Tampa has more trees than any other city on the planet. That’s according to the MIT Senseable City Lab, which measures the size of the tree canopy in cities. It’s an honor Tampa takes seriously; the city will give you free shade and ornamental trees to plant in medians and other public right-of-ways in your neighborhood.
If you want to plant shade trees on your property, though, you will have to foot the bill. It’s money well-spent in terms of cooling your home and property and turning your yard into a tranquil and calming spot. But before you get ready to dig, here are some of the best shade trees for your Tampa yard.
Southern Live Oak
With a spread that measures up to 120 feet across, the Southern live oak (pictured above) is the grandmother of all shade trees. It covers a lot of ground because of its signature twisting, sprawling branches, which curl and bow in picturesque directions. Your kids will probably see it as a good climbing tree. This evergreen is native to Florida and all the Gulf Coast states. It also provides shelter and food for birds and small animals. It’s an excellent shade tree, but only if you have a yard large enough for it to reach full maturity.
The sugarberry, or sugar hackberry tree, is another Florida native that will spread out and provide plenty of shade. It can reach up to 70 feet tall, so make sure there are no power lines or other obstructions overhead. Even though it provides plenty of shade and attracts pollinators, like butterflies and bees, it’s not as popular as you might think. This could be because the young trees are kind of awkward-looking, and the species itself has a reputation for trunk rot.
That reputation might be a little overblown, according to Dr. Ed Gilman, professor emeritus in the Environmental Horticulture Department at the University of Florida. “Avoid pruning large branches from the trunk. This could injure the tree. But as long as you care for it properly, these trees can last for years.” He points out sugarberry is also a good host for mistletoe, giving you plenty of color in the winter. Keep in mind: Patience and planning pay off with the sugarberry tree.
You’ll get some pretty fall colors out of your sweetgum tree. It also can spread up to 50 feet across, making it an ideal large shade tree for your yard. It produces small, hard, brown fruit, which will attract birds, but those fruits can also leave behind a mess. Its star-shaped leaves can turn anything from a peach color to burgundy, depending on the variety. The “Festival” cultivar is one of the better-adapted ones to a more southern climate. But check with your local nursery to see what kind of sweetgum trees are available.
If you have a big yard in need of a big shade tree, the slash pine is perfect. This giant can get up to 100 feet tall and can spread up to 50 feet across. The slash pine is native to Gulf Coast and Atlantic coastal states and is often planted in groups to create piney woods. It’s ideal, according to Dr. Gilman, because it’s “a large, stately, heavily branched, long-needled conifer with a rapid growth rate.” Once planted, the slash pine will be casting shade in relatively little time.
At 90 feet high and 70 feet across, the American elm will cast plenty of shade wherever you plant it. It’s native to the eastern U.S. and can withstand a wide range of conditions. The young tree or sapling grows fast, sheltering your property from the harsh Florida sun in a few years. It’s also very long-lived and can stand for 300 years. But Gilman warns the American elm can fall prey to a lot of different pests and diseases, and you may need the help of an arborist to keep it healthy. It also needs frequent pruning to keep its branches strong.
Hillsborough County has its own list of approved shade trees that are beneficial for the local ecology and good for shade. You can also find similar lists for hedges, ornamental trees, and street trees. Foresters and arborists have been working for years to root out invasive species and encourage people to plant native and local when they can. These species will help the metropolitan area expand its thriving tree canopy — and keep Tampa Bay the greenest city in the world.
Dr. Ed Gilman taught at the University of Florida for more than 30 years and published more than 120 papers on tree care and landscape plants. He describes himself as “semi-retired,” no longer reaching, but still involved with University’s extension service in Gainesville, where he trains arborists in the proper pruning of trees.