Another look at trees: Part 1

A selection of miniature trees that work well in the railway garden
1. The tree showing a good crop of red berries is a dwarf hawthorn, photographed in mid-November. It is usually a multistemmed tree but can be trained to a single trunk. (Photo taken in Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.)
Don Parker
2. This Washington hawthorn, grown as an outdoor bonsai, was 10 years old in this photo, shot on the author’s former garden railroad, the Rustin & Decrepit.
Don Parker
3. This dwarf crepe myrtle has only a few red leaves left, revealing its pleasing branch pattern and the small, white berries that last into winter. (Photo taken in Longwood Gardens.)
Don Parker
4. This Chickasaw crepe myrtle stays under two feet tall and can be pruned into a lovely tree. (Obtainable from
Bonsai Outlet
5. The brilliant-red fall leaves of redvein enkianthus and its light-gray bark make it an excellent choice for a specimen tree in the garden railroad. (Photo taken in Longwood Gardens.)
Don Parker
6. This mounding-spreading Japanese maple is probably the cultivar called Groundcover. It cascades over a rocky hilltop in Jack and Kathie Griffin’s Grandymon Lake Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Don Parker
7. This 15-year-old upright miniature Japanese maple grows in the author’s Hoot & Holler Railroad.
Don Parker
Trees in our railroad gardens not only add beauty but also give a sense of age and permanence. Trees are such a common part of the world’s landscapes that we often judge the scale of objects in relation to the trees they are near. For these reasons, as well as other aesthetic and practical reasons, I believe our choice of trees for the railroad garden deserves another good look.

In this article, and then in the next issue, I’ll describe a variety of trees that have shown their potential in the railroad garden or are likely candidates to do so. I’ll begin with a half dozen or so deciduous trees. Deciduous trees typically have four-seasons appeal—they present a different appearance in each season of the year. There is always something to appreciate, from spring leaf-bud and early flowers, to summer dense-canopy growth, to fall colors and leaf-drop, to winter’s structural branch display.
Last November I visited the garden railroad at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Most of the plantings were evergreen in that climate zone (6b) but two deciduous trees caught my eye for their winter structure and display. The hawthorn tree shown in photo 1 is a dwarf form, such as Crataegus monogyna ‘Compacta’, Zones 4-7. If unpruned, this tree will grow six feet tall in 10 years. It flowers heavily in spring, with white blossoms that turn to bright-red berries in the fall and winter, as can be seen in the photo. Hawthorns are best suited for colder areas of the country. They take pruning well and are also good candidates for bonsai training.

I have grown Washington hawthorns (Crataegus phaenopyrum, Zones 3-8) as outdoor bonsai trees for 15 years (photo 2). Although they are as tough as cockroaches, tolerating brutal root pruning and occasional unintended drought, only one out of the five I’ve grown as bonsai specimens has produced a single flowering branch. The ‘Compacta’ species has a good, upright form and could be grown in the open garden, pruned and trained to make a nice miniature tree that should flower and fruit as well as this Longwood specimen. It has naturally very small leaves and, like most hawthorns, sharp thorns. There is another dwarf form available that is thornless—the compact May hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna ‘Inermis Compacta’).

Crepe myrtles
Another tree I saw in the Longwood railroad garden was a crepe myrtle that had dropped its leaves (photo 3). The trunk and branch pattern were striking, making me see its possibilities as a good scale tree. Most crepe myrtles grow seven feet or more tall but there are good dwarf forms available. One dwarf crepe myrtle, the Chickasaw cultivar (Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei ‘Chickasaw’, Zones 7-9), grows only 20 inches high in seven years. It flowers from mid-summer until frost, and can be pruned to make a beautiful tree (photo 4). It likes full sun and average, slightly acid soil. It is highly mildew resistant and would make a striking addition to the southern railroad garden. While most crepe myrtles are cold hardy only to Zone 7, there are a few hardier species that can be grown in Zone 6, such as Lagerstroemia Indica ‘Sarah’s Favorite’ (white blossoms), ‘Pink Velour’, (hot pink), and ‘Hopi’ (pink).

Redvein enkianthus
A deciduous shrub with four-seasons appeal, redvein enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus ‘Sikokianus’, Zones 5-7) has many qualities that would recommend it as a tree for the railroad garden. Its fall-color display is especially attractive (photo 5). White to red, bell-like flowers in late spring add to its appeal. It prefers moist soil in full or partial sun. It will grow slowly to five-to-eight feet tall but, with an upright stance, small leaves, and tree-like branching pattern, it could easily be shaped to make a commanding scale tree.

Japanese maples
There are a number of very small Japanese maple trees that would work well in the railroad garden (see “Miniscaping” in the October 2011 GR). Two different types I’ll mention here are mounding-spreading types and upright types.

An example of the first is a threadleaf Japanese maple with the cultivar name Groundcover (Acer palmatum ‘Groundcover’, Zones 5-9—photo 6). It has light green, pinkish-tinged leaves that turn yellow-orange in the fall. It grows slowly to 12-15 inches tall by 30 inches wide in 10 years.

An example of the second type is an upright form whose Japanese cultivar name means “multicolored tiny harp” (Acer palmatum ‘Goshiki Koto Hime’, Zones 5b [with protection] to 9). It grows very slowly to about three-feet tall and two-feet wide, and has very small leaves and a thickening trunk that gives it an aged look. When fall conditions are right, it turns a lovely orange-red (photo 7).


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