Growbag Blog

Our 10 favourite small trees


We all need trees. For height, shade, wildlife, beauty, for sound absorption…for the planet for goodness’ sake! But if you’ve only got room for a small tree in your garden, you’ll want it to be fabulous as far as flowers, colour and scent goes, plus perhaps an eye-catching bark and a good winter outline.

This week we’re talking about our favourite trees to grow in a smaller space.  

  1. Amelanchier.  There are beautiful small trees that can tick more than one box, and Amelanchier is one of them. I have A. lamarkii, which can grow to 8-10m (24-30′) but can be kept smaller if you need to. It has the most bewitching white blossom in spring before its rusty red leaf shoots really get going.  
Amelanchier – such a pretty tree for a small space!

It’s quietly well-behaved in summer and delights again in autumn with a very pretty array of autumn colours.  If you’re after an even neater version, there’s one called A. ‘Rainbow Pillar’, which still has the fragrant blossom and even better autumn colour, but grows as a column to a maximum of 4m (12ft). It would fab in a big pot on a roof terrace – or an ordinary terrace, come to that.

2. Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’.  Cotoneaster (especially C. horizontalis) can be rather a dull shrub, useful for disguising a septic tank (which is exactly how it was used in our parents’ garden!), but pretty dreary. C. ‘Cornubia’ is a bit different.  It forms a large shrub, but I think it’s much better trained as a small tree.  It can reach 6m (18’) but it’s not averse to a serious haircut if it’s getting too big (do it when it’s dormant in winter).

Cotoneaster cornubia – the perfect berries for a festive indoor display

It’s a semi-evergreen and the white June flowers aren’t that special.  But the late summer/autumn berries are!  Pillar-box red, and shiny, they glow on the gently-weeping branches like bright ball-bearings.  And if the birds have left a few for you, they double nicely as fake holly berries in the festive decorations. 

It might sprout from berries that have fallen to the ground, so watch out for that. 

3. Prunus incisa ‘Kojo no Mai’.  I think I have to have one cherry.  This is the Angelina Ballerina of the cherry family, and is small enough to be usually termed a shrub – mine’s about 2.5 m (8’) and won’t get any larger. She would be fine in a large pot. Her dainty white flowers from dark pink buds smother all the zigzag branches in April, and though the blooms are not around for long (like all cherries), her leaves turn to rainbows in the autumn.

Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ – pretty as a ballerina

4. Sambucus nigra. Now, I do realise that this is from the elder family, and they can get quite big (up to 5m (15′), but you grow this one for its wonderful foliage, mainly, and that’s at its best on young wood. I grow mine as little multi-stemmed trees, cutting them back to 1.5m (4′) stumps in late autumn. The dark stems grow fast in the spring and provide a fabulous foil for bright tall perennials (just think about how a dark background enhances so much garden photography). They will then bear flat corymbs of pink flowers (they make very pretty elderflower cordial!) followed by small black berries.

Rosy flowers sit among the dramatic leaves of dark-leaved elder

I’d love to tell you all about crab apples and abutilons and red hawthorn, but my sisters are shuffling me out of the door. NONE of my choices are difficult to find or grow………Laura’s next – brace yourselves, everyone…….


5. Stewartia Now for the connoisseur’s choice. If you have neutral to acid soil then
a Stewartia is a really sophisticated option. The most commonly seen is Stewartia pseudocamellia, although at maturity it can reach 40 feet, so I’ve gone for a smaller species, Stewartia rostrata It’s in flower now (gorgeous) and in about one autumn in three, its leaves go the most brilliant bright red.

Stewartia rostrata
Stewartia rostrata. The flowers resemble a cross between camellia and eucryphia.

6. Indigofera Again there are several species to choose from in this genus, all lovely. I’ve got Indigofera amblyantha. From the pea family this graceful little tree has delicate upright racemes of shell pink flowers from mid June onwards. There seems to be a natural variation in colour from seed-grown specimens from deep purple to pale pink, and Louise has one that seems to have a hint of orange in it – I’m hoping I might be able to cadge a sucker from her.

Indigofera ambylantha
With its slender boughs and graceful poise Indigofera ambylantha makes a gentle statement in a bed or border

7. Aesculus x mutabilis Penduliflora. Finally my all-time favourite – the peerless little horse chestnut that is Aesculus x mutabilis ‘Penduliflora’ E and C although now tired of hearing me rave about it, have, through gritted teeth, indulged my enthusiasm one last time and allowed it (and me!) to be our feature picture this week. The joy of this species is that it’s a hybrid on a dwarf rootstock so it remains at a manageable height for a small garden, and the gorgeous flowers are at eye level so you can watch the bees enjoying a right nectar-fest close up.

Yes, it’s difficult to source (don’t you love a challenge though!) but there is another cultivar called ‘Induta’ which is similar in size but with more upright flower panicles that’s been getting rave reviews for gardening icons on Twitter recently, and seems to be coming in stock at Burncoose Nurseries this autumn …just saying.


When I announced my choices for this post I felt like Elisa Doolittle from My Fair Lady. There was suspended belief from Professor Higgins (aka Elaine and Laura) that I’d picked such classy contenders. This is only likely to happen once in a blue moon, so please be impressed..

8. Aronia – Its common name, chokeberry, doesn’t immediately conjure up yumminess but the berries of this gorgeous plant (OK, technically a shrub but rules are made to be broken) are bone-fide superfoods! Sufficient for a five star ‘woke’ rating these days but wait there’s more… just read this description from Ken Cox at Glendoick Nursery:

‘White flowers in Spring, edible black fruit. Stunning red-orange Autumn colour. The Chokeberry is very hardy with berries high in antioxidents ideal for making jams and sauces. Excellent in Scotland. Deciduous. Acid soil in full sun or light shade.’

I’ll see Mr Cox’s ‘excellent’ and raise him ‘brilliant’ in Scotland’. Setting aside its lovely flowers, life-enhancing berries and bijoux sie (4 – 8 feet), its Autumn colour makes acers look positively dull. I’ve just ordered two more on eBay (reverting to my brand according to E & L).

A great choice for anyone living in Scotland – an aronia looks fabulous and its berries should put another five years on your life-span*

9. Enkianthus – One of the most talked-about exhibits on the ‘All about Plants’’ garden at Chelsea (the white ceramic butterflies, remember?) This tree’s bunches of rosy bell-like flowers triggered the ‘I want it’ hormone from every show-goer.

So when a ‘for sale’ sign appeared on its branches on the final day there was a audible buzz in the pavilion, but here’s the hitch – like aronias – it will only grow in an acid soil. Perfect for Scotland but whose baggage allowance extends to a small tree?

Mr Cox had this to say about Enkianthus Campanulatus ‘Red Bells’

‘Erect habit and long lasting red, bell-shaped flowers. The splendid autumn colour from scarlet to yellow is hardly excelled by any other plant.’

Wow!  It grows to a manageable 8 feet but it’s only hardy to H4 – marginal here in the Scottish Highlands. I’ll pass this super-tip on to anyone with acid soil and a slightly less anti-social climate.

A whole tree of these is breathtakingly gorgeous – but only acid soil gardeners need apply

10. Heptacodium – this is a belter. It looks exotic (tick), but it’s fully hardy (double tick) and its late summer flowers are creamy-white and smell delicious (triple tick). Then, when you think it’s all over, it produces gorgeous, pink-coloured calyces (jackpot!).

It is at the upper end height-wise – apparently capable of reaching 30 feet in the right hands, but with lovely crinkly leaves which hang in glossy pairs, you might not mind having a bit more of this tree.

Laura’s Heptacodium died last winter. She’s claiming it was the cold but, well what d’ya think? She’s in Sussex, I’m in the Highlands at the same latitude as Moscow. Could it actually have been my superior skill and research? I think Eliza may have stolen a march on Prof Higgins!

Heptacodium – a small tree with an arsenal of assets..

We’d love to hear about your favourite small trees – we’re keen to add more beauties to our list, so do write in and tell us about them.

Louise has chosen a most desirable ‘levelling up’ rose as her plant of the moment – click on the box below to find out what it is.

NB If you’re not already a subscriber and you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

Formerly hiding its light under a bushel this well-known rose has really shown Louise what it can do this year. Discover its ideal conditions by clicking on the image.

In her gardening tips last Saturday Elaine created lots of basil plants from one she got at a supermarket. Our Sophie Conran pots are perfect for you to keep these herbs on your window sill. Get them free of P&P this weekend by adding FREE23 in the box at the check-out in our shop

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

13 replies on “Our 10 favourite small trees”

I love Cercis “Lavender Twist” with its early flowers on the bare branches and weeping habit. I’d love Cercis “Ruby Falls” too with the added bonus of the purple leaves but will have to save up as it’s so expensive!

Oh Sue, Cercis is a great call! They are all beautiful aren’t they. The Judas Tree, C. siliquastrum, gets too big for most gardens, of course, but is the most glorious sight in full (purple) flower. I am not familiar with the two you mention, though they sound wonderful, but I have long adored my C. ‘Forest Pansy’ and was lucky enough to get C. ‘Eternal Flame’ last year with its astonishing foliage in sunset colours. Cercis will definitely be added to our list of gorgeous small trees – thank you so much for writing in. Elaine (and the other two….)

I would add Albizia Julibr. Rosen – the leaves come so late that it does not block the spring sunlight and then gives lovely dappled shade at the height of summer. And lovely pink flowers.

Thank you for writing in, Tim. Elaine here. I have just looked this one up and remembered that I saw a gorgeous specimen of this tree at Les Jardins de Kerfouler in Brittany last year. Those pink tufted flowers are extraordinary, aren’t they! You make an excellent point about the late arrival of leaves each spring – though I would probably worry each year that I had killed it!

I have just planted an almanchir, and love the purple of the sambucus. Sadly Judus tree died this winter. Great ideas.

Sue 100% agree with you regarding amelanchier and sambucus – both got so much year-round interest.What a shame about your Judas tree – also a very lovely small tree. You must have had a very cold spell where you are – weather so unpredictable now 🙁

We must all have a favorite tree/shrubs (ok Caroline?) and all of your choices are wonderful. So, my next move: I must have at least 10 acres to include all of your wonderful specimens and mine. Dream on Scott

Yes Scott – planting an arboretum is definitely the game plan. Sadly for us, it might now be for the next generation to enjoy 🤣

What a great suggestion Worrell. Caroline here and I had no idea the was a mimosa that could withstand temperatures as low as minus 15. Thank you so much for suggesting this! Think this has the makings of another The3Growbags ‘best small trees’ list with these great suggestions coming forth

I would add magnolia bracken’s brown beauty to the list. This tree is quite hardy, remains relatively small, and will bloom all summer.

Great suggestion Worrell – love a furry brown underleaf. It sounds heavenly but not 100% sure that, if it was really enjoying life, it might not grow quite big for a small garden? Very tempting though…

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