The more you know about trees, the better decisions you can make for your landscape. The following list of trees are those you just might find already growing in your yard as well as trees you might want to purchase at garden shops or tree nurseries.
In Milwaukee we have some excellent resources that allow you to get up close and personnel with the green stuff. The Boerner Botanical Gardens in Whitnall Park is an excellent place to learn about trees and gardens. The trees and plants are well marked and there are even trial gardens where plants are grown in beds and you can see how successful they are in our climate. Your tour begins right in the parking lot where the trees are planted with suitability for roadside growth in mind. There are excellent plantings of evergreens as well as Dogwoods, Hawthorns, Flowering Crab Apples, Magnolias, Maples, Apples, etc.; if it grows here you probably will find it at Boerner. They also have a good library and bookstore.
Likewise, the Mitchell Park Domes give you a year-round indoor site to explore the green world. So you can get a jump on spring planting and planning and be inspired even in the midst of winter.
The list below includes those trees that might be naturally occurring in your yard – the botanists call them “volunteers.” These trees may work for your situation or they maybe growing in places you do not want them to be. Just because they planted themselves does not mean they are native to Wisconsin.
Ornamental Trees – chosen for a one or more pleasing features – are designated by a name which identifies the plant as a Horticulture Variety, which is the plant industry’s way of promising you that you will get what you paid for.
Some trees may have been popular when your neighborhood developed but are not in favor now. Horse Chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) are very common in our area and are nice looking trees but are not often planted now because of the mess the chestnuts make, especially if the neighborhood kids cannot resist knocking down the spiny green fruits to get the shiny brown seeds inside. Likewise the Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) can still be found in many yards, but it is a coarse looking tree with long fruits (kids call them cigar trees) that some find messy. Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) are common but messy and, it is reported, in some places are outlawed.
Some of the trees listed are not recommended for planting. They are listed for informational purposes so you may learn more about them and be able to identify them if they are growing on your property.
Let’s look at Deciduous Trees (Trees that loose their leaves in the fall) first.
Shade Trees: Trees planted to shade a home or a yard are usually fairly tall at maturity, 30 feet or more in height and an equal or lesser amount in spread. Smaller trees will provide many of the same benefits, but you cannot shade a two-story home with a 12-foot tree. Plant shade trees away from power lines. Shading the southern and western exposure will provide the greatest cooling benefit.
Maple trees are a natural part of the landscape of Southeastern Wisconsin. The Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) is a major tree of a mature forest here. If you have room in your backyard or a large front yard, consider a Sugar Maple as a shade tree. They need space to grow both in the air and on the ground. You will be rewarded with a cool spot during those hot summer days as well as beautiful fall color (yellow, red, orange). Slow growing, sugar maples can reach a height of 60 feet or more.
Norway Maple (Acer plantanoides) is a common street tree in the Milwaukee area. There are a number of varieties available. This tree is over used. The fall color is not as spectacular as the Sugar Maple, sometimes a good yellow. This is also a large shade tree with a medium growth rate. Milwaukee would look more like the forest that was here before Europeans arrived if we planted more native shade trees on our streets.
Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) is a fast growing shade tree native to Wisconsin. It can reach 70 feet in height. This is usually not a great tree for fall color. The silver lining of the summer leaves is attractive. If you want shade quickly, plant a Silver Maple, but be careful. They are weak limbed and could crash down on your garage, your home, or your neighbor’s house in a bad storm.
The lowly Boxelder (Acer negundo) is a native Maple tree that you might find in your yard. It is considered a weed tree because it will aggressively grow just about anywhere. It is fast growing but like the Silver Maple, weak and can cause damage if broken limbs hit your home. Still, it is all around us, so enjoy.
Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) is a smaller ornamental maple. It is a slow growing tree that reaches a height of about 20 feet. The leaves are interesting in shape and may develop good fall color. This is an excellent tree. We have long winters here, and this tree is beautiful without its leaves. The bark peels away as the tree ages and is a wonderful brown color. This tree is not very common, but its bark is a sight to behold. If you find one of these at the plant nursery, buy it. This Maple has three leaflets on each stem (trifoliate). There are several other small ornamental trifoliate Maples available in the market. Check the labels for characteristics of these trees. They all can be great additions to your landscape plan.
Tree of Heaven

Ailanthus altissima is the Tree of Heaven. It was made famous by the story “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” You may have one in your yard now. A weed tree, Ailanthus will grow next to your building or between your toes if given a chance. The long leaves with many leaflets can be quite attractive. Fast growing, adaptable, pollution tolerant, this tree is so anxious to grow you probably cannot buy it. You may find it in your yard, and if it has chosen an appropriate place it will quickly grow and provide you with shade. It will grow to 50 feet or more in height. Stand back, as it can grow 4 feet or more in a year.


You can find Alders (Alnus glutinosa) growing along the Milwaukee River’s banks. Like Willow trees, Alders can handle wet soil. The leaves are nice but no fall color. This tree has interesting looking fruit. A cone-like nutlet along with a catkin remain on the tree thorough the winter. It grows 40 feet or more in height. This is a European tree that has naturalized in our area. If you have a low wet area in your landscape, this may be the choice for you.


We all seem to like the white trunks and branches of Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera). Their fall yellow color is part of the heritage of the northern fall landscape. The native species (papyrifera) is preferable to the European variety (Betula pendula or alba). White birches are not particularly long-lived trees in urban environments. There are a number of birch pests, and city pollution can shorten the tree’s life span. If you have a big space and like the Paper Birch, plant a grouping in front of some evergreens for a great show. White birches are best suited to larger yards and away from the street.

Ironwood, Musclewood, Blue Beech, Hornbeam

This tree has many common names. Ironwood’s scientific name is (Carpinus caroliniana). It is a native tree that can handle wet soils. It slowly grows to 20 feet or more in height. It has great fall color. It can handle shade and is often found as an understory plant in the forest. The smooth bark of branches has a striated appearance, thus the name Musclewood. The European Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is also an excellent choice that will grow taller, 40 feet or more, but can be pruned. It can be used as a hedge. The European Hornbeam is more adaptable in the landscape, nice looking, less shade tolerant, and less colorful in the fall.

Shagbark Hickory

The Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) is native to Wisconsin forests. The peeling nature of the mature bark of this tree give it its common name. This large tree (70 feet) will provide you with shade and interesting fall color (yellow, golden browns) and keep the local squirrels busy collecting nuts. You can collect pruned branches to throw on the barbecue for smoke flavor.

Common Hackberry

A good, big, tough, native tree is the Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). It grows to 50 feet or more in height. It has yellow-green fall color. The small hard fruit is relished by wildlife. It is tolerant of city conditions and adaptable to different soil types. Hackberry trees can handle dry soils and windy conditions.

Eastern Redbud

The Redbud (Cercis Canadensis) is a beautiful small tree. It grows to 25 feet on average with branching starting close to the ground. It has beautiful pinkish flowers in the spring. The flowers burst from the branches including the older stems and the trunk. It can be used as a specimen or grouped to form a border. Fall color is iffy but if you are lucky, can be a good yellow. It is native to the eastern U.S.


Dogwoods are common in the south where more showy flowered varieties are hardy. The most common dogwood here is the red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), which is a native shrub with red stems poking through the snow in the winter and white berries loved by the birds in the spring. There is a yellow twig form of this shrub as well. For Dogwood trees we do have some choices and the Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is one hardy one. It has an interesting horizontal branching form and fragrant yellowish white two inch flowers in late May. If Dogwoods interest you, visit Milwaukee County Boerner Botanical Gardens in the spring to check on varieties that are hardy and have interesting flower characteristics.


There are numerous species and varieties of Hawthorns (Crataegus). Kids often call them thorn apple trees. And thorns are one of the more interesting characteristics of this group of small trees. Birds love hawthorn trees for food and protection from predators. Early Robins may sit in Washington Hawthorns (Crataegus phaenopyrum) for weeks, waiting for the weather to break and the snow to melt and eating the abundant thorn apples, refusing to leave the tree until the snow has started to melt. If the thorns bother you or your kids but you like the tree, there are thornless varieties. Look for the thornless Cockspur Hawthorn (Crataegus crusgalli var. inermis). Variety inermis means no thorns. Usually the Cockspur has two to three inch impressive thorns.

These trees have multi-seasonal interest. They have flowers in the spring, fruit in the summer and usually good fall color and persistent fruit in the winter. Some people find the scent of the flowers disagreeable.

Jim loves Jodi, carved in the bark of a tree, this would a Beech be. The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is another of the major trees of the Wisconsin mature forest. It is a beautiful large tree with great smooth gray bark. Its leaves change from spring’s silvery green to summer’s deep dark green to fall’s bronze. You need a pretty good size area to plant one because they can grow to 70 feet in height and almost the same in spread. Wildlife enjoy eating the nuts. Not a fast grower, so plant a Beech when you are young or for your children. Thankfully there are many mature ones to admire planted in our parks by our forefathers and in the woods by the squirrels.


The White Ash (Fraxinus americana) and Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) are both native trees that are common in our area. They can grow to 50 to 60 feet in urban areas. Cultivated varieties (cultivars) have been developed that exhibit excellent fall color (yellow, purple). The City of Milwaukee plants many types of trees along the streets and Ash is one you often see. These trees are fast growing, particularly the Green Ash. Green Ash are said to be more adaptable to tough conditions and White Ash have more landscape beauty. Bareroot Ash trees have been planted in incredibly poor soil without any improvements to the soil and they have thrived. If you want to shade your yard or home these trees will accomplish the task in a reasonable number of seasons. It is worth the search to find a named cultivar (read the label) to have a reasonable expectation of good fall coloration. Ash and Maple have winged fruits (seeds) called samaras. They fall from the tree in abundance, spinning to the ground like helicopters. Some folks do not want anything falling from their trees and consider this a nuisance.


Honeylocust trees are abundant in the urban landscape. They are variable in size depending on the cultivar but range from 30 to 60 feet in height. The variety you usually see is the thornless type (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis). They are planted along the streets and in parks and yards. They are in the pea family and sometimes you will see a tree laden with large pea-like pods. The horticulturists try to breed seed and thorn production out of the plants but are not completely successful with the seeds. You will only see the species with thorns in the wild, and if you do they are certainly impressive. This tree has its uses, which is why it is so often planted. The leaves are composed of many leaflets on long stalks. The tree has an airy feel and produces only light shade. Numerous varieties have been developed with qualities such as different early leaf color, shapes, and size. You can still have a lawn under these trees, as the shade is not dense. This tree is overused but if you must have dappled shade then this may be your choice. Note that Honeylocust is late to leaf out in the spring. We have long winters here in Wisconsin and most of us look forward to that early green in spring. Everything else will be leafed out and growing and the Locust trees will look dead as midwinter. On the plus side, the leaves can have a good yellow fall color. On the minus side, it loses its leaves very early in fall. Our summers are short enough without having the Honeylocusts delaying spring and rushing winter.


If given some room and proper conditions this tree can grow quite fast. Although not part of our native landscape, many have an appreciation for this non-native tree. It has beautiful bi-lobed fan shaped leaves, interesting bark, good yellow fall color, and has little problems with pests or disease. There are a number of cultivars that deal with the shape of the mature tree. This tree is native to China. Note: This tree has separate sexes (male trees, female trees). You should buy a guaranteed male tree (a named clone). The fruit of the female tree is extremely messy and smells bad.

Black Walnut

The Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) is a large nut tree that is native to Wisconsin. It has a deep taproot and is difficult to transplant. The wood is so prized and expensive that stands of these trees have been cut down at by midnight tree rustlers. If you have a Walnut, take special care of it. The roots may interfere with nearby gardening efforts by inhibiting growth of other plants. If you have a big backyard you could plant a Black Walnut. Another native related tree is the Butternut (Juglans cinerea). These trees have attractive leaves and are wildlife-friendly members of the northern forest.


Common in the Wisconsin bogs is the Tamarack or American Larch (Larix laricina). More commonly cultivated is the European Larch (Larix decidua), which is a large tree at maturity (over 60 feet tall and 25 to 30 feet in spread). Both trees can tolerate wet soils. Tamarack is not as easily grown in urban conditions. The trees are in the same family as Pine trees. But they lose all their needles in the fall. In compensation, they develop a beautiful golden yellow fall color. In spring the separate male and female flowers are interesting and the leaves, (soft and needle-like), are borne in bright green whorls on the branches. Nice to look at spring, summer, and fall. They look a little naked in the winter, but not bad. As trees mature they will develop small cones on the branches.

Flowering Crabapple

These very popular, usually small trees of the genus Malus are confusing in classification to the layman as well as the horticulturist. There may be over 200 types grown for sale. Choices are many as to flower size and color, fruit size and color, tree size and shape, and resistance to disease. Your best bet would be to visit a reliable nursery and ask for advice. They put on a beautiful show in the spring, which is why most people like them. Remember this flower show only lasts a week or two at best and you should consider other attributes such as leaf color and fruit color when making a selection. Visit public gardens in the spring to see labeled varieties in bloom. You may see trees in the fall decimated by apple scab, which is a fungus disease that attacks ornamental as well as edible apple trees. Disease resistance is an important factor in selection. On a city lot apple trees and Redcedars (Juniperus) do not go well together. They are alternate hosts of a disease called Cedar Apple Rust. Choose one or the other and check to see if your neighbor has one of these on the other side of the fence.


White or common Mulberry (Morus alba) can be found in our area parks and backyards. The tree is not native but is spread by birds, who love the fruit. The leaves have unusual undulations that are variable from leaf to leaf. This is not a particularly attractive tree but it does provide food for birds. One cultivated variety is used as a specimen tree on front lawns and in formal gardens. Older examples of this variety are impressive. This variety is a weeping form that usually is only about 10 feet tall, with the branches arching toward you and to the ground. The Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) has similar characteristics and is native to North America.


A relative to the maligned Cottonwood mentioned earlier, the Quaking or Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides), named for the motion and sound its leaves make in the wind, has the largest native range of any tree in North America. It naturally grows from the East to the West Coast and most places in-between. This is not a tree you would normally plant in your yard because it is short-lived and prone to disease. It is fast growing and has good yellow fall color. They are interesting trees but are best left in the wild. It is a major pulp wood tree for paper making. A related tree that you often see planted in yards is the Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’). This tree is fast growing with a narrow upright form. You may see five or more planted in a row between yards, standing tall like soldiers, that have grown to a height of 30 feet or more and then died of a canker disease. These trees are not good choices because of disease problems.

Cherry Trees

The Sargent Cherry (Prunus sargentii) is a large ornamental cherry tree with good leaf, flower, and bark characteristics. There are smaller cherries available with good ornamental features. Amur Chokecherry (Prunus maackii) is one. Check with a good tree nursery for help with this group. The listings we are giving here are for ornamental forms; of course, you can also grow cherries for eating. Two native cherries are common in the area. The common Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) can grow to 50 feet or more. The prodigious seed production can be messy and be a weed problem in the garden. The Common Chokecherry is more of a shrub than a tree, with suckering growth from the roots. Its fruit has been used for jam and pies. Birds love cherry trees.

Callery Pear

As noted above, the trees on this list are not generally grown for fruit, but for shade and attractive flowers, seeds, fall color, or bark. So the Bradford Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) does not bear edible fruit but does bear a good crop of white flowers in the spring. This tree was recently introduced for street and urban plantings and can be seen all over Milwaukee. This is a versatile tree that can be planted on the street, in your yard or in a large planter. It grows to about 30 feet in height. It can have excellent fall color but often the leaves do not color before a hard frost in our area resulting in a cloak of brown leaves before they drop.

Oak Trees

“From a tiny acorn a mighty oak will grow,” so the saying goes. Oaks are majestic trees that are native in our area. If you plant one, forget the acorn and buy a healthy specimen from the nursery. The White Oak (Quercus alba) and its relative Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) are native to Wisconsin. These trees can be seen growing in edge prairie areas in rural southeastern Wisconsin. Mature trees should be protected. They are slow growing and have a large spread. They are hard to transplant and do not tolerate having their roots disturbed by compaction of the soil by construction machinery. If you are lucky enough to have one, cherish it.

Members of the red oak group, like the Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) are easier to transplant and are faster growing. These trees can tolerate high pH soils (common in Southeastern Wisconsin) but may develop chlorosis (yellowing of leaves). Test your soil to see if this could be a problem. There are remedies if you have a tree with symptoms. The Red Oak (Quercus rubra) is also a good choice for your yard with similar characteristics to the Pin Oak.


The Willow (Salix) and its weeping varieties are seen near ponds and streams in Wisconsin. They are fast growing and have attractive yellow coloration on their stems in the spring. The group is confusing because there are many species and they all hybridize freely. Like many fast growing trees, the wood can split and falling branches can damage property. The trees are somewhat messy because they are always dropping branches, twigs and leaves. They are quite a sight next to a summer pond.

Japanese Tree Lilac

Most of us are familiar with the common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) with its fragrant flowers. This is a shrub with untold number of cultivated forms (cultivars). The recently popular tree form, the Japanese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata), grows to 30 feet high and has abundant white flowers in spring. They do not have the characteristic fragrance of the common Lilac, so if you want that scent, this tree will disappoint. The Japanese Tree Lilac is hardy and trouble free and can be used on the street, in the yard, or in a container.

Basswood, Linden

Basswoods (Tilia americana) are found in our forests. They are large trees with large heart shaped leaves. Their flowers are fragrant in the spring and some folks collect them and the small leaf that they sprout from for a tea. This native tree is not well adapted to city life. You are much more likely to see (and smell on warm nights in spring) the European Little Leaf Linden (Tilia cordata). It is planted on our city streets and available for purchase. This species and its varieties is well suited to urban landscapes.

This is a good choice for the urban landscape- nice bark, good form, tough. Avoid the Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila), which also appears on the market but does not have the desirable qualities of the Chinese Elm.

You can still see some streets in the near north suburbs of Milwaukee with tall stately American Elms (Ulmus americana). This was the street tree of choice for Milwaukee and many midwestern cities. Its tall vase shaped form with the leaves touching mid street created a cool, cathedral-like feeling on city streets. Single specimens can be seen in parks and backyards throughout the area, but the plague of Dutch Elm Disease devastated the American Elm and the urban forests here. We are still replacing our urban tree canopy because of the loss related to Dutch elm disease. There is no tree that really can replace the look and form of the American Elm. That may be a good thing, because city foresters have learned to now plant a variety of species on the streets of our cities. If a disease strikes a particular species, now it does not devastate the entire urban forest. There are other elms, one without the same shape as the American Elm, but resistant to Dutch elm disease – the Chinese or Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia).

Evergreens: Trees that keep their leaves all winter. There are some broad leafed shrubs that keep their leaves all winter in southern Wisconsin; Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is one. But this shrub needs winter protection and will not grow very tall in our climate. If you want leaves in winter, you’ll want to plant coniferous (cone bearing) trees and shrubs in our climate. These trees have needle-like or scale-like leaves that persist through the winter months. The pines, spruces, firs, junipers, cedars, and yews comprise the majority of winter green we have in Milwaukee. Note: There are dwarfed forms of many of these evergreens available on the market.
Fir Trees (Abies)

Concolor Fir (Abies concolor) grows at a moderate rate to a height of 30 feet or more and about half that in spread. The needles are 2 to 3 inches long and are soft and pliable to the touch. The needles can have a silvery blue color that is attractive. It is native to the western U.S. but grows well in the midwest. Consider this tree as an alternative if you were thinking of planting a spruce tree. This tree is softer in appearance and to the touch than the spruces. The Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) can be planted as an ornamental evergreen in Wisconsin and will do well. It does not like a hot, dry location. You maybe most familiar with this tree as a cut “Christmas Tree.”

Junipers, Redcedar

From low growing ground covers to tall trees, it is hard to summarize this large group of evergreens. The wood of the Redcedar is used for cedar chests, paneling, pencils, and fuel. Juniper’s fleshy cones (berries) are used in medicine, varnish, and to flavor gin. These are versatile plants. They are tough and will grow in almost any situation. They prefer sunny locations. You can grow this plant. There are literally hundreds of named cultivated varieties. Boerner Botanical Gardens in Whitnall Park has an excellent evergreen garden that will help you choose Junipers and other evergreens. The Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) is a native species and grows to 40 feet or more in height. Juniperus procumbens ‘nana” is a slow growing dense ground cover that only reaches a foot in height and slowly spreads across the ground. The group has cultivars that would meet a broad range of size, shapes, and leaf color desires.


These are large trees that can be difficult to use in the landscape. Typically a homeowner is attracted by the color of a blue variety of the Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens) and proceeds to plant it in the front yard. The tree soon outgrows its spot and crowds the entrance walk and obliterates any view of the home. Often the trees suffer from a canker that seems to be soil related and causes the bottom branches to die off resulting in a shabby form with maturity. This tree is widely used. It has a stiff and formal look. There are dwarf forms that capture that initial interest in the plant that make better specimens for most home landscapes. Not all Colorado Spruces are blue, the color is a cultivated form.

The Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is another large evergreen that is hard to use in the urban landscape. It is probably best left for parks and large areas, although you will see both of these trees towering over homes on city lots. The Norway Spruce will grow to 50 feet or more in height and about half that in spread. The needles are a good green and are held on branches that droop from main branches that are horizontal or angle upward from the trunk. Both trees are beautiful, particularly in the winter with snow sitting on the branches. Both of these trees are large specimens that need to be placed carefully in the urban landscape.


Pines have leaves (needles) that are held in bundles of two or more. The trees have a variety of forms. Again, the best way to choose these trees is to go to an arboretum and observe mature trees to gauge their size, color, and form.

The White Pine (Pinus strobus) is native to Wisconsin and was a major lumber tree of our northern forests in the state’s early years. The White Pine does occur naturally in the southern part of the state close to the lake where the climate is cooler. This is a large tree and fast growing. It may be difficult to fit into the urban landscape. It is not known to be tolerant of pollution. There are some smaller varietal forms. If you wish to plant a White Pine it would be worth it to investigate the many cultivars available. A mature White Pine is a beautiful tree and part of our natural heritage. The needles are long (4”) and held in clusters of five. They are very soft to the touch. The tree can be planted in a row and pruned as a hedge. Nothing says “up north” better than the sight of a mature White Pine towering over the rest of the forest. This tree can grow to well over 100 feet tall in the wild.

The Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris) is a popular “Christmas Tree.” It is also a good ornamental pine with attractive bark and interesting irregular branching system that can be forced by pruning. Tree form is variable but tends to be as wide as it is tall with an open feel as it matures. This is a case where a damaged tree can be trained into an interesting specimen.

Taxus, Yew

The yews are another large valuable group of versatile evergreens. There is a variety of forms, sizes, and growth rates. Most have dark green needles. Yews are poisonous, so do not let your kids eat them, although that does not seem to be a temptation. The Japanese Yew (Taxus cuspidata) can grow to 20 feet or more with equal spread. Yews are capable of growing in the shade. Most other evergreens do not tolerate much shade. They do not like soggy roots, so plant them in well drained soil or raised beds. Often used as shrubs near the home, Yews can be pruned and there are many compact varieties. The seeds are surrounded by a fruit-like red “berry.” These “fruits” are attractive but only appear on female plants.

Arborvitae, White Cedar

A native tree, Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) is a 30 to 40 foot tree with about 10 feet in spread. The leaves are scale-like in form and are fragrant when crushed. The trees have a flat dark green color in summer. There are a number of cultivars offering more compact forms. These trees are often used as a hedge. Cultivar ‘Nigra’ has a better green that persists through the winter. The species develops a rather sickly yellow brown tone on the leaves by mid winter