Forestry: Choosing the Best Tree Species to Plant

Selecting the most suitable trees to plant is one of the most important decisions a forester makes. With careful planning and consideration of key factors like intended purpose, site conditions, growth rate, and climate resilience, foresters can ensure healthy, productive forests for generations to come. This comprehensive guide covers key considerations and provides useful tips for choosing the best species for any planting project.

Choosing tree species for planting requires careful consideration of several factors. The most appropriate species will achieve management goals for the site, thrive under its unique environmental conditions, and adapt to future climate change impacts in the region.

This guide covers key considerations like intended forest products, site factors, growth characteristics, and climate change resilience. It also provides an overview of major commercial species in various regions of the country along with useful selection tips.

Intended Purpose

A primary factor is choosing species well-suited to meet intended management goals. Key goals to consider include:

Timber Production – Valuable timber species like oaks, ashes, maples, and pines should be favored on sites suitable for quality sawlog production over the long term.

Wildlife Habitat – Pick mast producing hardwoods like oaks and hickories on sites intended for wildlife. Conifers like white pine and hemlock also provide important habitat.

Conservation & Restoration – Use native species supporting conservation goals for the site. Local ecotypes and regional seed sources are ideal.

Other Products – Species producing nuts, fruit, biomass feedstocks, maple syrup, or other speciality products should match site suitability.

Clearly identifying primary management goals guides species selection for the planting site. Professional foresters can provide further guidance aligning species with landowner objectives.

Site Conditions

Local site conditions substantially influence tree growth and survival. Key factors to account for include:

Soil Properties – Fertility, drainage, depth, texture, and pH tolerance are key. Conduct soil tests to inform selection for demanding species.

Hydrology – Wetness, flooding potential, and droughtiness guide choices. Certain species tolerate or even prefer wet soils.

Topography & Aspect – Steep, rocky terrain andSolar exposure prevailed in different slope settings affect options. Hillside seeps and frost pockets also require consideration.

Other Species – The abundance and distribution of desirable or weedy competing vegetation should be surveyed and addressed in plans.

Ideally several candidate species across a range of site tolerance should be considered in case mortality necessitates replanting less-favored alternatives. Planning species mixtures provides insurance as well. Professional foresters can prescribe alternate species suitable for properties with variable site conditions.

Growth Characteristics

The inherent growth rate and yield potential of trees also significantly affects decision making. Key traits influencing productivity include:

Mature Height & Form – Projected height and tree shape at maturity impacts future products and harvest methods. Dimensional wood for lumber favors tall, straight stems.

Growth Rate – Some species grow rapidly during juvenile stages but slow with age, while others demonstrate consistent moderate growth throughout life. Faster growth meets financial objectives sooner.

Lifespan – Shorter-lived pioneer species mature quickly but decline more rapidly too. Longer-lived species remain healthy but can require patience before harvest. Choose lifespans aligning with ownership objectives.

Pest Resistance – Species vulnerable to prevalent insects, diseases, deer and other damaging agents often disappoint if susceptibility is unchecked. Select more tolerant alternatives within regions battling outbreaks.

No species exceeds in all metrics, so foresters weigh their relative importance based on the site and owner. Qualified professionals can develop long term projections of stand dynamics for primary species under consideration.

Climate Resilience

Looking ahead, species able to withstand warmer conditions with increased pest pressure and extreme weather events will fare best as the climate shifts. Factors conferring resilience include:

Climate Envelope – Some species are near northern or southern range limits locally. Their abundance may decline regionally if sites grow less hospitable over time.

Drought Tolerance – Periodic drought will become more acute in many areas. Species with extensive root systems and stomatal control best endure dry periods.

Pest Vulnerability – Changing conditions advantage aggressive native and exotic insects and diseases. Avoid species with limited resistance options long term.

Extreme Weather Tolerance – Increasing storm severity and other extremes favors flexible, strong-wooded species less prone to breakage and blowdown.

Genetic Diversity – Diverse genetics provide adaptability to future conditions. Local seed sources hedge bets through inherent variation.

No universally climate resilient species exists, but foresters can prescribe logical alternatives for properties and timescales of concern.

Major Commercial Species

Below is a general overview of major commercial timber species within broad forest regions of the country. These represent sound choices under many conditions but still require aligning with site and ownership objectives.


White Pine – Fast growth while young makes this species ideal for timber production on average sites. Plus it provides wildlife habitat.

Red Oak – Northern red oak is a high-value timber species suited for good quality sites across the region given pest threats to other oaks.

Black Cherry – The premium value and early merchantability of black cherry make it a financially attractive choice on better hardwood sites.

White Spruce – A useful conifer for plantation establishment throughout the Northeast on a variety of sites.

Lake States

Red Pine – The versatile pine is easily established, fast growing, and reliable on sandy to loamy sites offering quality timber.

White Oak – White oak is prized for stave production for wine and bourbon barrels. Try on better hardwood sites with oak already present.

White Birch – An early successional species targeted for pulpwood. Appropriate on cooler sites where white pines eventually succeed birches.

Tamarack – A native conifer thriving in cool wetland soils with fall color interest. Provides soil stability and wildlife cover.


Yellow Poplar – The “golden oak” grows remarkably fast on better sites. Lumber for boxes, pallets and other products is highly marketable.

White Ash – A quality timber species suited for rich coves and bottomlands when seed sources prove tolerant to the emerald ash borer now threatening stands.

Eastern Hemlock – An important evergreen for shaded, cool ravines providing habitat even as the woolly adelgid parasite spreads in the region.

Shortleaf Pine – A native pine still abundant in the southern Appalachians. Adapts well to dry ridges and assorted sites following past fire disturbances.


Loblolly Pine – The wood products staple thrives on lowland soils withadequate moisture. Fast early growth drives the timber economy across the coastal plain.

Sweetgum – Plentiful on abandoned agricultural fields, sweetgum produces lumber, veneer and specialty products. Adaptive across sandy to clay loam soils.

Longleaf Pine – Requires patience due to slow initial root development but longleaf pine timber and ecosystem services are unmatched later on xeric sites.

Baldcypress – Iconic southern swamps include framing cypress along blackwater river bottoms and adjacent sloughs and flooded areas where timber shows extreme rot resistance.

South Central

Slash Pine – The leading southern pine for flatwoods plantations due to ample genetic improvement for growth and disease resistance on moist sites.

Water Oak – Water oak rapidly occupies old fields and clear cuts furnishing abundant small sawlog and pulpwood volume on medium quality soils throughout the gulf region.

Pecan – Prized for timber and especially nuts, native pecan performs best on protected alluvial clay or loam soils along river drainages.

Eastern Redcedar – The prolific native expands aggressively on rangelands and abandoned cropland to become a commercial threat and critical wildlife habitat component.


Ponderosa Pine – Productive on drier foothills and mountain slopes. Variable growth form makes ponderosa suitable for lumber and plywood across site qualities.

Green Ash – Common native riparian tree withzing threat of emerald ash borer. Tolerates seasonal flooding and a range of moisture regimes and soils.

Eastern Cottonwood – The “pioneer of the prairie” is bred for tree improvement programs boosting productivity for pulp and small sawlog markets. Sites with ample moisture suit it best.

Black Walnut – Primarily sought for nuts and veneer logs. Walnut performs well on deep fertile soils like loess-derived silt loam terraces. Intolerant of shade and flooding.


Douglas-fir – Variable but generally fast growth, disease resistance and quality lumber make Douglas-fir an obvious choice across upland forest types and former grasslands.

Ponderosa Pine – Impressive on drier foothills and mountain slopes. Variable growth form makes ponderosa suitable for lumber and plywood across site qualities.

Gamble Oak – The deciduous oak thriving on Rocky Mountain foothills tolerates heat and drought. Provides browse and habitat despite stagnating mature height and persistent shrub form.

Engelmann Spruce – A classic steep mountain tree suited for cooler mid and upper elevation forests with deep winter snowpack and fertile but well-drained soils.

Quaking Aspen – Prolific clonal shoots readily regenerate following fire disturbances across montane forests and down into the prairie grasslands on transitional sites.

Pacific Northwest

Douglas-fir – The region’s most commercial important timber species. It demonstrates reliable growth on slopes and ridges with reasonable fertility and drainage.

Western Hemlock – A long-lived foundational species in coastal rainforests. Western hemlock thrives in shaded understories and disturbanced gaps when seed sources exist nearby.

Red Alder – The common hardwood suits riparian areas. Red alder enriches soil with nitrogen fixation improving site quality for future conifers across the legendary PNW forests.

Western Redcedar – Iconic massive cedars occupy swampy lowlands with high moisture and nutrient availability. More limited commercially today but remains vital for habitat.


Ponderosa Pine – Both varieties tolerate drier foothills and deeper soils between grassland and higher elevation forests. Fire suppression and drought reduced historic extent.

Douglas-fir – Dominates midelevation slopes. Coastal and Rocky Mountain varieties overlap and sometimes hybridize in California’s tremendous biodiversity.

California Red Fir – A high elevation true fir limited in range to California’s Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades mountains on preferred cooler, damp north facing slopes.

Giant Sequoia – The namesake iconic giants reach enormous proportions on scattered moist sites between mid and upper elevation Pacific slope drainageswell-suited for commercial wood products but also highly valuable for carbon storage and tourism.

Useful Tips for Selection

Further useful suggestions for choosing favorable species:

  • Consult local tree guides or experienced regional foresters for site-specific recommendations accounting for soil, moisture, exposure and other factors.
  • Consider testing lesser-known species on a portion of the site if existing information suggests potential.
  • Select a mixture of species with varying shade tolerance filling different canopy layers for added structural diversity.
  • Favor tree species anchoring critical wildlife habitat like oaks or riparian buffers regardless of timber quality.
  • Research adaptive varieties and seed transfer guidelines to identify suitable seed sources and genotypes for planting grounds.
  • Incorporate conifer plantations as natural regeneration reservoirs anchoring mixed hardwood-conifer landscapes for added resilience.
  • Allow professional foresters to prescribe cost-share program species meeting agency standards if incentives assist with afforestation projects.


Selecting suitable tree species for planting requires aligning short and long term ownership goals with species attributes and site factors. This guide covered key considerations like intended purpose, inherent species growth traits, site conditions, climate factors and major regional species recommendations to inform decision making.

Armed with this overview of critical considerations, landowners and managers can confidently select favorable species driving healthy, diverse forests into the future. Further customized recommendations come from experienced regional foresters accounting for additional local variables. Wise species choices today lead to forests sustaining owners, wildlife and society over time.

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