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Small native tree - ideas please

I'd like to plant a small native tree in our garden. Ideally it would be 3-4m high (with no risk of going higher than 5m). I've been thinking of a hawthorn or alder buckthorn (rhamnus frangula) but open to anything that fits that size & is a native tree. Any suggestions?
I've also been wondering whether cultivars of native trees are as beneficial to wildlife or not?  For example, would a hawthorn "crimson cloud" host as many insects, caterpillars etc as a truly native hawthorn?
Thank you for any thoughts or ideas.


  • ElothirElothir Posts: 94
    edited February 2020
    I can't really help with Hawthorn or Buckthorn, but I would imagine so long as the cultivars haven't had anything too radical done to them (double flowers for example) they should be alright, just obviously if it's intended to be a compact or dwarf tree it will obviously be less useful than a natural sized one just because of the difference in scale.

    I think Blackthorn gets to about the size your looking for as well, so that might be worth considering.

    However if you do decide a cultivar is acceptable (or are willing to prune to restrict it), have you considered Elder? That comes in a range of sizes and is pretty friendly for the obvious wildlife (birds and the usual obvious pollinators, as well as some caterpillars). I imagine the less obvious wildlife makes good use of it too.

    Or if being evergreen wouldn't be a problem, Holly? That would grow larger than 5 metres but it's so slow growing it wouldn't be a problem keeping it pruned down below that and you can hack them back pretty severely if need be. You do need a female tree if you want the berries provided there is a male tree in the area as well. Holly is pretty common, but maybe not where you are? Holly has the advantage of being some good winter shelter for birds/mammals.

  • ObelixxObelixx Posts: 29,645
    Hawthorns get huge.  Even if grown as a hedge they'll put on 6' a year.

    The range of native trees is very limited since the Ice Age wiped out all of those and anything since then is an introduction.   Is your idea to help pollinators and other wildlife - in which case a wide range of large shrubs or small trees will be good - or are you being a native purist?

    Have a look at some of the smaller crab apples - malus - and also sorbus aka Mountain Ash/Rowan.  Both will have flowers and fruits for pollinators and birds and will provide shelter to other insects.   Both come in versions that don't get too big. may suit you very well but the sorbus or malus will be prettier IMHO. for advice on British "natives".

    Vendée - 20kms from Atlantic coast.
    "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." - George Bernard Shaw
  • Thank you both for your comments and suggestions, really useful. I think I might plant holly in the front garden actually, I'd been worried it would get too big but if it's slow growing and can be pruned then it shouldn't be too much of an issue. I'd consider elder too, that's on the RHS list of native trees.

    I don't care about having natives for the sake of purity but I'd read something Kate Bradbury said about planting one native tree in your garden being the best thing you can do for wildlife. I've actually picked out a small crab apple too, and was going to go for another but then realised the cultivar I'd picked isn't at all native and so I'm not sure it would support quite the same number of caterpillars, insects etc as a native crab apple. However I don't really know much about the science behind it, maybe I'm overthinking it!
  • The elder flower is a nice plant for the garden and one of my favorite small trees is the purple leaved elder flower I have and here is the RHS page on one that only grows to a height of 4metres so should fit in where you are looking to plant. They do have a tendency to produce extra stems so if you are not careful it could grow more as a shrub than a tree. I moved one sucker/extra stem away from mine this winter and have yet to see if it will develop into another tree. There is no harm getting a cultivar if it will be one that will fit better in the space available. I think the wild type goes taller than 5metres so in my opinion it would be better to go for one you are happy to leave in position rather than the wild type when that means it will need to be chopped down sooner. I have seen recent studies mentioned that found wildlife can also make use of non native flowers and fruit so ruling out a cultivar of a native tree just because that cultivar did was not developed in the UK sounds like overthinking it alright. If it still has fruit and flowers it should still be of use to wildlife. Some plants like some of the double blossomed flowers of some cultivated roses for example are less useful to pollinators as the extra petals make the food for the pollinators less accessible so in general I avoid these type of flowers.

    The wild type of holly does grow taller than 5metres but there are cultivars available that are smaller but ones form western Europe would be a better choice than some of the varieties from the east coast of North America that are adapted to a different climate. Anther option for flowers and good berries for pollinators and birds and also strong thorns to give a protected environment for wildlife that is said not to grow over 4metres is pyracantha and I think the red berry varieties can look particularly spectacular in winter.
  • There are some good varieties of Rowans that stay smaller than our native one! It'll still have lovely berries for the birds too :)
  • I can vouch on the Rowans we planted 2 a couple of years ago along with a couple of purple elders and the birds love them.  We also have 2 crab apples which still have some apples on them that the blackbirds are nibbling at.... but personally the rowans are more impressive....
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