Over the years, dozens of trees have been selected for their exceptional merits to become PHS Gold Medal Plants. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society recognizes exceptional plants for both home gardeners and professional landscapers. The PHS Gold Medal Plant Program spotlights outstanding trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials for gardens in the mid-Atlantic region (growing zones 5 to 7). Plants are chosen for their beauty, hardiness, and ecological benefits. Many trees awarded with this honor also make exceptional street trees—whether they are large shade trees or smaller ornamental trees that fit perfectly under power lines.
“Successful street trees, like Gold Medal plants, are tolerant of many urban stresses, including soil compaction, de-icing salt, air pollution, and often abuse,” says Mindy Maslin, PHS Tree Tenders Program Manager. Maslin has found a cast of go-to Gold Medal trees to use in her plantings throughout the city. These trees have proven themselves in urban settings over the years.
Following are a few tree favorites to consider in your own yard or community:
Upright and Pyramidal
The dominant tree on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the iconic London Planetree, Platanus x acerifolia, pictured above. A new variety of the London Planetree, Exclamation! ™ was just named a 2021 PHS Gold Medal winner. Exclamation! has large leaves and is very adaptable to severe urban conditions. Introduced by Chicagoland Grows®, Exclamation! was selected for its upright and pyramidal habit making it a perfect selection where a tall, pyramidal tree is required.
A Durable, Mid-Size Tree
According to Andrew Bunting, PHS Vice President of Public Horticulture, one of the 2021 Gold Medal trees, Cercis canadensis, commonly known as the Eastern Redbud, makes a durable, mid-sized street tree for urban and suburban situations. A stunning form of the native Eastern Redbud, ‘Appalachian Red’ is covered with brilliant fuchsia colored pea-like flowers in April before the leaves emerge. “The flowers occur on the stems, so it appears the trees are literally covered in flowers,” he says.
A Hardy Flowering Tree
One of the best small-to-medium-sized ornamental flowering cherries for the streetscape is the Okame cherry, Prunus x incam ‘Okame’. In the Delaware Valley, this is one of the first of the cherries to flower, which can occur from mid-March to early April. Before the leaves emerge, it will be covered in small bubblegum pink flowers. Reaching 25 feet tall, it develops a vase-shaped habit. The fall color is orange and yellow. It, too, is fast growing and quickly develops into a medium-sized street tree.
A Great Choice for Under Power Lines
“The native hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is perfect for areas under power lines where the tree cannot get too big,” says Bunting. In its native habitat, it can grow in dense shade but can also tolerate quite a bit of moisture or wet conditions. This round habit tree will reach 25' tall with an equal spread at maturity. The ovate leaves turn bright golden-yellow in the fall. It is sometimes commonly called musclewood for the sinuous silvery bark that will develop with age, giving it added winter interest.
A Large Canopy Tree
“One of my favorites of the large stature street trees is the iconic white oak, Quercus alba,” says Bunting. “In Swarthmore, where I live, there are some specimens that are 200-400 years old.” This native tree can reach over 100' tall with an equal spread or more. It is host to hundreds of native insects, butterflies, and moths and attracts a comparable compliment of birds. “Large canopy trees provide the greatest environmental benefits,” says Maslin.