5 Worst Messy Trees for the Lazy Landscaper
Almost everyone loves a beautiful tree. They offer us shade and sometimes fruit in the summer and windbreaks in the winter. In the spring, they might produce lovely flowers, and in the autumn, some brilliantly colored leaves.
Like every pretty thing though, trees require maintenance. They need to be trimmed and pruned when their branches hang low, and someone has to clean up after they have shed their flowers, leaves, and other baubles.
Trees That Don't Shed vs. Trees That Do
There are two main kinds of tree: deciduous and evergreen. The former lose all their leaves in fall and winter, while the latter keeps them pretty much year round, losing them very gradually. As you can imagine, evergreen trees are far less messy!
Keep in mind, however, that while evergreen trees may not shed their leaves the same way, they can drop petals, needles, and fruit, so there is still a bit of maintenance and cleanup required. If you want a truly no-maintenance tree, you'll have to go artificial!
5 Messy Trees Not to Plant in Your Yard
When you buy that new home in April, you might not realize that those majestic trees that won your heart at the showing may eventually make you despise your yard. If you hate extra lawn care as much as I do, then here are five specimens you may want to avoid.
- Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
- Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
- Pecan (Carya illinoinensis)
- Oak (genus Quercus)
- Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)
Keep scrolling to learn why these trees are such a pain. At the bottom of the page, you will find a list of more messy trees to avoid, as well as a list of comparatively low-maintenance trees.
1. Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
As a Southerner, it is very difficult to insult this beautiful and traditional tree. Magnolias are a traditional element in southern landscaping. At one time, ladies wanted to keep their skin as creamy and white as the flowers of this tree.
It is one of the prettiest trees in the world. It makes a distinct sound when the wind blows through the leaves and it produces large, white flowers that fill the air with sweet perfume. The seeds are a striking cherry-red color, and the bark pattern is uniquely textured.
Daily Debris Cleanup
When I was younger, we moved to a farm with five of these elegant belles. They were old and dignified and planted right against the house. Every morning, (and I do mean EVERY morning) of the year, they had shed enough small branches to create small brush piles. I don't know how they managed to never look bare. I do know we never had to gather kindling wood for the winter because it was always available just outside the door.
In addition to the twigs and branches, they shed their leaves. Magnolia leaves are crisp and waxy even when green, which made raking them very difficult. It was easier to poke them with a sharp stick.
And those sweet, white flowers? The petals were leathery, wet, and tough. You didn't want to mow over too many of them, because they would congeal under the mower and create a mess. Plus, the pollen in the center of the flower left the whole yard covered in what looked to be little matchsticks.
Beware the Magnolia Cones
So why did we bother to rake up all the leaves and petals when we lived "way out in the boonies"? Because lurking under that innocent carpet lay the dreaded magnolia cones. I suppose in some places the cones are seasonal, but in southeast Oklahoma, they fell all year. Step on an unseen cone, and you were asking for a broken ankle. Hit one with the mower? If it didn't ruin the blades, then it was slung out and into something else. LIke a window, perhaps.
Unlike pine cones, magnolia cones are not brittle. They are like baseballs, easily capable of taking out a window or knocking a person unconscious.
Cleaning up the magnolia litter was a dreaded chore. All of the cones had to be gathered daily by hand, and disposal was a challenge. Whereas the wood, flowers, and leaves would all burn easily (the leaves sound like fire-crackers, by the way, if anyone would like to try) the cones would not burn. Hundreds of cones a week were collected and eventually piled on a back acre. They were still there after a decade, and I suppose they are still there now.
Magnolia Tree Planting Tips
This doesn't mean magnolias should be discounted. They are enjoyable, ornamental trees. My recommendation, however, would be to plant them a safe distance from your yard. At the very least, plant them as far away as possible from common foot traffic areas to prevent stepping on cones.
You could also try planting a Little Gem Magnolia, also known as the dwarf Southern magnolia. It will still create the same mess as its larger relative, but on a much smaller scale.
- State tree of Mississippi
- State flower of Louisiana
- Lent its name and grace to the film Steel Magnolias, a popular drama
- Fossilized remains of Magnolias have been found dating back 68 million years
2. Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
The sweet gum tree is often planted as an ornamental tree. It has brilliantly colored autumn foliage, much like the maple tree, which makes it stand out when trees start putting on their fall fashion show.
Sweet Gum Seeds and Fruit
The seeds and fruit from this tree are one and the same, commonly known as gum balls (and not the nice kind). These spiky balls are one reason you might not want to plant sweet gums too close to the house. If you have one of the non-sterile varieties, it will shed not only its leaves, but also thousands of "gum balls". Gum balls may sound appetizing, but in reality, they are neither sweet nor edible.
They are hard, brown, spiky balls that can create some serious hazards. Not only can they wound you if you slip and fall onto them, but they can also roll unexpectedly, causing sprained ankles . . . and the above-mentioned slips and falls.
What's worse, these sweet gum balls (again, not to be confused with sweet gumballs!) are nearly impossible to rake, meaning they almost always have to be picked up by hand. I saw a yard once that was bordered by 12 sweet gum trees. The owner declared that it took the entire family two weeks every year to pick up only the majority of balls.
Not a good idea to hit them with the riding mower either. When airborne, they are as dangerous as grenades. Like magnolia cones, the balls don't break down easily in compost or a rubbish pile. And yes, they can be sharp enough to pierce through gardening gloves, a thin shoe sole...and definitely skin.
Sap, Sap, Sap
I don't know about cooler climates, but in the Oklahoman heat, sweet gum trees ooze amber sap that sticks to your shoes when you walk across the yard.
Then all the leaves, dirt, and other outside debris sticks to the resin and tracks into your house. If you think you worked hard getting the yard cleaned up, wait until you try removing sweet gum sap from a carpet. (Or from your car!)
Pros of Sweet Gum Trees
However, the tree has some beneficial properties. Its infertile seed pods contain shikimic acid, used to synthesize Tamiflu, a drug used to prevent or alleviate influenza infections.
The sweet gum balls can also be turned into interesting craft projects—a far more common use for the tree's dried seed pods. 50 or so of these seed pods can be glued together to form a topiary, basket, or wreath for a Thanksgiving decoration. That only leaves you approximately 98,456 gum balls left for disposal.
Tree sap can do extensive damage to the paint on your house and car. It can also stain driveways, patios, landscaping, and outdoor furniture.
3. Pecan (Carya illinoinensis)
Who doesn't like pecans? They are a delicious nut! This is no doubt why people thought it was handy to plant pecan trees close to their houses. Just step outside, and there will be all the pecans you can eat right for the taking! Don't forget that pecan wood smells heavenly in a fireplace, and when used in a smoker gives meat a savory flavor. So how could a pecan tree be bad?
Pecan Trees Shed Everything From Leaves to Branches
Like the catalpa tree, the pecan tree sheds just about everything. Older trees, which produce more bountiful crops, are very brittle, especially in a dry season.
They don't just shed twigs, either. A heavy wind or ice storm will take out whole branches, some of which are the size of small trees themselves. Not that really bad weather is needed . . . I have seen some reasonably young, supposedly supple pecans drop branches in just a light thunderstorm.
They also deposit an absolutely incredible tonnage of leaves, and not just a few at a time. It will seem as though every leaf on the tree counted to three and then let go, all at once.
These leaves are small, and will easily clog gutters. They can also work their way into crevices on your automobile where they cause some problems. Somewhere under that knee-deep crunchy carpet though, lie your prized delicacies . . . the pecans.
The Pecans Require Lots of Work
But pecans don't fall off the tree looking like the un-shelled versions you buy at the store for the holidays. They are encased in two shells! The first one is a dark, armor-plated outer shell (may be green when it first falls) If you find the pecans still imprisoned thusly, you have to either wait for this husk to fall off, or you have to work a little harder for your snack.
If the outer shells have already fallen off, then you will have a million of these too. Watch out for them when you are digging for pecans; these shells can have sharp points that will puncture a tennis shoe sole. Ouch!
If you love pecans, then having your own tree is probably worth the work for you. You won't mind the damage to your roof from a fallen branch, or the garage full of leaves.
Unbelievably Sticky Sap
You might, however, mind the yellow coating of adhesive sap that just coated your car. Not to mention the sticky pollen that coated the sap and created a pasty substance that will eventually eat the paint. This pollen/sap mixture can actually be sticky enough to rip apart a windshield wiper blade if you accidentally turn on the wipers before scraping the glass!
If none of this bothers you, then you will gather your nuts with joy and think of pecan pies . . . and I hope you really like pecan pies. One lovely old pecan tree that I know all too well once produced over 100 pounds of shelled pecans one season. That, my friends, is a lot of pecan pies.
NOTE: Pecan trees are also inviting to web worms, and you will often find worms and other bugs under the dense carpet of leaves, inside the husks, and burrowed into the pecans.
And as a final gift, you may find your yard covered in tons of baby pecan trees.
4. Oak (genus Quercus)
It was hard to include the great oak tree in this list because it is such a wonderful tree. I love oak trees for their shade, their amazing size, and of course all the folklore and legends that surround them.
Acorns, Leaves, and Branches
Some oak trees can dwell unobtrusively in your yard, dropping only their leaves and a few twigs now and then. Others, however, produce acorns, which are very fascinating, but difficult to rake up.
Some oak trees are sturdier than others. For years we had very large, old oaks that rarely lost a twig during high winds. Now I have an oak tree that can drop a tree-sized limb if someone sneezes inside the house.
Prone to Lightning Strikes
According to the forestry service, oaks are more likely than other trees to be struck by lightning, (with beeches being the least likely.) Whether this is due to their height, or the fact that there are more species of oaks in some places than other trees, it is still something to take into consideration if you have an oak planted too close to your house.
Note: Like sweet gum balls, acorns (and pecans too) can be used in a variety of craft projects. Be sure to toast nuts and seed pods in the oven before you decide to paint them or glue them to a wreath. If you don't, you might walk in one day to find the nuts are speckled with holes, and your centerpiece crawling with little worms. If you'd rather cook than craft, you can also make your own acorn flour.
5. Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)
The catalpa tree, (also known as a catawba tree) is a fairly common tree, so much so, in fact, that it is often considered a "weed" in certain areas. I don't personally know of anyone who plants them intentionally, especially near houses, but that doesn't mean you are safe from their presence.
Catalpa Leaves, Flowers, and . . . Worms
This tree has very large, heart-shaped leaves, which look incredibly lush and well-groomed during the spring and summer. They almost look too perfect, like drawings where each leaf is painstakingly reproduced.
They also produce fluffy white flowers and long, skinny seed pods. And they are home to the catalpa worm. Make that worms.
A single tree can be covered in thousands of these grotesque little creatures (which are actually caterpillars), earning the catalpa the nickname of "fish bait" tree. The worms make excellent bait . . . but you won't have much time to go fishing if you have one or two of these trees.
Massive Cleanup Required
The catalpa tree sheds the large green leaves all year in heavy breezes. In fall or after a drought, one or two trees can completely bury a yard in gigantic brown leaves. They also shed twigs and bark, and in the spring, those pretty white flowers explode across the lawn, making it look as though a Styrofoam bead factory exploded on your grass.
While you are busy raking leaves and twigs and large chunks of bark, you will also find the seed pods. Don't forget to watch for the worms. If you brush up against the leaves, you might find yourself covered in little friends.
Worst Messy Tree Features
Sheds Flowers, Fruit, Other Debris?
Draws Lightning or Is Weak?
Weak limbs/draws lightning
Which of these is your least favorite messy tree?
More Messy Trees to Avoid
- Eucalyptus Trees: In addition to having shallow root systems and brittle branches, these trees are extremely messy. The bark is constantly peeling off, leaving a mess of dried bark below.
- Redwood Trees: In addition to ruining sidewalks and foundations and choking out any other plant life by blocking the sun, redwood trees are incredibly messy. They never stop dropping needle-like leaves, and they are prone to dropping branches during storms.
- Bottlebrush Trees: The bottlebrush-like flowers of this tree shed like no other, and due to their soft nature, they're extremely difficult to clean up. You'll end up with thousands of red, needle-like bits stuck here, there, and everywhere.
- Mimosa Trees: This tree is brittle, yielding branches that frequently break off even in slight storms. In addition to dropping branches, leaves, and flowers, it also drops lots of seeds, so you may quickly end up with more mimosas than you bargained for.
- Mulberry Tree: These trees produce an incredible amount of pollen, which will coat not only your car and lawn, but is likely to infiltrate your home as well, making "dusting" an even more frequent chore. The pollen from this tree also attracts an army of different insects who are also likely to make their way inside. Yuck.
- Linden Trees: These trees secrete sap like no other. Just one of these trees can coat your car, your lawn, your walkway—everything—in a sticky film of sap.
- Tulip Trees: Also known as tulip poplars, these trees drop something in every season—flowers in spring, sap in summer, leaves and seedpods in fall, and sticks in winter. In short, these trees are a mess year round.
- Plum Trees: Unless you can somehow pick and eat them fast enough, a plum tree is going to litter the ground around it with innumerable sticky, squishy plum lumps. They're about as fun to clean up as they are to step in. Unfortunately, this isn't only the case with plum trees, so unless you plan on starting your own jam company, it's probably best to avoid planting a fruit tree of any kind.
- Bradford Pear: A popular ornamental tree, this one can make the yard look a snowstorm in late spring when the flowers fall. It also sheds leaves throughout the year, and gobs of them in fall. The limbs can also be brittle, and it puts up a lot of annoying suckers.
Before I Make Like a Tree and Leave . . .
All trees have their pros and cons. If you have large, well-established trees, you may tolerate the cons because you are reticent to sacrifice the tree's shade for the time it takes a newer model to grow to adulthood.
If you do decide to take the plunge and replace those messy trees with lower-maintenance trees, you may have to wait a while before your landscape looks complete. Here are some recommended trees for us lazy landscapers, but keep in mind that while these trees don't shed as drastically as the five listed above, they do still drop leaves, fruit, flowers, etc. The only truly no-maintenance trees are the ones made of plastic (and even those require a little dusting from time to time!).
Low-Maintenance Trees That Don't Shed Their Leaves in Fall:
- Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
- Crabapple (genus Malus)
- Pine (genus Pinus)
- Spruce (genus Picea)
- Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis)
- Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
- Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
- Cedar (genus Cedrus)
- And of course, don't forget those lightning-safe beeches (genus Fagus)!
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.
© 2012 Jayme Kinsey