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Fairchild’s tropical garden column: Small trees for small spaces

Bees enjoy lignum vitae flowers, an important contributor to honey production.
Bees enjoy lignum vitae flowers, an important contributor to honey production. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees,” begins Nelson Henderson’s immortal quote. While we don’t all have the space to plant what may become arboreal giants, there are many trees that are happy to stay compact and relatively small, a perfect addition for limited spaces. They may not ever accommodate a treehouse, but you or your descendants will certainly be able to enjoy their shade.


Stoppers are an informal grouping of mostly smallish, subtropical and tropical trees growing naturally in the understory of hardwood hammocks.

The white stopper (Eugenia axillaris): Almost a celebrity in South Florida, often smelled before it’s seen, white stopper’s leaves exude a distinctive earthy-skunky smell, which is actually quite pleasant. New growth of white stopper, like so many subtropical and tropical trees, is red and matures to green. Leaves are oval with a blunt tip. Its flowers look like white puffballs from a distance. Up close you’ll notice bees love the nectar-rich flowers. They are followed by the birds, lovers of the small round fruit that matures to a purplish black.

White stopper grows to about 20 feet in South Florida, and is taller than broad, so it won’t crowd nearby plants or structures. Though an understory tree, it nevertheless prefers full sun, and will tolerate light shade. White stopper likes moist soil, not inundated, and can endure short periods of drought once established. It’s one of the more commonly cultivated of the stoppers.

Spanish stopper (Eugenia foetida): Another native that’s fairly easy to come by at native nurseries, it’s sometimes grown as a native hedge, but makes a fine small tree with a maximum height of about 18 feet. It has a high drought tolerance like white stopper, and thrives in bright shade or full sun. Its ashy grey and brown mottled bark self-exfoliates, so don’t think your tree is sick when you see it peel. Its leaves are small and roundish with rolled edges. The Eugenias in general can develop multiple trunks, but may also be pruned to have just one or two with no ill effects. Its fruit is also a good source of food for wildlife.

Red stopper (Eugenia rhombea): A rare Florida native; this Eugenia grows to about 15 feet tall and is more of a shrub. “Wayside Trees of Tropical Florida” indicates it can be distinguished by its “3-4 cm long leaves widest near base and tapering to a blunt tip.” Honestly, I can’t easily tell the difference among most of the stoppers. In Miami-Dade it’s naturally found only on and around Elliott Key.

Redberry stopper (Eugenia confusa): Once established, drought-resistant redberry will do well in a variety of well-drained soil types, and like the other stoppers, it takes our alkaline soil in stride. Redberry prefers light shade, but an individual at Fairchild is growing in fairly deep shade, surrounded and shaded by larger trees. Its leaves may grow larger in shady conditions, but it isn’t leggy or struggling. It’s distinguished from the other stoppers by its extremely graceful, pointy and arching leaf drip tips, and its beige bark, much rougher than the gray bark of Simpson’s or Spanish stopper.

Simpson’s stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans): I saved this as the last stopper, only because it’s in a different genus than the others, though all are in the myrtle family, Myrtaceae. Its leaves are oval, but it’s distinguished by reddish peeling bark. Some sources call it twinberry stopper as its red fruit grows in pairs.

The stoppers are generally all slow growing, a good thing really because you won’t need to constantly prune or clean up after them. They all produce fragrant flowers and similar avian-attracting fruit. One Eugenia to avoid is Surinam cherry (E. uniflora), considered invasive by many. It produces really cute little fruit that look like red pumpkins. For some reason, I see these fall to the ground, ignored by most wildlife.


If you want something small other than a myrtle, I like these:

Lignum vitae (Guiacum officinale/G. sanctum): Famous for its dense, sinking wood, the lignum vitae produces flowers ranging from Wedgewood blue to lilac, the official flower of Jamaica (G. officinale) and beloved by bees. The golden fruit split open to reveal deep red arils, seeds encased within. Lignum vitae grows very, very slowly, reaching a maximum of about 30 feet. Some sources say it may live to 1,000 years.

At Fairchild, many examples grow close to buildings — these will not grow into foundation-crushing monsters, so these trees make a fantastic option for those with little space set close to a house. Very drought tolerant, the tree’s dense wood is insect and rot resistant. G. sanctum is the South Florida native, as well as of the Caribbean and Central America, while G. officinale is native to the Caribbean and northern South America. Our Florida native is a bit less compact, and unfortunately endangered. G. sanctum also produces more leaflets per leaf, and is slower growing than G. officinale.

Joewood (Jacquinia keyensis): Fairly rare in cultivation, it grows very slowly to a maximum of about 12 feet tall. This native likes direct sun but tolerates bright shade, and is salt and wind tolerant — a great candidate for coastal planting. The joewoods at Fairchild are over 70 years old, and barely 10 feet tall. The flowers are tiny, dazzling white and very fragrant. Key deer like to forage on joewood.

Wild cinnamon bark or pepper cinnamon (Canella winterana): This Caribbean and South Florida native is uncommon. It is very slow growing to a maximum 50 feet (under ideal conditions, as the horticulturalists say), and naturally prefers dry, coastal woodland areas and limestone soil. It is moderately salt tolerant, so is good for coastal gardeners.

While full sun is best, cinnamon bark does fine in partial shade. Once it’s established, extra irrigation is not necessary. Its leaves are thick, oval and glossy green and resemble those of the bay rum and allspice trees, and indeed are also aromatic — though the Canella is not closely related to the others. The buds are pale blue, and give way to blooms that are very small, but pleasant and dark wine red. Its bark is used medicinally, especially in its Central America and Caribbean range. Canella is worth finding.

Bay rum tree (Pimenta racemosa) and allspice tree (Pimenta dioica): Caribbean natives both, these two Myrtaceae look very similar to my eye. Both grow in a column, more or less. The lower branches can be left alone for more filler or pruned to create a more tree-like look. Allspice’s fruit yields the spice of the same name, so integral to Jamaican cuisine. Both have aromatic foliage, though bay rum to my nose is spicier. Bees love the flowers. Like other Myrtaceae family members, the bark peels. Once my bay rum established itself, it required absolutely no care—just appreciation! In about 10 years in full sun, it’s reached maybe 18 feet in height.

Look for these trees at local nurseries while some of the rarer examples are often available at Fairchild’s plant sales, coming up on April 11 and 12.

Kenneth Setzer is writer and editor at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.