Sad, sad. So sad when a shade tree fails, taking with it the dreams of the gardener who planted it lo those seven years ago. All the hopes of a massive beauty to pass on to the grandkids, gone the way of borers or bacterial stem canker. Don’t you just hate it when that happens!And did he just write “seven” years? A tree that only lived seven years? Could you possibly buy such a tree? Wouldn’t it be like buying short-lived fruit flies as pets?Indeed, there are trees that average less than 10 years of healthy contributions to our North Texas landscapes, and you know them by name. Purpleleaf plum. Weeping willow. Oh, and globe willow and corkscrew willow while we’re at it. Arizona ash. Flowering peaches. Insects are the big threats to these trees, and in each case it’s a species-specific type of borer. Peach tree borers get peaches and plums. Cottonwood borers attack willows, too. And Arizona ash has its own mortal enemy, the emerald ash borer. And there’s not much you can do to slow the damage these pests do to trees’ trunks. Sure, some trees will live longer, but many will die after just three or four years.Moving on up to the trees we might expect to live up to 15 or 30 years, we pick up a bunch more of our favorites. The group includes ornamental pears, Leyland cypress, Eldarica pines, mimosas, fruitless mulberries, American elms, silver maples and catalpas. Some of those might have been expected to live a lot longer than just 30 years, but serious insect and disease outbreaks have begun to threaten them terribly. Leyland cypress and Eldarica pines, as two examples, have really struggled with alternating wet and dry years. Diseases are ruining them all over our area — enough so that veteran nurserymen will advise you not to use them in new landscaping.There is a very acceptable group of landscaping trees, several of them small accent trees, that might be expected to prosper for 25 to 50 years, and into that list, my experiences would put golden raintrees, redbuds and Mexican plums. It doesn’t bother me to think about having to replace a tree that I’ve used to highlight an entryway or pool area if I know that tree served its surroundings faithfully for 40 years. It was probably time to remodel the rest of the landscape anyway.It’s more upsetting to have to replace a large and relatively permanent shade tree after those same 25, 30 or 50 years. Shade trees ought to be reaching their prime by then, so I’ll take a pass on the likes of sycamores (anthracnose), lacebark elms (cotton root rot), cottonwoods (messy anyway) and red maples (cotton root rot). When I want a shade tree, I want something that’s going to shelter my grandkids’ kids.Growing old gracefullySo now we’re down to the golden group — the trees you can plant with a child and know with some certainty that the child will be able to come back two generations later and say with excitement, “I helped plant that tree when I was a kid.” That’s a lesson I learned from my dad. Omer Sperry co-founded the Range and Forestry department at Texas A&M, and I could drive past 50 trees today (all oaks) that he and I planted together 55 years ago.What specific trees would go on that “most durable” list here in North Texas? It’s a hall of fame group, and we’ll work our way to the top. Eastern redcedar. If you want an evergreen with staying power, this North Texas native is your best choice. It makes a great privacy screen. Japanese maple. One of our most popular small accenting specimens, the various green- and red-leafed types of these small trees must have almost total shade. Tree-form hollies and crape myrtles. If you train yaupon, Nellie R. Stevens or Warren’s Red possumhaw hollies to grow as trees (exposed trunks), they’ll make great accent specimens for 75 to 100 years. You can do the same thing with taller varieties of crape myrtles. Ginkgo. This northern shade tree also survives beautifully in Texas. It’s just slower-growing. Beautiful fall color (gold) and dramatic branching; 75 to 100 years. Chinese pistachio. We haven’t had these yet for 75 to 100 years, but we’ve had them half that long, and there’s no reason to worry that they might not make the full century. Cedar elm. You’ll find old natives growing in parks and on hillsides, and some of them must be pushing 100 years. This is the best of all elms for our area. Southern magnolia. Life expectancy with this tree will depend on the soil you have for it. With deep soil and constant moisture, count on it to live well past 100. Pecan. There are documented pecans that are more than 100 to 150 years old here in North Texas. This is a durable, very large shade tree if you have room. Oaks. These are the superstars of survival. Bur oaks, chinquapin oaks and Shumard red oaks can live for 100 to 150 years, and live oaks are still punching the clock 500 years later.So do you really care if a tree will be here 500 years from now? Does it really matter? Well, taking a life lesson from the Three Little Pigs, yes, maybe it does.
Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227.