A Homeowner’s Guide to Upstate Trees

Fall in the Upstate is when our trees put on a show; filling our lawns, parks, and downtowns with bursts of golds, reds, and oranges that signify the change in season.  Once this colorful show is over, the trees go dormant for the winter.  If you have been thinking of adding a tree or two to your landscape, this dormant period is the ideal time for planting trees.  Unsure of what kind of tree to plant?  No problem, I’ve put together a list of trees that do well in the Greenville area and are easy to obtain at your favorite landscape nursery.  This list is not an exhaustive list of all the trees in the Upstate, but should be enough to give you some ideas.  I’ve also attached some photos at the end.  Let me know if you have any questions!

Willow Oak (Quercus phellos) – Willow Oaks are a hardy native oak that is widely used throughout the Upstate.  This tree performs well in many locations, from parking lot landscape islands to open lawns and is tolerant of many soil types.  It will reach 25’ tall in 12 years with an ultimate average height of 60’.  Leaves are long and narrow with a typical fall color ranging from yellow to a rusty hue.

Water Oak (Quercus nigra) – Another native oak that performs well in the Greenville area.  Water Oaks are not as durable as other oaks but once mature make beautiful large canopy trees.  These trees can be found shading the streets of many of Greenville’s older neighborhoods and along Main Street in downtown.  Water Oaks have a shallow root system that can cause problems for lawn grass or shrubs placed underneath the tree.  A fast grower, this tree will grow 25 feet in 10 years and ultimately reach 60’ in height.  Yellow fall color.

Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) – This massive tree with its large drooping limbs dripping with Spanish Moss is symbolic of the coastal South.  Unfortunately Live Oaks do not perform all that well in the Upstate and are not widely planted commercially.  If you decide to put one on your property, its best to give this tree lots of room to grow and fertilize in late winter.

White Oak (Quercus alba) – Older specimens of White Oaks are massive, sometimes reaching 100’ tall with 6’ wide trunks!  Native to the Greenville area, these spectacular shade trees are ideal for planting in an open lawn.  Because the trunk tends to flare as the tree grows, planting near a sidewalk or driveway will often lead to buckled concrete.  Purple to red fall color.

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) – The Sugar Maple’s best asset is its eye popping fall color that is easily spotted throughout the Upstate in October and November.  Brilliant yellows and oranges put this tree at the top of the list for fall color.  Sugar Maples grow about a foot a year and top out around 50’ in height.  It is an excellent canopy tree, providing dense shade under its branches.  So much shade in fact that grass often has trouble growing under this tree.  Sugar Maples like open spaces and does not perform as well in tight confined locations.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum) – Another native tree with outstanding fall color, the Red Maple is found throughout the state and the bright red, orange, and yellow leaves usher in the change of seasons.  These trees typically grow 40 to 60 feet tall in suburban and urban environments but can reach 100’ when located in an optimum location.  Roots are located close to the surface, so don’t plan on having much grass under a Red Maple.  ‘October Glory’ and ‘Autumn Flame’ are two cultivars that have dependable red to orange fall color.

Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) – A classic southern landscape tree, the Magnolia matures as a tall evergreen tree with massive white fragrant flowers.  Growing about a foot per year this tree tops out around 60-80 feet in height, so it’s ideal as an open lawn specimen.  The limbs will grow all the way to the ground, so you’ll have to remove some branches if you want to be able to walk underneath this tree.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) – Ginkgos are tempermental trees in the Upstate, but in an ideal location make a beautiful addition to your landscape.  These trees have not changed in 200 million years, and are often called a living fossil.  Fall color is an outstanding golden yellow and the leaves tend to drop all at the same time once the color transformation is over.  Ginkgos are the official street tree of downtown Athens Georgia and make for a spectacular setting in the Fall.  Ginkgos grow very slowly which is why they often cost a little more than other types of trees.  It’s best to purchase a male gingko as the female trees have an obnoxious odor.

Black Gum (Nyssa silvatica) – The Black Gum, or Tupelo Tree, is medium sized tree that is native to the Upstate and has seen an upswing in use in the plant industry.  It is tolerant of a variety of soil and environmental conditions and would make a great addition to your landscape.  The Black Gum grows to an average height of 30-50 feet and sports vibrant fall color, transitioning from bright yellow to orange then red over a few weeks once cool temperatures arrive.

Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parviflora) – The Lacebark Elm, like the Black Gum, is another tree that a homeowner is not likely to find in Home Depot or Lowe’s.  That’s too bad, because this is an attractive medium sized tree that is worthy of consideration when making landscape improvements to your property.  Topping out around 40’ in height and adaptable to a variety of  conditions, the Lacebark Elm would do well in any Upstate lawn.  The tree features an attractive bark that looks like a two tone jigsaw puzzle.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis) – Eastern Redbuds are native to South Carolina and serve to bring Spring to the Upstate with a wonderful display of lavender pink flowers that cover the tree early in the season.  These are small trees, growing to about 20 feet in height, so they are well suited for smaller spaces or planted as a group.   Redbuds are readily available at many of our landscape nurseries.  The cultivar ‘Forest Pansy’ is very popular and has burgundy leaves throughout spring and summer.

Dogwood  (Cornus florida) – The Dogwood is a beautiful small tree with graceful white flowers in the Spring.  Unfortunately, even though native to South Carolina, these trees do not seem to perform well in the Upstate.  Of course, there are many that are happy and healthy in the Greenville area, but a disease called dogwood anthracnose affects many of the trees in our region.  An alternative selection is the Kousa Dogwood.

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia species) – The Crape Myrtle is a summer flowering small tree that is widely used in the Upstate.  These trees are tolerant of many environmental conditions and come in a wide range of colors.  Crape Myrtles are fast growing and have a mature height of 10 to 30 feet, depending on the cultivar you select.   The most popular colors seen in Greenville are white (Natchez Crape Myrtle) and purple (Tuskarora).  The Dynamite Crape is another good choice and has bright red flowers.  One note on pruning these trees: just because Crapes will grow back after being severely cut doesn’t mean you should utilize that method.  Contrary to popular belief, severe pruning does not promote summer flowers, does not help the tree, and gives the appearance of a strange green leafy ‘lollipop’ once the leaves come back.

Cherry (Prunus) – Flowering Cherry trees are found all over the Upstate and feature stunning spring flowers than range from white to pink, depending the cultivar.  Cherry Trees grow about a foot a year and top out around 15 to 20 feet in height.  Awesome trees for your lawn or lining a long driveway, these trees are a great choice for your landscape improvements.

Bradford Pear – Just a quick note on Bradford Pears: these trees have fallen out of popularity in the Upstate but I still see them available for purchase in Home Depot or Lowe’s.  Don’t do it!  These trees grow extremely fast and quickly provide shade but it comes at a price.  The wood is very weak and the limbs tend to grow out from a central point on the trunk.  After a strong summer thunderstorm or winter ice event, you will often find half of your Bradford Pear broken and lying in your yard (or on your car!).  There are better trees out there, just leave the Bradford Pear alone.

Leyland Cypress – These evergreen plants are wildly popular because they provide a fast growing screen between you and your neighbor.  The problem is that the 6 foot tall landscape shield that seemed like a good idea will rapidly become 20 feet wide and 30 foot tall!  It is tolerant of severe pruning, but many homeowners are unprepared for the work involved in keeping these trees at a manageable height.  Wax Myrtle, Tea Olive, Arborvitae, and Loropetalum are all worth considering as an alternate to the Leyland Cypress.