Ask Elaine: Favorite Trees

Dear Elaine,

What is Arbor Day?  How can I get more information about trees?  What are your favorite trees at Laurelwood?


Dear Amelia,

Arbor Day is a day in which people are encouraged to plant trees. The first American Arbor Day was established in Nebraska City, Nebraska by J. Sterling Morton, a Nebraska newspaper editor and avid gardener. On April 10, 1872, an estimated 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska, which by nature has a prairie ecology (grassland). Morton knew the value of trees as windbreaks, shade, soil erosion control, fuel and building material. He encouraged civic groups and schools to plant trees.

On April 15, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an “Arbor Day proclamation to the school children of the United States” about the importance of trees and the need for forestry to be taught in the schools.

One of the most active national organizations to promote Arbor Day is the Arbor Day Foundation. Its core mission is to “inspire people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees.” The Arbor Day Foundation also sponsors the Tree City USA program, and Wayne, NJ is a member. Tree City USA designation indicates that a municipality meets four core standards: a tree board, department or Shade Tree Commission; a tree-care ordinance; a township budget of at least $2 per capita; and an Arbor Day observation and proclamation. For information about membership, blogs, publications and more go to

In New Jersey, we celebrate Arbor Day on the last Friday in April. Our state tree is northern red oak (Quercus rubra). Laurelwood Arboretum will celebrate Arbor Day on Sunday, April 28 with guided tree tours. Please join us.

I have been asked to come up with a list of the “Top Ten Trees” at Laurelwood Arboretum. Really? Only 10? This has been a most difficult task. Listed below are my top 10. My choices are based not just on leaves or flowers, but also on the tree’s bark, habit, winter interest and thoughtful placement in the arboretum. I hope that they inspire you to plant trees on your property for Arbor Day, or any day!

What better way to start the 10-Best list of botanical beauties than with ‘Edith bogue’ southern magnolia (Magnolia virgiiniana), Dorothy Knippenberg’s favorite flowering tree. We have several, but start with the gorgeous one in the Native Plant Demonstration Garden. This native has glossy evergreen leaves, large lemon-scented creamy white flowers in June, and large cone-shaped clusters of scarlet-covered seeds in autumn that the birds love. It can grow to 60 feet tall.

Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) can be found near the Knippenberg Center for Education. This coniferous evergreen has glossy dark green needles in clusters of 10 to 30 that radiate around the stem, creating an “inside-out” windblown umbrella effect. The handsome bark is reddish-brown and exfoliates in long strips. This slow-growing tree can get to be 50 feet tall.

Chestnut oak (Quercus montana) is a native tree along Azalea Way. This 60’ tree is in the white oak family and is less susceptible to bacterial wilt disease. The bark is brown and deeply furrowed. Leaves are coarsely toothed and turn a reddish-brown in autumn. Squirrels and deer love the acorns.

On the left side of the First Bridge to the Gazebo is a beautiful native eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), perfectly placed to arch over the brook. The striking purple-pink flowers emerge before the leaves. After two-to-three weeks, the flower petals will drop into the stream and float into the pond. The heart-shaped leaves unfurl a purple color, change to green in summer and then yellow in autumn. Two-to-three-inch seed pods persist through the winter. The tree can be 20’ to 30’ tall with an equal spread.

Also on the left side of the bridge is our cedar of lebanon (Cedrus libani). This slow-growing needled evergreen will develop a “warty” bark. It is a majestic tree with upright cones. The country of Lebanon has this tree on its flag. Tree height is 40 to 60 feet.

Turn left onto Brook Road and continue to the gingko (Gingko biloba). This “living fossil” has no living relatives and dates back 270 million years. It is a pyramidal tree with bright green fan-shaped leaves that turn a gorgeous saffron yellow in autumn. These trees are either male or female, with females producing a “naked seed” that is messy and bad smelling so it is important to plant male forms of this plant. Tree height can be 50 to 75 feet.

Pass the South Rock Garden and enter the dawn redwood cove (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). This magnificent tree is another “living fossil.” It has been growing and reproducing itself for 100 million years. It knew the dinosaurs. In 1941, trees were found growing at the edges of rice paddies in China. The Chinese called the plant “water fir.”  Before 1941, only fossils of the plant were found. The Arnold Arboretum (of Harvard University) sponsored an expedition to the area and collected seeds, which were shared with other arboreta and botanical gardens around the world. The bark is reddish-brown and exfoliates in long narrow strips.  Bright green needles turn brown and fall off in autumn. The tree can grow to 70 and 100 feet tall.

On Ridge Road, look for japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamillia), a small tree with exfoliating bark fragments in dull orange, green and gray. Two-inch cupped white flowers open in August. Medium green leaves turn yellow, red and reddish-purple in autumn. The tree gets to be about 40’ tall.

We have hundreds of native eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), a needled evergreen that grows naturally in the rock outcroppings of Laurelwood Arboretum. These plants shade our valuable rhododendron collections. The hemlocks are found along Ridge Road and Long Valley. These graceful pyramidal specimens have a brown bark with flat ridges. Short needles have two white lines on the underside. One-inch-long brown cones hang like small ornaments from the branches. Generally, they grow to 40’ and 60’ feet tall.

At the intersection of Fairway and Easy Way is a lovely kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa). Unlike our native flowering dogwood that flowers in May before the leaves emerge, kousa dogwood blooms in June after the leaves appear. Medium green leaves have veins that arch down the edges of the leaves. The creamy white “bracts” are the showy part of the inflorescence. The bracts remain for six weeks and age to a light pink. They are raised above the horizontal branching habit of the tree. The tree is truly spectacular in bloom. Fruit produced in autumn looks like a raspberry on a stalk. Autumn leaf color varies from yellow to orange to reddish-purple.  Ultimate height is 30’ with an equal spread.

Enjoy the longer, warmer days ahead. Now there is more time for gardening and more visits to Laurelwood!

Elaine Fogerty, Executive Director



Scroll to Top