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In honor of our Season of Trees, sponsored by International Paper, we launched Arbor Day Madness: Tournament of Trees on March 31. Sixteen trees went “branch-to-branch” as fans voted for the tree they wanted to advance to the next round. On Arbor Day, Arboretum director of operations Alan Branhagen announced that Sugar Maple earned the top slot, with an overwhelming majority of the vote over Eastern Redbud.
The 16 trees that competed in this year’s tournament are all located on Arboretum grounds, and can be found using the Tournament of Trees layer on the Arboretum’s digital map. Here’s how the Arboretum’s “sweet sixteen” of trees describe themselves:
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
I was the third most common tree in Carver County at European settlement, and Chanhassen is the Dakota name for me. I am beloved for my sap in spring, which is boiled down to make maple syrup. Gardeners adore me for being a strong, long-lived tree and for my unrivaled fall color, which varies from yellow to red.
My wood is very light colored, strong and resistant to decay/bacteria and fungi — these are what makes me the favored flooring for basketball and other indoor sports courts, as well as for premier culinary cutting boards.
I grow steadfastly to become a very strong “hard” tree with an upright oval crown 80 feet tall and 60 feet in spread. I can grow in shade but also create dense shade that competes with turf, so planting beds of spring ephemeral wildflowers, ferns and shade demanding perennials, like hostas, beneath me is a wise choice. I do best in well-drained and undisturbed soil.
I am the namesake tree of Chanhassen, the city where most of the Arb lies. I awaken in late winter with sap flow that humans make into syrup, but other wildlife enjoy fresh from the tree. Each spring I bloom, providing a chartreuse haze to the forest with my fringy delicate flowers. In fall I bedazzle the forest visitor when my leaves turn yellow, orange and red.
Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis Minnesota Strain)
I am the first of my kind found to be hardy in the region, as I am a small tree and denizen of woodland edges in the Lower Midwest and South. My flowers are one of the few native trees with flowers that are best described as the color of raspberry sherbet while most others species bloom white.
I’m a small tree who lives about as long as the average person. I become a fantastic living sculpture as I mature, with a sinuous trunk that often reclines on the ground. My vibrant spring flowers are edible and can be put into a salad.
I grow very fast in well-drained soils and become a mature tree by age twenty, growing 25 feet tall – often wider than tall after maturity. I bloom heaviest in full sun but also thrive on the edges of woodlands in part shade. My spring flowers are vivacious and contrast beautifully with the yellow-green new leaves of springtime and with Virginia bluebells, woodland phlox, polemonium and blue violets planted beneath me.
The Arb’s first curator, Al Johnson, discovered me as the first of my kind reliably hardy in the region. I am budded and ready to bedazzle people and pollinators alike with my vivacious blue-pink flowers. I am a University of Minnesota introduction – introduced into the nursery trade in 1992 as a seed strain. My elegant heart-shaped leaves smile through the growing season.
Final Four competitors
White Oak (Quercus alba)
I’m a magnificent, long-lived tree with a huge, wide-spreading crown and deeply lobed leaves that turn brilliant shades of burnt red in the fall. My acorns are low tannin and favored by many species of animals, including squirrels who accidentally plant me when burying them for a future snack.
My timber is strong and was used as structural framing for buildings, but it is also particularly valuable for making barrels to age wine and spirits (unlike the red oaks, my wood is watertight).
Plant me in undisturbed, well-drained soils, and I can grow quite fast once established to become a large tree with a broad, spreading crown (80 feet tall and 80 feet broad). I’m happiest without turf planted beneath me and have deep roots and lighter shade that make me garden friendly, as virtually all shade-loving plants grow well beneath me. I am documented as living over 400 years.
Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
I have unique peeling bark that always attracts attention, but I am rarely grown by gardeners. My buds and twigs contain oil of wintergreen, which was used as a flavoring in root beer (and life savers candies!). My leaves turn a handsome yellow in the fall.
Some call me the shimmering queen of the North for my metallic looking bark. My wood is equally valued for being strong and treasured for its golden color. It can be expertly crafted into furniture that withstands prolonged use.
I’m a fine choice of a shade tree preferring average to moist soils, and I even thrive in some shade. I grow fast, but am strong, becoming taller rather than wide and readily reaching 60 feet tall and 30 feet in spread. I look my best and am happiest when planted in a grove where my unique bark is a real standout through the seasons – yellow or red-twig dogwoods planted beneath me highlights my bark and creates a shaded root zone for me to thrive.
Second Round competitors
Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata)
I was once one of the rarest species of trees, growing wild on just two mountain tops in Japan. Gardeners love my showy and fragrant early spring flowers, and today I am found in temperate gardens worldwide.
I’m a small tree (growing 15-20 feet tall and wide) most valued for my ornamental characteristics. I create beauty in gardens through all seasons, but especially in early spring when I’m foliated in flowers.
Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
I am the king of the Big Woods where I would grow a tall, straight trunk with a high crown of limbs. I have large acorns that take two years to mature and are relished by many species of wildlife.
My timber is much loved for flooring, cabinetry and fine woodworking; perhaps number one for kitchen cabinetry. My lumber outsells all other hardwoods beloved for its straight open grain, strength and weight.
Cucumber Tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata)
I am the largest North American magnolia, and I’m named after my fruits, which look like cucumbers until they ripen pink to red and burst open exposing scarlet seeds. My unique bluish to yellowish flowers are the parent to all new hybrid yellow-flowering cultivars of magnolia. I am a spectacular shade tree with large leaves that turn golden brown in the fall.
I am relatively uncommon in the wild, so I am mostly grown as a fine shade tree. My wood doesn’t warp when thin-sawed, so it was popular for venetian-blind slats. I am also turned for bowls and other food containers, because my wood doesn’t impart a taste or carry an odor.
Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioica)
I was an uncommon local tree, found mainly in the Minnesota River Valley. Native Americans used my seeds for counting and games and helped perpetuate my kind. My roasted seeds were used as a coffee substitute in the Kentucky frontier and that’s how I got my name. My seeds are toxic unless cooked and still not recommended. I make a spectacular shade tree with lush, herringbone patterned compound leaves.
I am too uncommon a tree to be a commercially available wood, but specialty woodworkers love me for my beautiful color and grain, and I make the finest cabinetry.
First Round competitors
Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
I was the second most common tree in Carver County prior to European settlement and the first tree to invade the prairie, with thick bark able to withstand prairie fires and corky twigs resistant to browse by elk (yes, they were once common here). I become a striking and monumental tree with age.
Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba)
I am the oldest known species of tree, with fossils of me dated to over 150 million years old. I survived through eons in a few remote valleys in Southwestern China. The Chinese planted me in sacred gardens, followed by the Japanese and Koreans, and some of my kind are well over 1,000 years old in historic temple gardens.
American Elm (Ulmus americana)
I was the most common tree in Carver County when the Europeans began settling the area, and the most beloved street tree across America until an imported disease, Dutch Elm Disease (DED).
Professor Sprenger (Crabapple malus ‘Professor Sprenger’)
The Arboretum displays around 170 kinds of crabapples, but I am the favorite of the curator for my spectacular annual bloom, disease resistance and beautiful orange autumn fruit. I grace the main entrance terrace to the Snyder Building and anchor a bed of seasonal tulips and summer annuals each year.
Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
I am the tallest deciduous tree in North America and usually not hardy here. I grow fast and tall and produce lovely tulip-shaped flowers high up in my branches that are out of sight unless a squirrel clips one off. My leaves have a very unique shape and they turn a nice golden yellow late in the fall.
American Basswood (Tilia americana)
I bloom in midsummer with clusters of creamy yellow flowers that emit a lovely fragrance by day to attract a myriad of bees to butterflies, and my fragrance intensifies at night to attract moths to pollinate me. My trunk often hollows out with age and provides homes for many cavity nesting birds or den sites for various mammals.
Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea)
I was a rare tree found in sheltered ravines from the western side of the Appalachians westward to the Ozarks and isolated places in between. I produce pendant clusters of fragrant white flowers loved by bumblebees and gardeners alike. My branches are smooth and gray and my leaves turn a golden yellow in the fall.
Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana)
I am named after my strong trunk and branches resilient to all weather events. My other name, hophornbeam, refers to my fruits, which look just like hops used to flavor beer. I am common in the Big Woods understory and a great choice for a gardener if they want a sturdy, smaller tree.