Specimen trees: Helping your clients select the right fit for them

Updated Aug 4, 2021
Photo: pxherePhoto: pxhere

Trees have various environmental benefits but they can also serve as an excellent landscaping feature as a specimen tree.

While the name may sound like the tree is going to be observed under a microscope, the word originates from the Latin word specere that means “to look.” They are most commonly used as a focal point in the garden, but what are the criteria for a tree to be considered a specimen?

What makes a specimen tree?

Because a majority of the time specimen trees are used as a focal point of design, there has to be a significant feature that would cause one to stop and take notice. This can be anything from the size, shape, scent, flowers, leaves, bark or any other part of the tree that is particularly noteworthy.

The species itself can be rare or unusual, or it can be a more common type of tree that is eye-catching thanks to its unique twisting branches or other memorable aspects. Not all specimen trees have to be towering giants either to be a centerpiece in the landscape. Dwarf varieties or rare cultivars that can serve as conversation pieces can work just as well.

Ideally a specimen should look good throughout the seasons with beautiful bark or intriguing branches still drawing attention to itself in the winter. However, in the end it is about what the client likes and wants to see in their yard.

Benefits of specimen trees

Aside from serving as a focal point, specimen trees can provide shade, create leafy screens or frame a beautiful view. Large specimen trees in vast landscapes can add structure and shape the space.

With their unique characteristics, they can add personality to the space, and depending on the maturity of the tree, it can make the landscape feel as if it has been there for ages. Smaller specimen trees are able to provide an intimate feel, giving a backyard more of an enclosed feel with the lower ceiling effect. These types of trees work well in urban gardens when one can feel exposed among towering skyscrapers.

Depending on the species and placement, specimen trees can evoke a number of different reactions, but this can only occur if the right one is selected.

Helping clients choose a specimen tree

Almost like choosing a dog, selecting a specimen tree is a long-term commitment, so the tree should be one that the client has a connection with.

Thanks to your extensive horticultural knowledge, you can introduce them to other options aside from the Japanese maple, which almost the Labrador retriever of specimen trees. If this is what they ultimately want, that’s perfectly fine, but take the time to educated them beyond the familiar such as the katsura tree, which is a little more obscure, like the Vizsla dog breed.

Katsura trees have attractive foliage and give off a sweet scent. While it is not native to North America, its rarity and poor seed production make its invasive nature minimal. Yet if your customer is wanting a specimen tree that supports local wildlife, this is not the tree for them.

Check out these lists of rare or unusual trees that may work as a good specimen here and here.

Choosing a specimen tree that fits well in your customer’s current landscape is extremely site-specific and requires asking a number of questions. If the client has an established yard, the tree will need to fit with rest of the plantings and the architecture of the house so it appears it has always been there.

If the customer is willing to be patient and wait for the tree to grow to its full size, remind them it’s important to give the tree enough room to grow.

Like any other plant you’d place in a customer’s landscape, consider the growing conditions and if the species will thrive in that area. Knowing its growth rate, mature size and hardiness are all factors you should discuss with your client before selecting that special specimen.

Disease-prone or short-lived specimen trees are a poor investment, especially if the client is wanting to purchase a fully-grown tree.

It is important to stress the care that a specimen tree will need after being planted. Transplanted mature trees will need a considerable amount of attention while it is getting its root system re-established.

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