Top 8 Flowering Trees for Houston & the Gulf Coast

I, Randy Lemmon, openly admit I love Top Ten Lists!!! Sometimes, there’s not quite 10, but we’ll always do at least 5.  This is the year for the Top Eight Small Flowering Trees for Houston and Gulf Coast Gardening.

Yes, there are lots of other flowering trees than this Top 8 list, but they are usually really big or fraught with peril.  A perfect example of this is the Huisache (pronounced: WEE-Satch). It’s pretty in April but looks pathetic the rest of the year. And other than being beneficial to pollinators, it doesn’t serve many landscape purposes, mainly because of its prolific 2-inch thorns.

So with that said, here’s the Top 7 Small Flowering Trees (plus one single honorable mention):

Crape Myrtle – (Lagerstroemia indica)

I don’t want to split hairs here, because while some Crape Myrtles can get quite big there are a number of varieties that mature at 10-15 feet. No matter what, never plant a Crape Myrtle next to a pool, and if you ignore this advice, you’ll find out soon why we say not to. So many different colors but you’ll mainly find pinks and reds in the medium sized crapes. This is a great link to Texas A&M’s site that groups all Crapes by height

Red Bud – (Cercis canadensis)

Probably the standard-bearer in all of Texas when it comes to “small flowering trees”. Interesting though that the blooms are like a dark pink to an almost purple in some cases, and some may even call them a day-glow pink! They really aren’t red now are they? Still, it’s one of the first flowering small trees that anyone new to Texas learns the name of, when it’s truly in bloom. It has also gone by many other names such as Cercis Species, Eastern Redbud, Canadian Redbud and even Judas Tree. It’s also a good indicator that spring has sprung when it’s in full bloom.

Flowering Plum – (Prunus cerasefera)

On a personal level, this has always been my favorite flowering tree, not just because of the beautiful pink and white flowers that cover this beauty in early spring, but because it’s followed by these deep purple (one might even say – Dark Maroon) leaves for the rest of the year, until a freeze hits and it goes deciduous. But even when leafless, they have an elegant structure to the branch growth and spread. That way it doesn’t look like a scraggly creature in the dead of winter. There are many varieties of Mexican Plum, or Flowering Plums that are only ornamental and not fruit-producing, but for landscaping purposes I’d stick with the Prunus cerasefera variety.

Chinese Fringe – (Chionanthus spp)

A highly prized small tree, especially in its first 20 years of life, with upright branches forming a dome shape. Soft green leaves back magnificent clusters of fragrant, fringe-like blooms. I can’t imagine any “Asian-themed” landscape along the Gulf Coast without one. I’ve seen 50+ year old ones much bigger than 15 feet in the Tanglewood and River Oaks part of Houston. They get looked over a lot because, well, they only bloom in white. But of all the white blooming choices, it’s by far the best and most resilient. And while most of the other blooming small trees in this collection happen in March or April, the Fringe Tree waits until May and June to put on its show of flowers.

Flowering Crabapple – (Rosacea Malus)

I love it when this tree blooms in the greater Houston area in March and April, and it’s a decent size tree, never too big and never too little. Usually, it has white blooms but there have been a few light pink variations in years past. In other parts of the country there are some very bright pink to reddish blooming ones, but ‘David’ is the best of the hundreds of varieties of all Crabapples, because it has staying power here in SE Texas, where most crabapples cannot survive our heat and humidity. I think more people should plant them, but again, only the white ones.

Photo Credit: Randy Lemmon
Saucer Magnolia – (Magnolia soulangeana)

Imagine a miniature magnolia tree but with leaves that aren’t near as thick and leathery as a Southern Magnolia. Now, imagine it’ll never get bigger than say 15 feet tall. Lastly, imagine these small magnolias covered with these amazing, but large tulip-like flowers (also why it’s nicknamed “Tulip Tree”) that lay out in colors from white to soft pink to bright pink to almost purple. That’s because there are well over 50 varieties of these flowering trees for the south. It is one of the classiest blooming trees we have to play with because of its compact, upright growing ability, with a nearly pyramidal form. Plus, few trees say “Spring is almost here!” as do the showy deciduous magnolias. This group of fine, ornamental small trees put on a display of colorful flowers long before the first leaf buds unfold. es sites, and can be used for an accent, or even a large hedge. Teddy Bear (‘Southern Charm’) is another. There are other compact varieties of Southern Magnolia, but they may be harder to find.

Photo Credit: Randy Lemmon
Vitex – (Vitex agnus-castus)

One of the more fun aspects of the Vitex, specifically for garden advice givers such as myself, is all the other names this tree is truly known by. “Texas Lilac Vitex”, “Texas Lilac”, “Vitex”, “Hemp Tree”, “Sage Tree”, “Indian Spice” or “Chaste Tree”. With mostly profuse spikes of lavender flowers, and as noted earlier, nicknamed the Texas Lilac Tree, it’s hard for first timers not to fall in love with this tree. Unlike the Crape Myrtle, it is not prone to insects and/or diseases, but it is essentially limited to one color. Yes, there are some cultivars with a white bloom cluster, but they simple don’t stand out as well as the blue-ish/purple ones of the standard Vitex. Also, it’s not near as messy as the Crape around pools.  It is semi-unattractive for a good 4 months out of the year as it’s deciduous nature to shed all its leave at first freeze and slow to flush out with leaves and blooms until the summer temperatures set in.

Photo Credit: Randy Lemmon
Dogwood – (Cornus florida) 

The sight of dogwoods in full bloom, highlighted against the darker backdrop of a wooded lot is one that is not easily forgotten. Dogwoods are highly regarded for their all-season interest and especially for their spectacular spring bloom. While this tree is beautiful with white, slightly trimmed with pink blooms, and makes a great understory tree for Gulf Coast gardens and landscapes, (that means it prefers shadier environments and no direct sun, it’s actually last on my list, unless you’re willing to keep the soil perfectly acidic. This is why dogwoods do well quite naturally in East and Northeast Texas, because the soil is naturally acidic… in the Gulf Coast gardening region, you will have to monitor that acidity if you want them to thrive.

And now, the Honorable Mention:

Photo Credit: Randy Lemmon
Mimosa – (Albizia julibrissin Durazz)

Yes, the blooms are amazing in color, structure and smell. But the tree is also fraught with peril from insects to diseases. Most people fall in the love with the blooms but then wonder why it always looks so scraggly for 11 other months out of the year. But I give it props for that amazing pom-pom, frilly peachy-pinky-colored blooms that actually have a peach like aroma too. They’re stunning. But the varieties that are sold these days seem unable to handle the heat and humidity that the heritage ones, seen to all over Texas, seem to have. And most of those are likely 50 years old and even older. It’s that heat and humidity of coastal Texas that seems to bring on those ravaging insect and diseases.