There are many benefits of having shade trees in your yard. Not only do they provide a pleasant reprieve from the hot summer sun, but they also improve air and water quality in our neighborhoods, provide habitats for native wildlife, and prevent erosion. Shade trees can even reduce heating and cooling costs in our homes, have a positive impact on our mental health, and raise property values for the entire neighborhood.
There are so many types of shade trees available to us in Iowa. Some of them have specific regions of the state where they grow best. In this guide, we’ve highlighted the best shade trees that are large (50+ feet tall), medium (30-50 feet tall), and small trees (under 30 feet tall), and a few of the fastest-growing types that thrive in our area.
The Best Large Trees (50+ feet tall)
Red Maples are handsome shade trees that bring incredible fall color to the landscape. With the right growing conditions (and consistent watering for the first three years) a Red Maple should add about 2-4 feet of growth per year once its root system is established. Red maple doesn’t like street salt or compacted soil, so it’s best to keep it well away from the street, driveway, and sidewalks.
Swamp White Oak is a slow to moderate growth oak, maturing 50-75 feet tall, and a spread of up to 60 feet. It’s quite adaptable and can handle a variety of soil conditions, though it does prefer acidic soil that is moist to wet. Very long-lived, it can last 300 years or more.
Hackberry trees are popular Iowa natives that are gaining popularity at the moment. They’re medium-to-fast growers, capable of growing 1-2 feet per year up to a mature height and spread of 40-60 feet. Hackberry, as their name suggests, do produce attractive drupes that attract birds and provide some color and interest through the fall and winter. They’re also admired for their heavily textured bark and and magnificent canopies. They’re also very resilient—from urban pollution to poor soils, hackberry can ‘hack’ it.
Sweetgum trees are large trees with a pyramidal habit and beautiful star-shaped foliage. Sweetgum is known for its fabulous autumn color, which matures to shades of yellow, purple, orange, and red. Sweetgum is ideal for rural landscapes, as it needs a lot of room to spread and has little tolerance for pollution. Sweetgums reach a height of up to 75 feet and a spread of 40-50 feet at maturity.
Black Gum trees, like sweetgum, are excellent shade tree options for adding fall colour to the landscape. Black gum foliage takes on a similar range of shades as sweetgum in the fall, but the leaves are ovate rather than star shaped. Black gums also flower in the spring with clusters of green blooms. Black gum does best in moist environments with full sun exposure, and prefers acidic soil. It reaches a mature height of up to 75 feet and a spread of 20-35 feet.
Gingko Biloba are unique trees with beautiful fan-shaped foliage. These towering goliaths have a heart of gold—at least if their autumn color is any indication! In the fall, leaves mature to a brilliant golden-yellow hue. Gingko are very tolerant of salt, but the males are a much better option for urban settings than the females. Female trees produce a foul-smelling fruit that leaves a slippery residue, which makes it better suited for rural landscapes away from foot traffic. Gingko will survive in any soil type, and reaches a height of 50-80 feet and a 30-40 foot spread at maturity.
Heritage Oak is just as handsome as it sounds. This mighty oak may be the best tree for shade with its sturdy trunk and large, breathtaking boughs that create an outstandingly beautiful canopy. The oaks do require some regular maintenance; the branches should be pruned regularly and the falling acorns may need to be cleared away from time to time. Heritage oaks can manage fine in most soil types but require full sun. They reach a height of 60-80 feet and a spread of 40-50 feet.
Bald Cypress is an interesting deciduous conifer native to the swamplands of the South. The cones are especially unusual—they look a little bit like brussels sprouts! The leaves of the baldcypress are short needles that line the branchlets in parallels, shifting in color throughout the seasons. From lime green in spring, to emerald in summer, and bronze in the fall, the baldcypress suits the color scheme of every season. Baldcypress adapts to wet or dry soils and reaches a height of 50-70 feet with a 25 foot spread.
Kentucky Coffeetree is likely the best-smelling tree on this list; its springtime blooms smell very similar to roses. The foliage leafs out slowly in the spring, starting out with a pinkish hue and maturing to deep bluish-green. It features large, unusual seed pods that contain seeds that can be roasted as a coffee bean substitute. (However, unroasted seeds and the pod itself are toxic.) The tree tolerates most conditions, but requires full sun. Kentucky Coffeetree reaches a height of 60-75 feet and a spread of 40-50 feet at maturity.
Best Medium Trees (30-50 feet tall)
American Hornbeam is a beautiful native woodland species, with silvery-blue bark. It grows up to 30 feet, with a spread of about 25 feet. The leaves turn a vibrant orange in the fall. It should live for up to 80 years. This Hornbeam is happy in full sun or shade, dry or damp conditions, and isn’t fussy about soil. It does grow slowly, but otherwise, it’s an easy keeper that naturalizes well.
Northern Pin Oak‘s dark green foliage turns a vibrant crimson red in the fall. Silvery gray bark adds interest to the landscape in winter. It’s a fast-growing oak that can live to 100 years or more, growing up to 50 feet tall with an equal spread. It does best in full sun, prefers acidic soil, and shouldn’t be allowed to dry out.
Best Small Trees (Under 30 feet tall)
Pagoda Dogwood has a beautiful horizontal canopy. It can grow up to 20 feet in height, with a 25-foot spread. In late spring it has fragrant white flowers, and leaves turn a brilliant burgundy in the fall. Dogwood generally looks best when left alone, so keep the pruning shears away. It prefers full sun and should live for about 30 years. It will benefit from a thick layer of mulch around the root zone in winter. It strongly prefers evenly moist, acidic soil and cannot handle standing water.
Serviceberry Trees are lovely choices for three-season interest. They reach heights of 25 feet with an equal spread. They produce delicious edible berries that are similar to blueberries in color and flavor. They prefer full sun, and moist, but well-drained soil. They’re not particular about pH levels and are relatively easy keepers. The fruit may require a bit of cleanup—if the birds don’t clean it up for you!
Eastern Redbud has eye-catching pinky-purple blossoms in early spring. It may reach up to 30 feet tall, with an equal spread. It should only be pruned after flowering, and deer will generally leave it alone. It should live for at least 60 years. It prefers full sun, and average to moist conditions. While you’ll want to avoid letting your Redbud’s soil dry out, the tree is tolerant of all soil types and pH levels. Redbud thrives in inner-city environments, making this an excellent street-side option.
Fastest Growing Trees
Honey Locust is a speedy-quick grower, adding up to 2-3 feet per year and eventually reaching 70 feet tall with a 40-foot spread at full maturity. It tolerates wind and ice storms well, and its leaves do allow some light through, so you can plant beneath it. Thornless varieties are also available. Honey locusts like full sun and are happy in any location. They’re tolerant of salt and make a great street-side option. Honey Locust will live for 70 years or more.
River Birch – River Birch grow several feet every year and provide a ton of interest in the landscape with their showy exfoliating bark. Usually planted in multi-stem form, these specimen trees can provide screening and shade very quickly in your yard. Like many fast-growing shade trees, they do tend to drop more twigs in the yard, which is really their only drawback. River birches reach an average height of 40-70 feet, with a 40-60 foot spread.
If you’re looking to add the benefits of shade to your landscape, come and chat with our experts at the garden center. We can help you choose the ideal tree for your location.