Problem Tree Species
Choose Wisely Now, Avoid Problems Later
Even though our climate is extreme, we can grow a surprising number of plant species in eastern California, especially below 6,000 feet. However, just because a tree can grow here, that doesn't mean it will thrive here.
Some species are problematic almost everywhere, but we find that some trees respond poorly to our intense heat/light and cold winters. They may live, but eventually you will have to deal with the consequences.
The section below contains a list of some common landscape species used in our area and what to expect from them if used in the landscape.
Please note that this list does not take into account the fire risk of species. Many trees that are well-adapted to our climate are fire prone.
These species have serious issues or are the source of frequent complaints in our high desert communities: Owens Valley, Hammil Valley, Chalfant, Benton, Antelope Valley (Mono County), and Round Valley.
- Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) Beautiful fall color, but there's a reason it's on Canada's flag. Prefers cooler weather and more humidity. Not well suited for Owens Valley.
- Birches (Betula nigra, papifera, and other spp.) These usually appear stressed. Prone to leaf drop, aphids, and other problems, all related to stress. Usually surviving here, but not as wonderful in appearance as in cooler locations. Need lots of water. If you must have one, it's best to be adjacent to a creek, pond or ditch.
- White Alders (Alnus rhombifola) Some specimens do great, but many appear stressed in the upper canopy. Not the worst tree on this list, but there is some risk you will need to do some expensive tree work in the future.
- Sweetgum/Liquidambar (L. styraciflua) Perhaps it's the low humidity, but local specimens look nothing like the wild type. It's actually a fairly fast growing slightly pyrimidal-form tree, not the scraggly assemblage of twisted branches with leaves closely attached that we see here. Sometimes we see very sick trees come into the help line. There are better choices for fall color that don't create spiny fruit, like shantung maple.
- Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) This Wikipedia quote says it all: "Populus tremuloides is a deciduous tree native to cooler areas of North America." We usually see it above 7,000 ft. not on valley floors. These are terrible choices for landscapes at any elevation. They have many problems, and their clonal reproduction means the whole patch may be affected at once. Do not plant.
- Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) A common tree that survives just about everywhere, but has few things going for it. Elm leaf beetles adore it. Many better elms to select from. See UC IPM for information on controlling elm leaf beetles.
- Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra 'Italica') A fast growing, fastigiate tree that is beautiful in a formal setting. Unfortunately it is short-lived and expensive to remove. It is very weak wooded and prone to breakage in high wind. Here's an interesting history of this tree. Thankfully, not as popular as in years past. Several dead ones can be seen in Nevada and eastern California. If you have one, start saving for it's removal.
- Oleander (Nerium oleander) Oleanders vary tremendously in winter hardiness. Buy hardy varieties only. Hardy oleanders will survive in Bishop with frequent winter damage to foliage. These seem to do better in Independence and south. Remember they are toxic.
- Palms Some unusual, low-growing hardy palms should survive reliably. These are small palms. In protected places, California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) could survive, at least for a while. It will be safer south of Independence. There is a real risk of winterkill with palms. The risk is so high we do not recommend planting palms. Low desert locations are usually safe enough.
- Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) Cultivars vary in their hardiness. Most will survive here reliably, but frosts that occur after winter dormancy has broken will damage them. As a rule of thumb, cultivars named for Native American tribes will be fine. 'Dynamite' also will do fine. Plant in spring after all chance of frost. Do not plant in fall. If something goes wrong like an unusual late freeze or an especially cold winter, smaller cultivars will be easier to deal with. Almost all cultivars are root hardy in Owens Valley.
- Limber Pine (P. flexilis) For some reason these get planted in Owens Valley. This is high-elevation pine. It does not like the desert heat. The same advice applies to bristlecone pines, though they are seldom planted.
- Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) The coast redwood is not hardy on the east side and it does not like the summer heat. Better choices are giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). These need irrigation and do well in lawns.
- Silver Maple (Acer saccarinum) Weak wooded but fast-growing. Tends to be short-lived and prone to decay. If planted, expect to spend money on its eventual removal.
- Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) This native tree should never be planted in landscapes. While it is adapted to our area, it is dangerous in landscapes. It is prone to breakage and failure. The huge number of upended cottonwoods in Owens Valley should be evidence enough that you do not want to let this plant grow.
- Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) This is actually an excellent tree for our area, but be sure you plant a fruitless version unless you want a mess in your yard. Prune off any suckers that appear.