5 Trees That Scream Southern Gardener

Born and raised in Ohio, I couldn’t wait to leave the lingering Winters and cold wet Springs. During Spring break in my last year of nursing school I visited Richmond and fell in love with all the blooming Spring flowers that were still yet to be just poking their heads above the ground back in central Ohio.  That sold me. I’ve lived in Virginia for about 22 years total except for the 15 year stay in Cary, North Carolina. It was the plants that drew me to the area and one of the big reasons I’ve stayed.

Living in the South I wanted to plant trees that I thought identified me as a Southerner. My picks? Pecan, Pawpaw, Magnolia, Peach and White Oak.  I wanted White Oak dripping with Spanish moss, but this isn’t the climate to support the moss, so I settled for a sturdy White Oak that’s home to an amazing number of insects and birds.


Two things to know about Pecans (Carya illinoinensis): 1. They can take up to 15 years before producing their first nut and 2. Even though they have both male and female parts, they are NOT self-pollinating and need more than one cultivar to produce nuts. Mine took about 13 years before producing the first nut even though I got a grafted one that is supposed to bear much earlier. Even with the late start they give a large crop every other year. They taste wonderful on their own and can also be made into flour and used in baking. They support the local animal population, gives cooling shade and are de-lish in numerous sweet and savory recipes.


Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)? I fell in love with their name when I read Beyond the Pawpaw Trees as a child. Four things to know about Pawpaws: 1. You need two cultivars for pollination, and they grow about 25 feet tall. 2. It takes anywhere from 2-8 years for them start to bear fruit and then they really produce! The fruit tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana and has the consistency of a soft custard with several large seeds. The fruit doesn’t keep long so you need to use them soon after harvesting. 3) If you want to go to a fun event in August, North Carolina celebrates the native Pawpaws with their annual Pawpaw Festival.  4. It also serves as a host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly (Erytides marcellus).


What’s not to love about a Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)? For a start, their scent, their rich color year-round and their thick-petaled flowers, plus interesting seed cones. There is a wide array of cultivars but I’m focusing on the Southern Magnolia which can grow up to 80 feet and, like the Oak and Pecan, can live for years.

Magnolia is an ancient genus. Appearing before bees did, the flowers are theorized to have evolved to encourage pollination by beetles.  Magnolia bark extract is used in both Japanese and Chinese medicine to treat a range of issues such asthma, depression, headaches and muscle pain. Like the Oak, it provides a place of refuge for birds, squirrels, and rabbits and the seed cones are a source of Winter food for furry creatures.


When I think of Peach (Prunus persica) I think of sweet juiciness. But there’s more to peach trees than just the fruit. Being a member of the Rose family, it shares the cooling and soothing properties of that group. The leaf, bark and flower have a long history in Appalachian herbal medicine to help cool heating conditions in both the respiratory and digestive areas. With hot days the digestion can get irregular and/or you experience a lot of dryness and scratchiness in the throat. Peach leaf tea would be a refreshing drink.

The main thing to know about growing peaches: They need a LOT of tending if growing them organically. They require pruning, fertilizing and regular spraying with clays and natural anti-fungals throughout the growing season to keep them from getting overrun with fungus and bugs. Peach borers are the biggest problem and will, over time, kill the tree. I constantly monitored for peach borers and was aggressive in treating them for several years, but the borers got the best of me. Too much work. I no longer grow peaches, but the love remains!

White Oak

Last, but not least, is the White Oak (Quercus alba). This is more prevalent in the South and many places have their beloved White Oak (think Charleston, SC for one). Up through 1916 White Oak bark was listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia for its astringent (dries and tightens/tones) and antiseptic properties. It’s an approved diarrhea treatment by the German Commission E and is listed on the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list for both topical and oral applications. So, how does it do all these things?

One of its’ main constituents are tannins (scientific name is polyphenols), a potent antioxidant that can also be found in wines (think the aging of wine in new oak barrels vs older oak barrels), cheeses and teas. It gives a drying sensation in the mouth in addition to other parts of the body, which is the medicine of oak. The bark is dried to make a tea, extract or powder to treat diarrhea, dysentery, internal bleeding, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, burns, eczema, bladder and vaginal infections.

Other benefits? It’s a great shade tree: it provides homes and food for numerous insects, birds and mammals; its wood is strong and sturdy (think of the great cathedrals of Europe built using oak); the acorns can be used to either as a flour or as a coffee substitute and the leaves can be used in pickling to keep them firm.

Hopefully this will give you some ideas about what to plant, but more importantly, why you want to plant a specific tree or shrub. Just because it’s the top trending landscape plant doesn’t mean it fits your home or the area. What are your top trees/shrubs?



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