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Q&A: Sneak peek inside current issue

I've done it—cut down the row of Bradford pears that my mother had planted along her driveway 15 years ago, since they were faltering anyway. I promised her I'd replant with better flowering trees; what do you suggest?

Hurrah for you! Yes, there are many good options that will please your mother and present less hazard. I’ll address spring bloomers with white flowers, since this attribute is one of the pear’s main attractions.

Fringe trees come first to mind. You may choose from the American fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus, or the Chinese fringe tree, Chionanthus retusus. These trees are similar, as you might expect, with gorgeous glossy foliage and white lacy flowers in late spring, but have distinctly different character.

The flowers on the American dangle below the stems in long fleecy panicles, hence one of its common names, grancy graybeard. The leaves are pointed, nearly as long as my hand and a shiny dark green. The foliage looks clean and polished even through the dog days of summer. Fall color may be a nice yellow, but rarely spectacular.

It’s a beauty, but if I could only have one, it would be the Chinese. The flowers’ individual petals are larger, so the flowers appear a brighter white. Plus, the flowering panicles are borne above the foliage, almost like heavy snow lying atop the dark green leaves. In fact, one of the best selections is called ‘China Snow’, and was introduced by Tennessee premier plantsman Don Shadow, from cuttings he collected in Knoxville several decades ago.

I also like the foliage on this particular cultivar. I've purchased a few Chinese fringe trees over the years, and there’s lot of variability in the foliage characteristics. They are broader, but on some forms the leaf is leathery and nearly round with an undulated margin. This makes the already shining leaf multifaceted, so that it practically glitters in the sun.

The Chinese also has a more attractive bark, and is a bit more widespread. Both species are easy to grow in sun or mostly sun, and will be about 20-feet tall and wide.

Another spring bloomer with white flowers is a deciduous magnolia called ‘Wada’s Memory’. The tree has a distinct pyramidal habit, almost Bradford-like, but without the splitting problem. Flowers appear in early spring, before the foliage, and are six-inches wide and quite fragrant. It’s a hybrid of Magnolia kobus and Magnolia salicifolia for those of you who like to know the names of the relatives. It is fast growing, but may take a few years to put on a great flowering show. When it does, it is simply stunning. The leaves are large, bronze in spring, dark green in summer and soft yellow in fall. It was one of the top 10 performers in urban tree research done at North Carolina State, as was the Chinese fringe tree.

Like most magnolias, it is not picky about soil, and blooms best in sun. Yes, some years the flowers get nipped by frost, but so did your Bradfords! There are many other good trees, but space restricts me here. The Master Gardener Program is a great way to learn about better woody plant choices.