Shades (Trees)

Common Shapes of Shade Trees

Shade trees can beautify your yard, improve air quality, water quality, and energy costs! A lot of these shade trees have seasonal benefits, such as flowers or beautiful fall foliage. Shade trees are a cheap and easy way of keeping your house cool during the summer; keeping the sun off your house will help save money and energy! Nothing is better than sitting under the wide canopy of a tree to beat the heat. If your landscape doesn’t have any trees, the thought of waiting a generation to experience a tree’s shade can be frustrating. Luckily, there are quite a few “fast” growing shade trees; fast growing can mean growing up to a couple of feet in a year. From parks to a beautiful backyard shade trees are useful in every setting! Make sure to choose a shade tree that is best suited to your zone and property, always consider native species as they will grow the best and be more adapted for anything mother nature has to throw at it.

Natural Shapes of Shade Trees

Columnar – Columnar trees are shaped like cylinders or columns, with branches that are uniform in length from top to bottom. They aren't necessarily narrow, but they look to be because of the branching. There are many common trees are available in columnar shape.


Open Headed Irregular –The branches of these trees are irregular and randomly patterned, creating an open, asymmetrical canopy. They are wonderful for shade during the summer, and after their leaves fall, their branches create a dramatic silhouette.


Weeping – Weeping trees have branches that droop downward and are covered with cascading foliage.  These types of trees are typically smaller and considered ornamental trees. The most widely known shade tree that has this habit is the weeping willow; but many well-known trees are available in a weeping form.


Pyramidal – These trees have a broad, cone-shaped canopy - wider at the bottom and gradually gets narrower toward the top. This is a classic shape that many deciduous trees and conifers have.


Globe – The canopies of these trees have a regular, rounded traditional shade tree shape that are perfect for formal landscapes. Rows along a driveway provide a strong linear feature; when they stand alone on a spacious lawn, they make gorgeous specimen trees.


Fastigiate –These trees have a narrow, elongated, tapering canopy that has a strong vertical habit drawing the eye upward. When they are planted in rows, they make beautiful hedges to define boundaries; these trees also serve well as a windbreak or as effective screens against noise or unwanted views.


Vase – Trees that have a vase-shaped canopy (resembling an upside-down triangle) work well for streets and walks simply because they don't block the view of pedestrians or traffic. Branches grow up and out at a sharp upward angle from the trunk.


Horizontal Spreading – These trees are very wide, with strong horizontal branches, even at the top of the canopy. They can overwhelm small properties and can make single-story homes look tiny in comparison.

Betula (Birch)

There are around 60 different species of birch. Birch are deciduous trees that require well-drained soil, adequate moisture and direct sunlight. These trees usually grow near lakes and rivers. Birch have smooth, multicolored or white bark marked with horizontal pores, that usually peel in thin horizontal strips, especially on younger trees; on more mature trunks the thick, jagged bark breaks into irregular pieces. They have slender branches that rise into a narrow pyramidal canopy when they are young; as they mature their canopy becomes horizontal, often weeping. The bright green leaves have toothed margins and are oblong to triangular; the leaves are arranged alternately on the branchlets. The foliage turns yellow in the fall. The male catkins are drooping and flower before the leaves emerge; the smaller female cone-like catkins are upright on the branches. As the female cones disintegrate, they release tiny, one-seeded, winged nutlets.

Quercus (Oak)


Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) –

Scarlet Oaks are a large deciduous tree with a rounded, open canopy of glossy foliage that can reach 75 ft tall occasionally reaching 150 ft tall; it is well known for its gorgeous fall color. Its bark is brown with fine scaly ridges, the inner bark is red to orangish-pink. New growth twigs are smooth and reddish-brown in color; oblong, reddish brown buds are clustered with 5-angled cross sections. Leaves are oval to elliptic, 3- 6” long and 3-5” wide, margins with 5 - 9 lobes; the top of the leaves are a glossy light green, with tufts of matted woolly down beneath. Leaves turn scarlet red in the fall. The catkins appear just before the new leaves emerge. The acorns of this oak are small to medium in size (½ - 1 inch long) and form in pairs or singly. Concentric rings occasionally form around the tip of the nut; they mature in two years and ripen in the fall. The scales of the bowl-shaped cap are shiny, generally rigid and covers about half of the nut.

Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii) –

The Shumard oak is a medium sized, deciduous tree that is pyramidal in youth but eventually spreads into a broad open canopied tree with age. This tree typically grows moderate to fast, and to a height of 40-60'. Shiny, dark green leaves (6-8" long) with deep, spiny lobes (7-9 lobes) turn reddish brown late in autumn. Insignificant flowers appear in early spring as the leaves emerge. Egg shaped acorns (1/4-1 inch) with a flattened, shallow cup will mature the second year. Acorns will not appear until the tree 25 years old or older.

California Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) –

California Black Oaks are deciduous trees that have broad crowns with multiple stems that fork out repeatedly, mature trees will reach heights of 50 – 110’ and may live to be 500 years old. The root system is generally comprised of surface roots and several deep vertical roots, which eventually can spread laterally over bedrock. Leaves are simple (3-5” long), sharply cut into 7-11 lobes which are toothed, and each lobe comes to a point. The upper surface of the leaf is glossy green, gray below and both surfaces of young leaves are sometimes fuzzy with a dusty rose or soft pink hue. The autumn color is yellow to yellow orange. This oak start to produce seeds as early as 30 years old, but they usually don’t produce heavily before age 80. The flowers appear in spring, ranging from mid-March through mid-May; separate male and female flowers are borne on the same plant. The greenish red male flowers appear on leaf nodes of branches from the previous year, forming hairy catkins (1.5 – 3” long). Female flowers emerge from on leaf nodes of branches of the current year. Acorns are 1” long and the cup encloses about half the nut; like most oaks acorns will mature the second year.

Salix (Willow)

Corkscrew Willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’) –

Corkscrew Willow ‘Tortuosa’, commonly called dragon’s claw willow, is an upright female clone that usually grows 20-30’ tall and 10-15’ wide. Narrow, lanceolate (an oval shape that tapers to a point at each end of the leaf), with finely toothed leaves (6” long and 3/4” wide) that are light green above and gray green underneath. Fall color is usually greenish yellow. This tree is most recognized for its twisted branches and it is mainly grown to show off this unusual growth. Winter is the best time to see the contorted branching after the leaves have fallen off. Additional common names for ‘Tortuosa’ is corkscrew willow, rattlesnake willow and contorted willow.

Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) –

Commonly called weeping willow or Babylon weeping willow, is a medium to large deciduous tree with a stout trunk topped by a graceful broad-rounded crown of branches that sweep downward to the ground. It grows to 30-50’ tall and wide. Many believe that this is the best form of weeping willow. They naturalize well around the edge of a pond with its branches gracefully weeping down to touch the water, however, it is often very difficult to site this tree in a residential landscape. Narrow, lanceolate (an oval shape that tapers to a point at each end of the leaf), with finely toothed leaves (6” long and 3/4” wide) that are light green above and gray green underneath. Fall color is usually uninteresting greenish yellow. Bark is gray black, branchlets are brown or green. Male and female non-showy catkins are silvery green (1” long) that appear in April through May, on separate male and female trees.

Platanus (Planetree)

American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) –

Commonly called sycamore, Eastern sycamore or American sycamore; is a deciduous, usually single-trunk tree that grows to 75-100’ tall with horizontal branching and a rounded canopy. The trunk ranges from 3-8’ diameter. The most interesting part of this giant tree is its brown bark which peels off in pieces to reveal its cream-colored inner bark; mature trees will have marbled white bark. The large lobed dark green leaves (4-10” wide) have deep marginal teeth. In fall, foliage typically turns yellow brown. Small, non-showy (male and female) flowers appear in small round clusters in April. Female flowers are reddish that give way to fuzzy, brown, long-stalked, fruiting balls (to 1 3/8” diameter) that ripen to in October and will persist into early winter. The “fruits” will eventually disintegrate late in fall releasing numerous, densely packed, tiny seeds, often immersed in downy fluffs that float in the wind.

 London Planetree (Platanus × acerifolia) –

The London planetree is a hybrid between an American sycamore (P. occidentalis) and an Oriental planetree (P. orientalis). This hybrid can be difficult to distinguish from its American parent. Distinguishing features include: Leaves have more pronounce veins and the fruit balls appear in pairs. It typically grows as a single, straight, trunk tree 75-100 ft tall with widespread branching and a rounded habit. Trunk diameter typically ranges from 3-8 ft. The trademark feature of this huge tree is its brown bark, which breaks away in irregular pieces to reveal its creamy white inner bark. Mature trees have mottled white bark. The large 3-5 lobed, dark green leaves (4-9” wide) which resemble a maple, have coarse marginal teeth. In fall, foliage usually turns an uninspiring yellow brown. Female flowers are reddish that give way to fuzzy, brown, long-stalked, fruiting balls (to 1 3/8” diameter) that will appear in pairs and ripen to in October, the fruit can persist into early winter. The “fruits” will eventually disintegrate late in fall releasing numerous, densely packed, tiny seeds, often immersed in downy fluffs that float in the wind. 

Liriodendron(Tulip Tree)

Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)-

The tulip tree is a large, stately, deciduous tree grows 60-90' tall with a broad conical to pyramidal habit, with straight trunks that usually rise up like a column. The canopy starts up the trunk a lot higher than some shade trees. It’s named for its tulip-like flowers that bloom in spring; flowers are yellowish green with an orange band close to the base of each petal. Even though the flowers are 2” in size, they can go unnoticed on large trees (sometimes even on smaller trees) because the flowers open after the leaves are fully developed. Occasionally the flowers are noticed when the petals first begin to fall off the tree. The flowers are followed by cone-shaped brown fruits that are dry and scaly, each bearing numerous amounts of winged seeds. Characteristic are the interesting, bright green four tips with smooth leaf margins. The leaves are almost rectangular (4-6 lobes) and up to 6” long 8” across.

Liquidambar (Sweet Gum)

Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) –

The sweet gum tree is a low-maintenance deciduous shade tree that typically grows to 60-80’ tall with a straight trunk. It has a pyramidal habit in its youth, but gradually it develops an oval-rounded canopy with age. Each star shaped leaf has 5-7 lobes that are (4-7” across) glossy, deep green with toothed margins that form on long-stalks. Leaves are fragrant when bruised, reminiscent of apple or fruity. This tree has the best fall foliage! Its brilliant mixture of yellows, oranges, purples and reds all on the same branch make this tree really stand out from the rest. Non-showy yellowish green flowers appear in round clusters in April through May. Spent female flowers will give way to those infamous gum balls (spiky balls) which are spherical, hard and bristly fruit 1.5” diameter. The gum balls mature to a gray brown and remain on the tree through the winter. The balls can create clean-up problems during December through April as the clusters fall to the ground.

Fagus (Beech)

European Beech (Fagus sylvatica)-

Fagus sylvatica, commonly called European beech, is a large deciduous tree that will grow 50-60 ft tall with a dense, upright and oval or rounded and spreading canopies. European beech is distinguished from the similar American beech (see Fagus grandifolia) by its darker gray bark, smaller size, and shorter leaves that have very little jagged (toothed) margins. It is a low branching tree, with its trunk ranging from 2-4 ft in diameter. Beech have distinctive bark that is smooth, thin and gray. Oval, dark green leaves (4” long) have wavy nearly toothless margins and prominent parallel veins. Foliage turns a golden bronze in fall. Yellowish green flowers bloom from April through May, the male flowers droop on long-stemmed, round clusters where the female flowers are on short spikes. Female flowers will give way to triangular nuts enclosed by spiny bracts. Beechnuts ripen in the fall and are edible.

Tri-Colored Beech (Fagus sylvatica) –

Tri- colored beech are the ideal purple-pink Beech tree for smaller city plots. It can be used for shade, along an entryway, driveway or as a colorful street tree. This tree is very cold hardy and can be used both as an accent planted with evergreens or in a grove as its color will be distinguishable from a distance. Stunningly well formed it is a great front yard statement tree for larger homes with classic architecture. The foliage is purple with irregular creamy pink and rose-colored margins. A striking specimen tree that will be a wonderful addition to any landscape.

Ash (Fraxinus)

American Ash (Fraxinus americana)- 

Commonly called white ash, is the largest of the native ashes that typically grows to 60-80’ tall. Young trees are pyramidal in shape, but they will gradually mature to a more rounded canopy.  Clusters of petal less purplish male and female flowers appear on separate trees in April through May before the late to emerge foliage. Fertilized female flowers give way to drooping clusters of 2” long winged samaras (they look like small flat oars) that ripen in fall and may stay on the tree during the winter. Features feather like compound leaves with 7 leaflets (less commonly 5 or 9 leaflets). Oval leaflets (3-5” long) are forest green above and sage green below. Foliage turns yellow with purple shading in fall. Gray bark develops a diamond shaped ridging on mature trees. ‘Autumn Purple’ is a common variety of the American ash.

Raywood ash (Fraxinus oxycarpa)-

This Ash is a finely textured deciduous tree that can reach up to 90 feet in height, but they will be more likely to stay at 40 to 50 ft tall with a 25 ft spread. Young trees are somewhat upright or oval eventually opening into a full, rounded canopy with age. The dazzling, dark green leaflets create a light shade underneath the tree, making it suited for a large lawn specimen or shade tree. The leaves turn various shades of red, purple and chocolate brown before falling in autumn.

Acer (Maple)

Norway Maple(Acer platanoides) –

The Norway maple has been widely planted in urban areas all over the U.S. It’s a medium-sized deciduous shade tree grows 40-50 ft tall with a symmetrical, dense, rounded canopy. Leaves (7” across) have five sharply pointed lobes and bear a striking resemblance to those of sugar maple. Leaf stems will ooze a milky sap when cut. Fall color is usually yellow. Small yellow flowers in erect corymbs (clusters) will appear in the spring before the foliage buds out. After the flowers are spent, they give way to paired seeds with outward spreading wings (samaras to 2” long).


Red Maple (Acer rubrum) –

 The red maple is a medium-sized deciduous tree that grows 40-60 ft tall with an oval to rounded crown. Red maples will grow faster than Norway and sugar maples, but much slower than a silver maple. Emerging twigs, leafstalks, new growth leaves, flowers, fruit and fall color all are red or are tinged with red. The quality of the red fall color is variable; all depending on how the weather is in the fall. Leaves (2-5" long) have 3 pronounce triangular lobes (occasionally 5 lobes with the two lower lobes being largely repressed). Medium to dark green leaves have pointed tips and toothed margins; a dull green can be seen if looking up under the canopy. Flowers can be male or female (monoecious) and will appear in late winter to early spring (March-April) before the leaves emerge. Fruits are two-winged samara.


Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) –

The sugar maple is a deciduous tree tall with a dense, rounded crown which will usually grow 40- 80 ft. Medium green leaves (3-6" wide with 3-5 lobes) will turn brilliant yellow-orange in fall, sometimes the color can vary immensely; it all depends on the weather in Autumn. The fruit is the unmistakable maple two-winged samara. Sugar maples are slow growing, long lived trees; they will however grow moderately for the first 30-35 years.



Sycamore Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) –

Sycamore maple or planetree maple is a round, spreading, deciduous tree that grows 40-60 ft tall. Leathery, 5-lobed, dark green leaves (6” across) are dull green beneath with prominent veins and coarsely toothed margins. Leaves don’t produce fall color. Yellowish green flowers appear in panicles (5” long) in the spring after the foliage emerges. Pairs of samaras (2” long) with the wings forming a 60-degree angle follow the flowers. The samaras will mature in early fall. Bark on mature trunks will peel off to expose its inner orange bark.