Thanks to balmy summers and mild winters, the Virginia Beach area is bursting with exceptional native tree species. Narrowing the choice of which to plant on your property can be tricky, so we’ve the homework to help make it easy for you.
Virginia Tech horticulture professor and extension specialist Dr. Roger Harris recommends planting smaller trees if you have the patience to wait for them to mature. “Smaller trees transplant better than larger trees,” he says. “Transplanting larger trees is stressful to the tree because 95% of the root system is removed when the tree is dug.”
While there are many other trees to choose from, these are the best native trees to plant in Virginia Beach.
Topping out at 25 to 40 feet, this slow-growing understory tree thrives in full sun or part shade. While incredibly resilient to drought, the one thing this tough tree (pictured above) cannot tolerate is salt spray. Hophornbeams erupt into white catkins in April, and the leaves change to yellow and reddish-orange in fall. In winter, the unusual reddish, flaking bark adds a little seasonal interest.
This fast-growing, large canopy tree can reach heights of 75 to 100 feet, so it needs a lot of space. It has lush, green leaves and tolerates wet and saturated soils. Fall colors hit sycamores early, and so does leaf fall. Known for their distinctive creamy-white and camouflage-patterned trunks, these are stately trees that look great in winter.
The largest native of the cherry trees, black cherry trees are beautiful and ornamental. Growing to between 40 and 75 feet tall, these trees have canopies that spread anywhere from 30 and 60 feet wide. They tolerate full sun to full shade and can tolerate moist or dry soils. Black cherries burst into delicate white blooms from May to June and then form lustrous, dark fruit from late summer to mid-fall.
Fast-growing and beautifully shaped, redbud trees are fantastic understory trees. Try layering one beneath a large canopy tree for texture and color. Growing as high as 30 feet, the umbrella-shaped canopy is typically as wide as the tree is high. From April to May, the branches of this ornamental tree burst into brilliant color with tight clusters of deep pink flowers. Even in winter, the graceful shape of the redbud’s trunk and branches create visual interest. Native to riverbanks and woodlands, redbud trees prefer well-drained soils that are moist and fertile. Another benefit? This tree attracts native bees and pollinators aplenty when in bloom.
This is one of the faster-growing oak trees, making it an ideal shade tree for the yard. Long-lived and tolerant of a wide range of soils, the scarlet oak grows to 115 feet with a 40-50 foot spread. With yellowish-green catkins in the spring, reddish-brown acorns in summer, and brilliant scarlet foliage in the fall, this is a tree for all seasons.
This visually stunning tree can grow 30 to 70 feet tall, with a 10 to 25-foot crown. Thriving in full sun to shade, a sourwood performs best in well-drained to dry, acidic soils. With small, bell-shaped white flowers in spring and deep red leaves in autumn, sourwood trees are a beauty throughout the year.
This showy, ornamental Virginia native has glossy evergreen leaves and reaches heights between 12 and 30 feet. The magnificent, large flowers of the sweetbay magnolia start out as reddish buds, then burst into showy white flowers that are fragrant and long-lasting. They appear in May and last well into July. Performing best in moist, rich, acidic soils, these iconic Southern trees prefer part shade.
Fast-growing and long-lived, this multiple-trunked tree adds great year-round visual interest to gardens. Its distinctive, silvery peeling bark and cinnamon-colored trunk stand out. Its foliage in the fall turns yellow, and in the spring, it erupts in red and green catkins. The river birch is also a host for hundreds of butterfly species and attracts songbirds in the fall with its small seeds. It grows well in sun to part shade, and thrives in moist, acidic soils–either sandy or clay is fine. While many trees and plants struggle to thrive in the local sandy soils, river birch will perform well even without any amendments to poor, sandy soil.
Perfect for yards that don’t receive full sun, the red maple tops out at 100 feet with a 30 to 70-foot wide canopy. Its leaves are beautifully shaped, and the small, red flowers that cover the tree in spring go on to form lovely brownish-yellow seedpods in summer. The red, orange, and yellow fall colors of this native maple tree are unmatched in vibrancy. Red maples do best planted in wet clay, loamy or sandy soils, but can tolerate dry soils.
No list would be complete without at least one conifer. Well-suited to poor, dry soils, the Virginia pine is a hardy, sun-loving conifer that can reach heights of up to 100 feet. With a twisted trunk and a rugged character, this pine is best grown as an edge tree on large lots where it will add value to the wildlife as a food source.
When you’re selecting trees and plants for your Virginia Beach site, go native when you can. Not only are these trees best suited to the region, but they provide valuable habitat for native wildlife. Choose the best native trees to plant in Virginia Beach and look forward to decades of enjoyment, watching them thrive.
Dr. Roger Harris is a Virginia Tech professor of horticulture and an Extension Specialist in woody plants. His research focuses on woody landscape plants from the time they’re planted in the nursery until they’re established in the landscape. His goal is to help people create environmentally sustainable landscapes.