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5 Trees to Look For in Your Neighborhood

Oaks and maples are the most prominent families in the streetside forests of DC, but the city’s planting program has been fostering some interesting upstarts.
Illustrations by Lauren Joseph.

1. Red Maple, Acer rubrum

Size: 60 to 75 feet tall, 25-to-35-foot spread

Life Span: 130 years

Description: The most common tree species in the District, making up nearly 10 percent of its street trees, these super-generalists grow that one arborist calls them “weedy.” In summer, they produce samaras; in fall, they turn orange-yellow to fiery red.

2. Sweet Gum, Liquidambar styraciflua

Size: 65 to 115 feet tall, 45-foot spread

Life Span: 200 years

Description: Aromatic, with a star-shaped, five-lobed leaf, sweet gums represent less than 1 percent of DC street trees but are being planted rapidly in public spaces. The city typically plants sterile forms, which don’t drop nuisance samaras (winged seed pods), but look for its spiky round “gumball” and red fall colors.

3. Scarlet Oak, Quercus coccinea

Size: 60 to 75 feet tall, 45-to-60-foot spread

Life Span: 80 years

Description: The official tree of the District, the scarlet oak appears in neighborhoods throughout the city but is most common in Ward 4 and found in massive plantings on the Capitol grounds. Leaves turn scarlet in fall; the acorn can be identified by its extensive cap.

4. Willow Oak, Quercus phellos

Size: More than 100 feet tall, 35-foot spread

Life Span: 100-plus years

Description: These enormous, hardy oaks with deeply grooved bark and narrow, willow-like leaves share nothing with true willows other than their affinity for water. The third-most common tree on District streets after pin oak, they drop a small acorn and turn yellowish in the fall.

5. Okame Cherry, Prunus x incam “Okame”

Size: 15 to 20 feet tall, 20-foot spread

Life Span: 100-plus years

Description: A delicate, decorative non-native that blooms in early spring, this cherry is popular around DC and with arborists. The tree’s tiny fruit is too bitter even for birds; in autumn the leaves turn a lovely copper.

See Also:
Tree Whisperers: Meet the DC Employees Who Watch Over Our Trees

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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