Edited by Karen England, for Let's Talk Plants! February 2023.
Part 1: Good Trees to Plant Near Water Features
By Pat Welsh, originally published in Let’s Talk Plants! February 2010, No. 185.
Trees close to water features, such as swimming pools, need to be clean, non-drippy plants with leaves that hang on for a long time. Often such trees have large leaves, but not always. For example, a row of Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens ‘Stricta’, can provide a handsome privacy screen for a swimming pool if they’re planted on the north side of the pool so they don’t shade it. I’ve also seen a double row of Italian cypress flanking a small flagstone patio to the north of a formal oblong swimming pool. The result was an elegant atmosphere, reminiscent of Italy.
Trees near swimming pools also need to be capable of withstanding reflected heat and if near paths they should not bear spines. Among top choices are Queensland umbrella tree, Shefflera actinophylla, valuable for its large tropical-looking foliage atop leaning trunks and strikingly attractive and long-lasting flower stalks. When a leaf from this tree falls into a swimming pool it’s easy to fish out. (Some scheffleras growing in protected spots will eventually sprout a few thin spines from their bark, but these spines are usually sparse and fairly high up on the trunk, and thus pose no particular danger to people. Hummingbirds like to make their nests in these trees and will sit on the spines.)
Indian Hawthorn shrub/tree, Rhaphiolepis indica ‘Majestic Beauty’ or Rhaphiolepis x 'Montic', which is one of our best and cleanest small patio trees, should be pruned once a year after bloom into an umbrella shape. (All too many of our lovely pink Raphiolepis are incorrectly pruned in fall and winter, so we are then deprived of the glorious bloom that we should be enjoying in spring. (Editor's note: Please remember that the time of this writing is 2010...) If you want to see some mature, properly maintained Indian Hawthorn trees, go to the Lumber Yard shopping mall on the Coast Highway, Old 101 in Encinitas in spring. These trees bloom beautifully every spring because whoever cares for them is educated in their proper care and prunes after bloom, never before.
Several palm trees are good near swimming pools, but many are armed and need to be set back where folks won’t accidentally encounter their savage spines. Probably best among these choices is the Mediterranean fan palm, Chamaerops humilis, an elegant clumping palm, prized for its clean, compact, and handsome structure. Slow growth is another plus. Unless it gets a lot of water and fertilizer it may take 40 years for this tree to reach 20 feet in height. Fronds hang on indefinitely and must be cut off eventually to expose the multiple trunks. Other good choices include New Zealand cabbage tree, Cordyline australis, a clean, handsome, and tough plant that’s a staple of old patios in southern Spain. But for a really exciting shape combined with a clean plant, nothing can beat a full-grown dragon tree, Dracaena draco. It looks stunning near a swimming pool, especially if seen against a white wall and tile roof or nestled among boulders with a foil of softer-foliaged succulents such as Agave attenuata along with various aloes, echeverias, and crassulas.
Life Member of the SDHS and the 2003 Horticulturist of the Year, garden author and lecturer Pat Welsh is enjoying retirement and working on another book.
Part 2: You Want Good Pool Trees?
By Robin Rivet, February 2023, originally published in Let’s Talk Plants! February 2010, No. 185.
As an arborist, I am always getting asked for a tree that isn’t “messy,” doesn’t have “bad” roots, and definitely no pollen for allergies. People want fragrance and pretty flowers, but no dropping fruit; and certainly no fallen leaves all over the place. Eventually, after hearing all the conditions, I usually respond that I have just the tree, although they’ll have to go to Michael’s craft store to get it: it is made of silk.
Indeed, all trees have some debris, although ironically much of it is beneficial. Leaves nourish and feed the soil, flowers attract needed pollinators, and the resulting fruit is food for a myriad of insects, birds, rodents and, hopefully, humans. More habitat is always needed in our cities. All types of trees are good somewhere.
Around a pool in San Diego, I would probably plant a citrus. They have shiny evergreen leaves, bountiful and colorful fruit, and the flower fragrance is legendary. Their leaves don’t drop much, and the fruit and leaves are attractive even in winter, when deciduous trees are usually barren. Additionally, with various rootstocks people can choose dwarf, semi-dwarf, or standard size trees, but they need to be aware of these differences. (Unfortunately, many nurseries don’t inform of these distinctions properly.)
Another choice might be an Avocado, as they have very shallow roots and are highly unlikely to disturb pool plumbing. And what wonderful fruit! I’ll bet most folks don’t know that avocados are actually considered berries. Plus, they are also broadleaf evergreens, and their leaves are large and easily picked up when periodically dropped throughout the year. I know I wouldn’t care if an avocado fruit happened to drop into my pool. (What pool?) Of course, the easily confused Southern Magnolia might be equally appreciated. Similar broad leaves, large fragrant flowers, but mine attracts Western Bluebirds…
Finally, I would consider a tropical nut tree. What about a hybrid Macadamia? This tree has incomparable food value and the hybrids have leaves without the spines of the species. However, if you do get the spiny ones, they are more frost tolerant and resemble holly leaves. As a result, these can be used for Christmas decorations. In either case, they enjoy our Mediterranean climate and are fairly pest free. The nuts are delicious, and the water used to keep them happy will more than pay for itself with the harvested fruit.
Do you see a common thread here? I am an advocate for sustainable home agriculture, and what better use of our minimal water resources, than to plant broadleaf evergreen trees that give back healthy food for our tables. Swim in your pool and eat from your trees; be healthy in two ways! Mangos anyone?