Fast Growing Shade Trees
When trying to find information about fast-growing shade trees, there are some recommendations that you should avoid. Some of these so-called fast-growing shade trees are invasive non-native species or otherwise have negative characteristics that make them poor choices for the average home.
While fast growth is a desirable quality of a shade tree when you need to get results sooner, there are some drawbacks to many of the really fast growing species. Many of these, by virtue of their increased growth rate, produce poor quality wood and are weak trees by nature. A prime example of this is the Bradford Pear, which is so popular in my part of the country. These trees grow fast and can reach a decent height, but they have poor branch structure coupled with weak wood. This results in wind damage being common to this species, and not a strong storm has passed through here without seeing multiple homes with this type of tree where half of it has broken off. This may not kill the tree, but it effectively ruins its aesthetic value as well as reducing its shade production.
So which fast growing shade trees should I select for my yard? The following is not a comprehensive list, but it includes some very popular trees that have a high rate of growth and have few or no negative characteristics. Most of them also grow in a wide range of the U.S., so they are adaptable to many yards.
My Favorite Fast-Growing Shade Trees
Red Maple Acer rubrum – The Red Maple tree is a beautiful tree that is an ideal shade tree. The larger leaves and density of foliage make the shade from this species nearly complete, so don't try too hard to keep grass growing underneath it. These trees grow to a medium size, but some cultivars have a wide spread that one needs to be mindful of when considering placement. Fun fact: this happens to be the same type of tree used to produce maple syrup. Red Maples grow at a rate of 3–5 feet per year and mature at an average height of 60' with a 40' spread, but larger trees are not uncommon. This one is my favorite and the one I ended up planting due to its intense fall color. There are various cultivars with different ranges of color from fiery red to blaze orange to one that is nearly purple!
River Birch Betula nigra – The River Birch tree can be a very striking landscape tree in wintertime due to its cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark. This paper-like bark has always been one of my favorite qualities of any tree, but the River Birch will grow nearly anywhere. They are commonly sold as a multi-trunk tree and with their smaller leaves cast a slightly less dense shade. If your goal is to have an ornamental capable of doubling as a shade tree, then this is the perfect choice. These typically grow 3–4 feet per year and will reach an average height of 50' with a 40' spread at maturation.
Thornless Honeylocust Gleditsia triacanthos inermis – The Thornless Honeylocust has a terrible name, but is one of the best choices due to its fine leaves and fragrant spring flowers. The shade this tree casts is more open and allows dappled sun exposure so grass can grow underneath. It is also great in the fall since the leaves don't require raking as they are small and decompose quickly. Thornless Honeylocust trees grow at about 3–5 feet per year and reach an average mature size of 70' tall and 40' wide.
Lacebark Elm Ulmus parvifolia – The Lacebark Elm also known as the Chinese Elm is a non-native species I can recommend, but there is a reason. Dutch Elm disease has all but wiped out the beautiful American Elms across North America, and the Lacebark was imported as a replacement. It has very similar characteristics, and is resistant to the Dutch Elm disease. It is another tree with some winter interest due to the exfoliating bark, hence its name. It is a hardy tree that can grow in a wide variety of soils. These trees are the slowest growing of my list with a rate of less than 3 feet per year, but Elms are the quintessential shade tree and require inclusion in any mention of ideal species. Mature size averages 60' high and 40' wide.
Maidenhair (Ginkgo) Ginkgo biloba – The Ginkgo tree is another recommended non-native tree that is a gorgeous tree for a number of reasons. First, it is an ancient species originating on the Asian continent where specimens over two thousand years old exist, and has a leaf structure unlike almost any other tree you will see. They are golden in the fall, and they have an interesting growth habit which, like many conifers, is pyramidal in habit with regularly-spaced branches. In fact, the Ginkgo is the only living link between lower and higher plants, and has qualities of both conifers and deciduous trees while scientifically being neither. It just doesn't get more unique in the kingdom of trees than the Ginkgo. They grow around 3 feet per year and mature around 60' tall and 35' wide although much taller specimens are not uncommon.
Tuliptree (Yellow Poplar) Liriodendron tulipifera – The Yellow Poplar is a stately tree. It gets its name from the leaves which are shaped like the silhouette of a tulip flower. It actually produces greenish-yellow flowers in the spring, but since these trees grow quite tall the flowers usually aren't very visible. This is the tallest of the Eastern hardwoods, and only conifers grow taller on average in North America. It grows at a rate of up to 8 feet per year with a spread at maturity of 40', and it can top out over 100'.
Weeping Willow Salix babylonica– The Weeping Willow is one of the most recognizable trees around, and its long sweeping branches with their low-hanging weeping habit is prized by many. I left it for last because it isn't necessarily the best choice in all cases, but it does meet the requirements of fast growing shade trees in that it does grow quite fast and produce a lot of shade. Its roots can be invasive to pipes and sewers and they have a habit of growing into such structures when unwanted causing underground damage. It grows 4–8 feet per year and averages 30' tall and 30' wide, but larger specimens are common.
Fast-Growing Shade Trees to Avoid
I will conclude this list of fast growing shade trees with some species to avoid:
Box Elder Acer negundo
Royal Empress Paulownia elongata
Bradford Pear Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford'
Mimosa Albizia julibrissin
Silver Maple Acer saccharinum
Leyland Cypress Cupressocyparis leylandii
Lombardy Poplar Populus nigra
Black Locust Robinia pseudoacacia
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.