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10 Best Shade Trees to Plant in Alberta

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  • January 17, 2017
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I live in the 60-year old neighbourhood of Grandview, in Red Deer.  It recently occurred to me that I should walk around the streets and alleys of my neighbourhood to see what remains of the original trees in my area.  Surely, the best shade trees must be the ones that are still around after 6 decades.  So which species have endured?

Spruce (white and Colorado blue)

By far, my community is dominated by mature spruce trees, and we have some very beautiful specimens.  Most are probably middle age, so without significant in-fill activity, the neighbourhood should be well-treed with mature spruce for a long time.

Elm (American and Siberian)

Most of the remaining elms still look good after 60 years.  Quite a few of the city elms have a cabling system in the tree to correct for poor structure.  Not much was known about structural pruning 60 years ago, so trunk weaknesses are common.  Both species of elm, but especially Siberian, spread by seed, and there are many elms that have matured close to structures and fences and odd places, that were clearly not planted there.  From a survivability standpoint, if we were to abandon the neighbourhood, these self-seeding trees would be here long after we left.

Manitoba Maple

Another self-seeder.  It is difficult to determine which maples were originally planted by homeowners, and which came up as volunteers over the years.  Needless to day, Manitoba maple is a very tough, adaptable, and enduring shade tree for our region.  Many people consider them weedy, and they definitely are, but easy to grow, and if properly maintained, a valuable, long-lasting shade tree.

Mountain Ash (American and European)

There are no shortage of old mountain ash trees in the neighbourhood.  Many are starting to look a bit ragged and decayed, but that is mainly due to neglect and lack of structural training in their early years.  With proper maintenance,  I believe many of these trees would be longer-lived.  Mountain ash also spreads by sucker and seed.

Ornamental Crabapple

Similar to mountain ash, I found many examples of old crabs and rosybloom crabs, neglected and messy, but otherwise healthy.  One of the oldest crabapples I’ve maintained is in Mirror, on the oldest residential property in town, and it is close to 100 years old, maybe more.  It is still in excellent health.  So I’m really not sure how long these trees will live, but barring an outbreak of fireblight, these trees are a good choice for longevity.

Pines (Lodgepole, ponderosa, Scots)

Although few in number, the ones I saw were in excellent health, and, like the spruce, probably around middle-age.  Lots of good years ahead for those.  A nice sight in a large, old back yard.  I even saw two old white pine, not in the best of health, but surviving.

Cedar (Arborvitae)

Many of the original cedars, planted right next to the house, are still around and in good health.  I suspect they are probably nowhere near the end of their lives.  Cedars can be a challenge to establish, but once they do, they can do well in shady, dry environments.  Most of them are growing in the dusty dirt next to the foundation.

Green Ash

There aren’t many green ash in my community, but most of the ones we have are as old as the neighbourhood, I’m sure.  I expect some of them have another 20-30 years in them.

Laurel Leaf Willow

Most of the old willows in my area have been mutilated at least once over the years, which has undoubtedly shortened their lifespans, and made them more hazardous.  Despite that, many still remain.  Our oldest willow in town is over a 100 years old and looks fine.

Balsam Poplar

I was surprised to see so many old, healthy balsam poplars.  This is typically a hated tree species in Alberta, but despite their reputation, many of them are long-lived and in a lot better health than many of the surrounding trees.


Old cutleaf weeping birch are non-existent in my neighbourhood, but a few really great specimens of the native paper birch remain.  A friend, and long-time native plant grower, explained to me that the reason for good longevity of the paper birches is that back in 50’s, the plant material came from good local seed sources, and was better suited to our region.  I’m reluctant to plant birch of any kind anymore, due to the high incidence of birch leaf miner and bronze birch borer in Red Deer.  However, paper birch is much more resistant to both insects than weeping birch.

Other Notables

Interspersed among all the above-mentioned trees, I found a few excellent specimens of old (probably original) silver maple, bur oak, linden, and tatarian maple.

If you’re thinking of using any of the trees I’ve mentioned in this blog, keep in mind that the mature size of many of these species are not appropriate for the smaller yards of today’s neighbourhoods, with the exception of flowering crabapples, mountain ash varieties, certain pines, cedars, certain cultivars of spruce, tatarian maple, and possibly ‘Patmore’ elm, due to its tight vase-shape.

Kind of makes me wonder what these newer neighbourhoods are going to look like 20 years from now.  Probably not great.  Which brings me to my next blog.

(c) 2017 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB