Having a shade tree in your yard will do more than keep you cool in warm weather--fragrant spring flowers, brilliant autumn foliage, reduced home energy bills, privacy from passers-by, and shelter for nesting birds are potential shade tree benefits. Many homeowners look for trees that will create shade quickly. Rapidly growing trees, however, tend to have softer wood and break more easily than slowly growing ones. Choosing both will bring cooling shade to your landscape for the long term.
Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is a native American shade tree that grows wild from Alabama north to Maine and as far west as Oklahoma. Mature trees, says the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, stand between 75 and 100 feet high and have oval to round canopies. During the winter, their branches form noticeable red buds that bloom early in the spring. Silver maple has a short, thick trunk and green spring and summer leaves with silvery undersides. Autumn foliage ranges from yellow and red to yellowish-brown.
The tree's sap will boil down to sweet syrup, but the yield is far lower than that of sugar maple. Its brittle branches are vulnerable to wind breakage. Plant this tree where falling limbs and spreading roots won't create a hazard in moist, well-drained acidic soil and sun to shade. Silver maple tolerates poor soils where other shade trees struggle.
Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) grows along lowland stream banks in moist locations across the southwest from Texas to Southern California. Belonging to the willow family, this tree stands up to 90 feet tall. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center reports that Fremont cottonwood can grow up to 30 feet in a single year. It has a wide, flat crown and thick branches with vivid green leaves that become yellow in autumn. Female trees release "cotton" in the spring, so male trees are less messy. Short-lived Fremont cottonwood requires wet soil and full sun.
American sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), says the University of Missouri Extension, can reach towering heights of up to 100 feet. The fast rate of growth makes it an unsuitable shade tree for many home landscapes. Although highly insect-resistant, it frequently suffers from springtime twig blight. American sycamore's peeling bark and dropping twigs can be messy. Like silver maple, it's susceptible to storm damage. In large landscapes where its size and untidy habits aren't a concern, however, this tree is an excellent choice for hot, dry conditions. It needs deep, rich soil to thrive.