1. They are so ho-hum. I do love a well-placed Japanese Maple but there are so many other cool options.
2. Their definition of small is not really that small. What if you have a truly tiny garden? I have some ideas!
So here's a list of some of my outlier favorites. Honestly I have very little tree knowledge (and if you live in the tropics or the desert, you're on your own) but play along with me...
Chain-flowered Redbud (Cercis racemosa)
My newest tree crush is Cercis Racemosa growing here in NE Portland. It reportedly grows to about 20'. The pink dangling catkins on this tree make me think of Chinese paintings. Cherry blossoms? Pfff. These are TO DIE FOR and give way to long flat purple pods, also pretty cool looking. I passed on some seeds I collected from this tree and my garden blogger friend Ann at Amateur Bot-ann-ist is going to attempt to germinate them. Good luck Ann--the world needs more of these pink darlings!
Wedding Cake Tree, Cornus controversa 'Variegata'
I love to say the name of this one--it sounds like a Harry Potter Spell. Cornus controversa 'Variegata'! Poof! It gets its common name "Wedding Cake Tree" because it grows in tiers like a cake and in the Spring it is covered in frothy white flowers. Doesn't it look good enough to eat? This specimen in my yard is 8 years old and it's about 12'. I fell in love with this tree when I saw it in a photo in The Jewel Box Garden. It's excellent for lighting up a dark corner, especially on an overcast Spring day.
Next up, blooming here in its Dr. Seuss sunshiny glory, is Edgeworthia chrysantha. I guess some of you would call this a shrub, but maybe that all depends on the size of your garden. It can take some light pruning so you can make it look a little more tree-like if you prefer. Mine always gets tons of suckers that need to be trimmed. I used to be a snob for this edgeworthia over the red blossomed Edgeworthia papyrifera ‘Red Dragon’ (the blossoms ARE bigger on the yellow version) but I have been won over after seeing my Mom's recently planted 'Red Dragon' showing off in a big way.
Chinese Parasol Tree (Firmiana Simplex) at Brian's Botanicals
Tropicalisimo with huge leaves over a foot wide! Chinese Parasol Tree can grow up to 40 feet but its trunk remains slender and the foliage is at the top (hence the name) so you can easily grow things under it and it has a small footprint. It can be invasive in some areas of the South but in the Pacific Northwest it seems very well-behaved.
California Lilac (Ceanothus) at Yerba Buena Nursery
If you start them young you can prune California Lilac into some pretty extreme shapes--I even had a lollipop once but then I moved it to a new location and it died on me. I'm currently trying another one, a variegated variety. Hope to share some photos next year--it's pretty promising! This is a great plant with shiny leaves that are EVERGREEN and in the Spring it's covered in little blue flowers which the bees love. There's the common dark green variety, several variegated forms, and even a black one called Tuxedo!
Black Lace Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra) at the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh
My love for this tree/shrub knows no bounds. It's just a knockout in so many ways! It has black foliage that makes Japanese Maples green with envy (or should that be black with envy?) and tufts of heavenly smelling pink flowers--such a beautiful hew that looks almost orange at times. I'm not a lover of pink in general but something about this one just does it for me. You can make cordial out of the flowers or wait for the berries, also edible. It's an AMAZING foil for chartreuse plants. It does need some pruning every year or it turns into a giant Cousin It pretty quickly, but that's its only fault, and who among us is perfect?
Golden Spirit Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggygria 'Ancot), photo from The Oregonian
Hot damn, look at that! TWO smoke trees, the common purple variety AND the "Golden Spirit" which is like a beam of light. This is another potential Cousin It but it can be pruned into a small tree. In my experience it needs full sun if you really want to see some glowing chartreuse foliage.