Trees of Suitable Stature

Trees of Suitable Stature

Property owners often enlist tree care professionals to “fix” the problem of a large tree in a small space.

Unfortunately, few mitigating strategies can correct this problem. Trees need plenty of elbowroom; once confined in a small space, they are apt to decline and eventually require removal.

Avoid this by starting out with a suitable tree for the space available. Below are some excellent trees that remain reasonably sized throughout their lives.

As always, be sure to plant the right tree in the right spot, and consider your property’s sun exposure, drainage characteristics and soil chemistry before selecting the species.

Desert Willows

Desert willows (Chilopsis linearis) are one of the most desirable small trees. While the largest examples may reach 30 feet in height, the majority are about half of this size. While not a true willow species, the desert willow’s long, narrow leaves resemble those of the true willows. However, unlike the water-loving willows, the desert willow is an arid-adapted species. The colorful blossoms of the tree are a favorite food source for hummingbirds.

Pacific Wax Myrtle

Pacific Wax Myrtles (Myrica californica) are rather small trees that seldom exceed 20 feet in height. These drought-tolerant plants require well-drained soils to thrive. They do not produce showy flowers, but their fall fruit is an important food source for some of California’s native birds.

Scrub Oaks

Scrub oaks (Quercus beberidifolia) are a nice option when the available space demands a small tree, but you want to plant a species with a high wildlife value. Reaching 15 feet in height and spread, scrub oaks are decidedly puny by oak standards, but their acorns are still tasty to a variety of species. Some of these shrubby trees may require pruning to develop into a tree-like shape.


The western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) is a wonderful tree for small spaces. Producing bright purple flowers in the spring, and emerald green and heart-shaped leaves a few weeks later, red buds are very handsome trees. While their leaves fall in the winter, the seedpods remain on the branches, giving the tree a very interesting look. Redbuds rarely exceed 20 feet in height or spread, and they are drought tolerant, making them doubly attractive for space-conscious landowners.

Many Different Maples

A variety of maple trees remain relatively small and make excellent additions for your yard. Among others, trident maples (Acer buergeranum), Amur maples (Acer ginnala) hedge maples (Acer capestre) and vine maples (Acer circinatum) all grow about 20 to 30 feet high. Additionally, several different types of Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) make excellent trees for tight spaces – many cultivars remain less than 10 feet high at maturity.

Crepe Myrtles

Some of the most popular small ornamentals, crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) thrive in most warm, sunny climates. It is important to select a cultivar that suits the site. While some cultivars remain less than 20 feet high, other varieties can approach 100 feet in height. Some crepe myrtle cultivars have attractive, peeling bark.


Like the native Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii), flowering dogwoods (Cornus floridana) of the east coast, have the potential to grow up to 50 feet tall, but most specimens top out around 20 to 25 feet high. Unlike the tiny fruit of their eastern relatives, Pacific dogwoods produce prickly, orange-red, golf-ball-sized fruit. Dogwoods require well drained soil, and are somewhat drought tolerant.

Golden Rain Tree

The golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) is a unique and beautiful species that stays relatively small. Although occasional specimens may reach 40 feet in height or spread, most are less than 30 feet in both dimensions. Tolerant of drought, air pollution and a variety of soil conditions, golden rain trees fare well in California yards. Golden rain trees do have one significant drawback: They have become invasive in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas, which offsets some of their beneficial traits.

Saucer Magnolias

Saucer magnolias (Magnolia x soulangeana) are the attractive products of selective breeding. These popular trees, which are hybrids produced from crossing a Yulan magnolia (Magnolia denudata) with a Mulan magnolia (Magnolia liliiflora) bear purple-pink flowers and dark green, glossy leaves. Saucer magnolias, which fail to exceed 35 feet in height, are more tolerant of alkaline conditions than most magnolias are.

Tip of the Iceberg

Many other trees, including citrus trees, apple trees and serviceberries, remain small and work well in tight spaces. Just remember to consider the height of the mature tree, the spread of its crown and diameter of its root system before making a selection. For more information, check out this guide to native and drought tolerant trees, from the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District.