The spring months are the perfect time for planting and the strategic addition of trees and shrubs can transform and beautify your home. Maybe you’re envisioning some new additions to your yard, built a new home on a property absolutely bare of trees, or are just interested in bringing intention and design to your landscape. With this Colorado tree identification guide, you’ll learn which trees positively thrive in Colorado’s climate, how to care for them, and how to approach your unique spring planting project.
What to Consider Before Choosing New Trees
Tree diversity should definitely be in the forefront of your mind when selecting new trees. Your landscape greatly benefits from incorporating a variety of species because it reduces the risk of spreading pests and disease; it even helps fight climate change!
Before you fall in love with the look of something from the spread of Garden Design or Pinterest, you should do your homework and find out what types of trees will do well in the Denver area. You don’t want to make an impulse purchase and try to plant a tree that is not suited for the front range climate. The goal is for your new trees and shrubs to do more than just survive, you want them to thrive for years to come.
Hardiness zone and elevation tolerances are also critical to determining the trees best suited to the harsh front range climate. Consider selecting trees that are Zone 5.A or lower. This describes trees that are winter hardy to negative 20°F, and have elevation tolerances to 6,500 feet. This results in specimens that can survive frost events at either the beginning (April) or end (October) of the growing season.
What Types of Trees Thrive In Colorado?
Luckily, there is an extensive list and a great variety of trees that flourish in Colorado. Size, shape, and autumn color are all major determining factors, so our lists are separated into categories to help you quickly narrow in on the perfect tree.
Here’s the list of trees that will most likely thrive on your Denver property.
This is a very hardy species of pine that can withstand heat, drought, wind, and clay soil. Austrian Pines grow to about 60’ tall with a 20-40’ spread. This tree grows densely branched in conical form when young, and becomes umbrella-shaped with maturity. Their needles are long and dark green and they are commonly planted for their size and as a windbreaker.
Ponderosa pines are large with straight trunks, wide spreading root systems, and a deep taproot. Depending on the tree and its conditions, a ponderosa pine can be a medium to fast grower. They prefer full sun and deep, moist, well-drained soil, but are highly adaptable and resistant to less desirable conditions. These pines are also known to be highly drought tolerant once well-established, and their thick, fissured bark makes them resistant to wildfires. Their dark grey-green, olive, or yellow-green needles grow in threes, and the crown of a Ponderosa pine is wide, open, and remarkably cylindrical. They grow between 60-100 feet tall with a 25-30 foot spread on post residential properties, but in the wild forest, they can grow 150-230 feet tall.
This variety is also known as Scots Pine and grows with a crooked or twisted trunk that may split into several gnarled branches within its canopy at maturity. Scotch pines get to be about 50 feet tall by 30 feet wide and grow at a medium rate when young, and at a slow rate with age. They tolerate Colorado’s clay soil and are said to thrive on neglect and full sun.
The other names for this species of spruce make it a dead giveaway for compatibility growing in this state; the Blue spruce is also referred to as the Colorado spruce or Colorado blue spruce, and is native to the Rocky Mountain Region. Their needles are green or blue-green, stiff, and short, and their branches are horizontal, stiff, and grow all the way to the ground. They are also known for becoming frail in their old age. Often, a Blue spruce becomes open, poor, and dingy as it ages.
Also known as White fir, the Concolor fir is one of the most popular evergreens in the entire country. It is a Western American native species ranging from Colorado to Southern California. They grow upwards of about 50 feet in a yard or garden setting, but are known to get much taller than that in the wild. These trees definitely have a Christmas tree shape and are often used as such. Their needles are silvery blue, very long, and incredibly soft. The one downside is that they are not very tolerant of clay soil, so if your soil has especially high clay content, then you can supplement with additional sand.
Large Shade Trees
This hardy tree species has a somewhat misleading reputation for withstanding dry conditions and drought well. Although it’s true that they are resistant to drought stress, these trees actually prefer robust watering. They are native to the Ohio River Valley, which has its own reputation for being hot, humid, and incredibly wet. Honey Locusts produce dark green, fern-like leaves that create yellow fall color. They have a fast growth rate and stand 30-70 ft, with a lovely rounded shape when they reach maturity.
Also heat and drought resistant, this species produces acorns and an attractive show of fall color. Standing 70-80 ft tall, the Bur oak turns yellow to brown and occasionally red in the autumn months. Nature lovers will enjoy the variety of wildlife that love to nest in these oak trees, such as red tailed hawks and screech owls. They have a reputation for being very hardy, resistant to city pollution and long lived.
One of the key benefits of this towering oak is its ability to tolerate Denver’s high alkaline soils. Known for being a reliable grower, even in the poorest of sites, it stands 50-60 ft tall at maturity. Part of the deciduous family, this species produces acorns and attractive glossy leaves.
These trees are often described as strong and imposing, as they can grow upwards of 100 feet. That said, they are also described as a tree that you plant for your grandchildren because a White Oak needs about 50 to 100 years to get to that height, and begin growing acorns on their own. They are considered a slow growing species, but because they ultimately grow so large, you will be surprised how much your juvenile tree can grow in just a year. And to top it off, their foliage does not disappoint. The White Oak’s leaves are dark green to slightly blue-green in summer, and turn to a brown, wine-red, and orange-red in the fall. These trees are especially suited to Denver’s climate because of their drought tolerance, clay soil tolerance, hardiness, and total yearly growth.
Medium Shade Trees
This species is compact with low branches and a round canopy that provides dense shade. At maturity, Ohio Buckeyes grow to about 20-40 feet tall and the same size around. They require full sun and adequate moisture during drought, or leaf scorch may become a problem. These are not considered a drought-resistant species.
Looking for something that will really make your landscape pop in Autumn? The Sugar Maple’s glossy dark green leaves turn fiery red and orange in the fall. This can tolerate moderately acidic soil and prefers full to partial sun. Make sure to provide plenty of room, as it will not grow well in confined spaces. Our arborists also warn that these trees require a lot of supplemental watering and need to be planted in well draining soil in order to thrive. Due to this, Sugar Maples can be classified as “borderline” successful in Denver.
Small Ornamental Trees
A Chanticleer Pear tree will grow to be about 40 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of 25 feet. Because it is shallow-rooted, this tree tolerates periodically dry and moist soil, but not continually wet, clay, and alkaline soil. Since its growth is more vertical and its spread is narrower, this is a great tree for tighter spaces. Additionally, this species is resistant to pollution and fireblight. It produces white flowers in the spring and shiny dark green leaves in the summer. Their autumn foliage turns orange or gold red to red purple.
Admired for its creamy, 10-inch white flower clusters, this species is sure to add beauty to your landscape come springtime. With showy, dark bark it is both beautiful and easy to care for. With very minimal pruning, it maintains its even oval shape. This variety is perfect for those seeking a low-maintenance ornamental tree.
With vibrant early spring magenta-colored flowers and heart shaped leaves, the redbud is positively eye-catching and grows to 20-30 feet at full maturity. It prefers full or partial sun and can thrive in Denver’s alkaline soil. Our arborists include these in the list because they are highly-valued ornamental specimens, but warn that they are most certainly not wind and drought tolerant trees. They prefer part-sun to shade locations, with late afternoon protection and enclosure away from wind. This means they should be planted adjacent to a structure, on the East or North side of a home, or in a protected patio garden. They are understory canopy trees in their natural habitat. Lastly, Redbuds’ flowers are edible, tasting like snow-peas and make an excellent addition to spring salads!
This species can withstand Denver’s dry spells and is desirable for its showy fall colors. With yellow- white flowers in spring, abundant seed, and brilliant orange to red fall color, it looks attractive year-round. The Amur maple does better in lower pH soils and prefers partial to full sun.
Recognized for its fragrant and attractive white flowers, this species is very slow growing and produces persistent small sized seed pods. As it grows, it’s coarse, ascending branches that often form a narrow crown. These pollution resistant trees make them a natural choice for ornamental purposes in urban areas. One of its major benefits is that it has no known pest problems! Additionally, these trees can eventually become large shade trees, but not until they are 30+ years old.
Trees to Avoid Planting in Colorado
Didn’t find a tree you want to plant in this Colorado tree identification guide? Proceed with caution. Many trees are not recommended for Colorado because of susceptibility to insects and diseases or their ability to spread into native ecosystems and out-compete native species. The following is a list of tree species NOT recommended for the Front Range of Colorado:
- Silver Maple: Their roots are shallow and destructive.
- Tree-of-Heaven: These are so veracious and invasive that The Colorado Department of Agriculture is considering adding them to the weed list in 2022.
- Tamarisk: This tree is invasive and is known for hoarding the resources around it.
- White-Barked Birches: The soil conditions in Colorado do not suit this species.
- Non-native hybrid poplars/cottonwoods: Native cottonwoods are an excellent choice for Colorado; choosing the right cultivar is key, as well as site placement on the landscape.
How to Care For Your New Tree
So you’ve read through this Colorado tree identification guide and have selected the perfect tree to plant on your Denver property but, what’s next? Properly caring for newly planted trees during the first couple of years is critical to their development and ability to grow and prosper.
Planting Your Tree
Successful tree planting begins with following best practices. Follow these suggestions from the Colorado State Forest Service to ensure that your tree is planted correctly:
- Plant the top of the root ball slightly above ground level. The root collar (flare) must be visible one inch above final grade.
- Set the root ball on solid ground and not on loose backfill in the hole; this will eliminate settling.
- Remove at least the top 1/2 of all wire and baskets from balled and burlapped trees and completely remove containers from containerized stock.
- Adding peat moss or manure to soil in the planting hole is not necessary. (Too much can cause a “potted tree” effect and restrict root growth.) Backfill hole with original soil.
- Do not fertilize at planting time.
- Optimum planting periods are from April 15 to June 21, and from September 15 to October 30.
Watering Your Tree
Once planted, the next top priority is tree watering. Newly planted trees are thirsty! They require more watering than established trees and are more susceptible to injury from drought, so it’s best to keep actively monitoring them and stick to a consistent watering routine.
Here are some pro-tips for watering your newly planted tree:
- Water deeply and slowly. Apply water so it moistens the critical root zone from near the trunk of the tree to the dripline to a depth of twelve inches.
- Try to maintain consistent soil moisture for better root water absorption.
- Water a newly planted tree every 3-5 days during the growing season, and newly planted trees need water during dry periods in the winter months as well.
Methods for watering trees include a soaker hose or soft spray wand. It’s best to apply water to many locations under the dripline. If you use a deep root fork or needle, insert the device no deeper than eight inches into the soil.
What Did You Decide to Plant?
There you have it! Whether you are looking to add large shade trees, medium shade trees, or small ornamental trees, we hope that this Colorado tree identification guide helped you decide which variety to plant on your property. If you are still unsure and live in Colorado, give the experts at Fielding Tree Care a call. We can assess your property and make recommendations on the best trees for your yard.