With intensely hot and humid summers, a fast-growing shade tree in Florida is a welcome landscape asset. Winter frosts are rare in southernmost counties, so more tropical species can be utilized. In the Panhandle and Central Florida, focus on trees that handle cold as low as 15 to 20 degrees F before planting in your landscape. A deciduous tree allows winter sun to penetrate, while an evergreen shades the ground year round. Always avoid weedy, ecologically-invasive tree species.
Native to northern Florida, the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) displays pointy-lobed, maple-like leaves that turn shades of red, orange and yellow in November. It reaches maturity at 60 to 80 feet. Choose a fruitless variety like 'Rotundifolia' so you don't have to step on or mow over the spiky seed balls in your lawn. This tree grows well all over the state except in areas more southerly than Tampa or Melbourne.
The American plane tree, growing to 80 feet tall, is more often called the sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) while the London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) is a hybrid between American and European species and matures 80 to 90 feet tall. Use either tree to be a large lawn shade tree or street tree in northern and central Florida counties no further south than roughly Orlando. The hot summers and sandy soils often cause plane tree leaves to prematurely brown by August or September. Leaves are large and drop away naturally in October.
In tropical southern Florida, the royal poinciana, or flamboyant (Delonix regia), grows quickly and also provides showy flower displays in May and June. Although fast growing, it has many surface roots and therefore is not good around driveways and sidewalks, and it can be difficult to maintain both turf grass or shady garden plants under its boughs. The feathery leaves drop away in winter with the dry season and cool weather. Grow it no farther north than Lake Okeechobee unless along the coast. Typically it reaches 30 feet tall, but extremely old trees can be 40 to 50 feet in height.
Perhaps the best crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.) for use as a shade tree is 'Natchez.' Its wide, umbrella-like canopy is filled with white flowers in early summer, and it has flaky cinnamon-colored bark. It can grow as much as 3 or 4 feet a year if soils are fertile and ample moisture is provided during the growing season. The 'Natchez' crape myrtle matures to 25 to 30 feet tall.
In southern Florida, massive tropical fig trees (Ficus spp.) provide dense year-round shade in parks and along streets. While much too large in scale for most residential properties, they can be nice at golf courses or parks with mature heights of 50 to 80 feet and up to 100 feet wide. Use caution as some species are invasive, dropping their seeds and sprouting up like weeds. Choose the native stranger fig (Ficus aurea) as a sound choice for a fast-growing shade tree, as it is more resilient to tropical storm stresses. It matures 40 to 60 feet tall and almost as wide.
Also called the tourist tree since its thin, flaky bark resembles the tourist's sunburned skin, the gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) is a native tree good for South Florida landscapes. It has a rounded canopy and is slow to drop its leaves in December or January. It also is resilient to tropical storm winds.
Pride of Bolivia
Great for landscapes in Central and South Florida, the pride of Bolivia (Tipuana tipu) is also called rosewood. Its feathery canopy is partially deciduous in dry or chilly winters and in summer's heat also displays small yellow flowers. Prune it when young to ensure it develops the best branch structure for strength and longevity. This tree matures from 30 to 50 feet tall, but old specimens could grow as large as 65 feet.