before I have had my visual fill. Some trees are architectural; their branch structure, or bark, or shape, or leaf forms reward the eye of a gardener.  The giant shade trees- their massive dignity have graced streets all across this country. They are able to put a protective roof over a garden in such a graceful way you might not even notice.   The ornamental trees-those smaller trees with odd forms, or showy blooms-they have their day, and their place.  Should you be thinking about trees, try to figure out what you like; I hope you have more success than I.   

Who are the ornamental trees?  If you like subtly natural, look at the amelanchiers (serviceberries, or shadblow), cornelian cherry, witch hazel, and its relative, parrotia.  If you like the showgirls, go for pink cherries, crabs, and magnolias. Magnolia Jane is small growing and very floriferous. If you blush at that pink, try the Venus dogwoods, snowdrift crabs, apple trees, the magnolias stellata, or the yellow magnolias-Yellow Butterflies, or Elizabeth. Should you live in my zone, visit a nursery right now, and review your choices. Be seduced-this is what spring is all about.

My ornamental tree review, The Galaxy Magnolia Girls, are putting on their show nightly, as long as the cool temperatures last.  I do not plan to miss a single performance.