Plaza gathering

What Trees to Plant in Cities

Species diversity in the urban forest is an extremely important topic and – unlike so many other design choices that are hindered by lengthy planning processes, tightening budgets, and maintenance considerations – it’s something we can actually have an impact on in the short term as part of the ongoing cycle of tree replacement.

I’ve written before about how our impulses to plant “clean and simple” monocultures leads to “dead and gone” swaths of the urban forest, and the high cost that we bear when we take that approach. I’ve written about the “naughty” list, of what not to plant. But what about what we should be planting? That’s what I’m going to tell you about today. The trees listed below have what it takes to grow in cities and also dramatically increase the diversity of the urban forest population.

On the tree selection process

You’ll find a number of species and genera on this list that are not been commonly found in the nursery trade; however all plants listed can be found in nursery catalogs.

You will find no (or modest) representation of many common tree and shrub species or genera because they are overrepresented in the urban forest and are already plagued with debilitating, sometimes fatal, diseases. They strain municipal resources because of the disproportionate care needed to keep them alive and safe for people, relative to their contribution to the entire urban forest.

Trees that are susceptible to a devastating disease such American Ash and Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) are not represented; only resistant species of that genera are included.

There are some trees listed here which have weak branch structures but do superbly in wet, saturated conditions; consider using them away from buildings and vehicles. There are other trees and shrubs that, while very tolerant of wet/dry conditions, are not included because they are too sensitive to high pH, e.g. almost all Rhododendrons.

Trees with high tolerance to flooding and saturated soils that are inappropriate for use in urban stormwater conditions because they are too structurally dangerous will have a strikethrough (I included them in case people thought I had forgotten some of the more well know water tolerant trees, such as Weeping Gold Willow).


Cherries (Prunus), Apples (Malus), Pears (Pyrus), Junipers (Juniperus), Roses (Rosa), Mountain Ash (Sorbus), Russian Olives (Eleagnus), and the Red Oak Group of North America (Quercus Sect. Lobatae).

Allowed in moderation

Willows (Salix), Dogwoods (Cornus), Maples (Acer) and Hawthorns (Crataegus).

Resistant species only

Elms (Ulmus) killed by Dutch Elm Disease (DED); Ash (Fraxinus) killed by Emerald Ash Borer (EAB); White or Yellow Birches (Betula) killed by Bronze Birch Borer (BBB).


What the terms mean

Stormwater = trees that can remain healthy, even with occasional flooding and prolonged wet soils.
Street = trees that are durable and the right shape for planting along streets, plazas, etc.
sp. = species
‘subsp.’ = subspecies, determined by geographic location
‘CV’ = cultivars, specially bred types, which are then propagated by cuttings, not by seeds
‘x’ = hybrid, a cross between species, which is reproduced via seeds
var. = a rare but naturally occurring variety, depending on species grown by both seed or cutting.
MALE = males are recommended because they will not produce the large fruit, nuts or pods that the species is known for and bears on female plants of the species.
Hardiness Zone = USDA Hardiness Zone, the general guideline to can determine which plants are most likely to thrive where. For reference, USDA Zone 1 is the Tundra in Northern Canada, and Zone 10 is the Sub-Tropical Mangroves of Texas’ South Padre Island and the Everglades. Most of the trees fall in the 5-7 Hardiness. Whatever USDA Hardiness Zone is listed for a tree, move it one zone south for superior performance. I did not subdivide numbered zones by A (colder) or B (warmer). If a tree did well in 3A, then Zone 3 was selected; if a tree did well in 3B then Zone 4 was selected. You may disagree with some of my assignments; I chose conservatively, based on experience observed growing in the field; or if not by his experience, then by Michael Dirr’s experience (Michael Dirr, 1999; Manual of Woody Plants).

Note: my recommended species appear in bold.


The “Notes” column

Make sure to check the “notes” column for information about whether the tree has weak branch structure, harvestable fruits and/or nuts, or any other items of interest.

Urban trees take more abuse and require more maintenance than any other kind of trees. The note to select only standard forms no multi-stems or co-dominants is to address a huge cost burying our cities Urban Forest Departments. To reduce long term maintenance costs, it is imperative to select only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants.

I am not concerned with nuisance levels of fruits, nuts, twigs; these are problems which can be solved with a broom. Of all the real challenges facing our cities, some errant pods on the ground are the very least of our worries. Remember that it was the search for (and over-use of) a perfect, no maintenance, and “clean” tree species that got us into three major tree plagues in the last century.

Common nameScientific nameEvergreen broadleafEvergreen needleHardiness zone(s)StormwaterStreetNotes
Alder, BlackAlnus glutinosa4X
Alder, ItalianAlnus cordata5X
Alder, SpeckledAlnus incana subsp. rugosa4X
American SmoketreeCotinus obovatus4X
American SweetgumLiquidambar styraciflua CV’s ‘Worplesdon’ or ‘Cherokee’ or ‘Corky’ or ‘Moraine’6XX
Amur MaackiaMaackia amurensis5X
Apple ServiceberryAmelanchier arborea or xgrandiflora4XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Arborvitae, EasternThuja occidentalis CV ‘Techny’ or ‘Nigra’ or ‘Hetz Wintergreen’ or ‘Emerald’X3XX
Arborvitae, Western or GreatThuja plicata CV ‘Atrovirens’ or ‘Emerald Cone’ or ‘Euchlora’ or ‘Green Giant’ or ‘Green Survival’X5
Ash, Black or SwampFraxinus nigra2X
Ash, GreenFraxinus pennsylvanica3XOver-represented
Ash, ManchurianFraxinus mandshurica4X
Beech, AmericanFagus grandifolia5
Beech, EuropeanFagus sylvatica6
Birch, RiverBetula nigra4XXSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Birch, White RiverBetula nigra CV 'Heritage'4X
Buckeye, Red Aesculus x carnea4
Buckeye, YellowAesculus octandra5X
Camphor TreeCinnamomum camphora9X
Carolina HemlockTsuga carolinianaX4X
Castor AraliaKalopanax pictus5
Catalpa, NothernCatalpa speciosa4XX
Catalpa, SouthernCatalpa bignonioides5
Cedar, AtlasC. atlantica or C. atlantica var. glaucaX7
Cedar, IncenseCalocedrus decurrensX6XX
Cedar, LebanonC. libaniX6
Chinese Parasol or Japanese Varnish TreeFirmiana simplex9
Chinese PistachioPistacia chinensis8X
Chinese Scholar-TreeSophora japonica6X
Chinese ToonCedrela cinensis7X
Cockspur Hawthorn (thornless)Craetagus crus-galli inermis4X
Corktree, AmurPhellodendron amurense4X
Corktree, LavellePhellodendron lavellei5X
Corktree, SakhalinPhellodendron sakhalensis4X
CottonwoodPopulus deltoidea MALE ‘Siouxland’ CV ‘Colmar’ or ‘NorEaster’3XWeak branch structure
Cypress, BaldTaxodium distichum CV ‘Shawnee Brave’ or ‘Apache Chief’ ‘Fastigata’4XX
Cypress, Leylandx Cupressocyparis leylandii7XOver-represented
Cypress, PondTaxodium distichum var. imbricarium CV ‘Nutans’ or ‘Prairie Sentinel’6X
Dogwood, Corelian cherryCornus mas5X
Dogwood, FloweringCornus forida6X
Dogwood, KousaCornus kousa5XX
Dogwood, PagodaCornus alternifolia4X
Elm (DED resistant)Ulmus x ‘New Horizon’ or ‘Patriot’ or ‘Prospector’ or ‘Valley Forge’ or ‘Accolade’ or ‘Prairie Expedition’4XXSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
False Cypress SawaraChaemocyparis pisiferaX5X
False Cypress, Atlantic White or SwampChaemocyparis thyoidesX5X
False Cypress, Lawson'sChaemocyparis lawsonianaX6X
False Cypress, NootkaChaemocyparis nootkatensisX6X
FigFicus microphylla var. nitidaX9X
Fir, ChinaCunninghamia lanceolataX9
Fir, ConcolorAbies concolorX4XX
Fir, DouglasPseudotsuga menziesiiX4X
Fringetree, American or WhiteChionanthus virginicus4
Fringetree, ChineseChionanthus retusus5
GinkgoGinkgo biloba MALE4X
Hackberry, CommonCeltis occidentalis4X
Hackberry, SugarCeltis laevigata5
Hardy Rubber TreeEucommia ulmoides6X
Hawthorn, GreenCraetagus viridis CV 'Winter King')5XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Hedge Apple or Osage Orange, CommonMaclura pomifera var. inermis MALE CV ‘White Shield’ or ‘Double O’ or ‘Wichita’4XX
Hedge Apple or Osage Orange, CudraniaMaclura tricuspidata6XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Hickory, BitternutCarya cordiformis4X
Hickory, PecanCarya illinoisensis5Harvestable fruits and/or nuts
Hickory, ShagbarkCarya ovata5X
Hickory, WaterCarya aquatic6X
Holly, AmericanIlex opacaX6X
Holly, BlueIlex x meserveX5X
Holly, DahoonIlex cassineX8XXSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Holly, EnglishIlex aquifoliumX7X
Holly, Possum HawIlex decidua5X
Holly, WinterberryIlex verticillata4X
Honeylocust (thornless)Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis CV ‘Majestic’ or ‘Shademaster’ or ‘Skyline’X
Hornbeam, Carolina or MusclewoodCarpinus caroliniana4XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Hornbeam, EuropeanCarpinus betulus5XX
IronwoodOstrya virginiana4X
Japanese CedarCryptomeria japonicaX7XX
Japanese StewartiaStewartia pseudocammelia5X
Japanese Tree LilacSyringa reticulata4XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Katsura TreeCercidiphyllum japonicum4XXSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Kentucky Coffee TreeGymnocladus dioica MALE ‘Espresso’ or ‘Stately Manor’4XX
Kentucky YellowwoodCladrastis kentukea or C. lutea5XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Korean EvodiaEvodia danielii5XWeak branch structure
Larch, EuropeanLarix decidua fastigata4X
Larch, Tamarack or AmericanLarix lariciana3X
Linden, American 'Redmond'Tilia a x e. ‘Redmond’4X
Linden, LittleleafTilia cordata CV ‘Greenspire’4XOver-represented
Linden, SilverTilia tomentosa4X
Living Fossil Tree or False SequioaMetasequoia glyptostroboides5XX
Locust, BlackRobinia pseudoaccacia MALE ‘Chicago Blues’4
Magnolia, BayMagnolia virginiana6X
Magnolia, SouthernMagnolia grandifloraX6XX
Magnolia, various ornamentalMagnolia sp. subsp. and CV: M. kobus; M. stellata; M. soulangeana5+X
Maple, Box Elder Acer negundo MALE ‘Baron’ or ‘Sensation’3XOver-represented;
Weak branch structure
Maple, NorwayAcer platanoides ‘Cleveland’ or ‘Summershade’4XOver-represented
Maple, Red Acer rubra3XX
Maple, Silver Acer saccharinum3XOver-represented;
Weak branch structure
Maple, SycamoreAcer pseudoplatanus4XOver-represented
Mountain Ash, AmericanSalix Americana3X
Mountain Ash, EuropeanSalix aucaparia4X
Mountain Ash, ShowySalix decora4X
Mulberry, RedMorus rubra5X
Mulberry, WhiteMorus alba MALE CV 'Kingan' or ‘Striblingii’ or ‘Chapparal’ or ‘Urbana’ or MALE ‘Tatarica’4X
Oak, BurQuercus macrocarpa3X
Oak, ChestnutQuercus prinus5X
Oak, ChinkapinQuercus muehlenbergii5X
Oak, English FastigateQuercus robur 'Fastigata'4X
Oak, PinQuercus palustris4X
Oak, PostQuercus stellata6X
Oak, ShingleQuercus imbricaria5XX
Oak, Southern LiveQuercus virginianaX9XX
Oak, SwampQuercus bicolor4XX
Oak, Swamp PostQuercus lyrata6X
Oak, WaterQuercus nigra7X
Panicled Golden RaintreeKoelreuteria paniculata6XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
PawPawAsimina triloba CV ‘Davis’ or ‘Overleese’ or ‘Sunflower’5XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants; harvestable fruits and/or nuts
Persian ParrotiaParrotia persica CV ‘Vanessa’6XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Persimmon, AmericanDiospyros virginiana MALE6XXHarvestable fruits and/or nuts
Persimmon, CommercialP. kaki; P. lotus and over 100 hybrids and CV6
Pine, BalkanPinus peuceX4X
Pine, KoreanPinus koreansisX5
Pine, LacebarkPinus bungeanaX4X
Pine, LimberPinus flexilisX3
Pine, ScotsPinus sylvestriX3
Pine, ShorePicea contorta var. contortaX9X
Pine, Swiss StonePinus cembraX4
Platanus, AmericanPlatanus occidentalis4X
Platanus, ArizonaPlatanus wrightii7X
Platanus, LondonPlatanus A. x acerifolia CV ‘Bloodgood’ or ‘Columbia’5XXOver-represented
RedbudCercis canadensis5XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Rhodendron, Rosebay Rhododendron maximaX4XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
Smooth SumacRhus glabra3XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants
SourwoodOxydendrum arboreum4
Spruce, BlackPicea marianaX2X
Spruce, WhitePicea glaucaX2XX
Tree-of-HeavenAilanthus altissima (male)4XOver-represented
Tulip TreeLiriodendron tulipfera CV ‘Fastigatum’5
Tupelo, BlackNyssa sylvatica4XX
Tupelo, SwampNyssa sylvatica var. biflora6X
Tupelo, WaterNyssa aquatic7X
Turkish FilbertCorylus colurna5X
Willow, Babylon WeepingSalix babylonica5X
Willow, CrackSalix fragilis3X
Willow, PussySalix caprea4X
Willow, Weeping GoldSalix alba ‘Tristis’3X
Wingnut, CaucasianPterocarya fraxinifolia6XX
Wingnut, ChinesePterocarya stenoptera7XX
ZelkovaZelkova serrata5XSelect only standard forms, no multi-stems or co-dominants

This tree list is not comprehensive, but is based on my almost 30 years of experience in horticulture, arboriculture and landscape architecture. There are many individuals with more and better experience than me, and you’ll see my biases clearly expressed. Whether you agree, disagree, or have questions – please write in so that we can keep this important conversation alive.

Famous forester Alex Shigo coined the phrase “Right tree, right place.” As the 1,000 year old Knight guardian of the Holy Grail in Raiders of the Lost Ark said, “Choose wisely.”


This is part four in a series about species diversity in the urban forest. 

Part one: How “clean and simple” becomes “dead and gone”

Part two: The high cost of urban monocultures

Part three: What not to plant


L. Peter MacDonagh is the Director of Science + Design at The Kestrel Design Group.

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