Tree-Shaped Shrubs; Pruning Princess Flower or Tibouchina (Video Tutorial)

by Genevieve on December 30, 2008

As a Garden Coach, I’m often asked for “trees” that stay about 8-12’ tall. Most people don’t realize how few trees there are with that mature size – but there are many shrubs that can be pruned to have a tree-like form, with an open branching habit down below and a pretty multi-stemmed trunk.

Tibouchina urvilleana, or Princess Flower, is one such shrub. Tibouchina is great for this because it has really pretty cinnamon-colored bark and grows with an open, attractive habit, though you need to clear out a lot of twiggy business before you can see it.

This one was planted a little over a year ago, and is finally big enough to begin doing some initial training for its ultimate tree shape. I won’t clear it out entirely because they are frost-tender and spring is a ways away, but I’ve started with a technique called “skirting”, which removes the branches that are growing in a direction I don’t like – sideways and sprawling on the ground:

After the last frost has passed in spring, I’ll peer inside the shrub and remove any branches that are growing inwards towards the center of the shrub, selecting only a few branches (3-5) to form the framework of the “tree”. I’ll then clear off any shoots coming off the lowest third of the branches, so we’re left with about a foot of pretty, bare branches with about two feet of foliage and flower.

As the shrub grows, I’ll continue clearing out stems that point inward towards the center of the plant and removing shoots on the “tree trunks” until I’m happy with how my tree looks – just enough pretty bark and stem showing, open at the base for dwarf shrubs and perennials to fill in around the tree, and plenty of lush gorgeous foliage and flowers on top.

You can use this technique with Lilacs, dwarf Citrus, or any other 8-12’ upright shrub, as long as you can see a few well-spaced branches that will make an attractive framework.

Tell me: What are your favorite large shrubs/ tiny trees? And have you had luck with pruning any of your plants into a small tree shape?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Ann December 31, 2008 at 11:21 am

Wow! This is a great tutorial. Love it. Pruning skills are something I need to spend some time developing. Your zone makes me envious. Wish I had salvia leucantha to worry about pruning! Love it but it’s hard to get out here in the northeast as an annual. Great information on your site. Will visit regularly.

Ann’s last blog post..Snowdrops

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Genevieve January 1, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Thanks so much, Ann! I love pruning. One of my favorite books, which taught me a lot as a beginner and I still refer to regularly, is Pruning and Training by Brickell and Joyce. It has general instructions as well as a plant encyclopedia which breaks down each genera and species and gives specifics for each.

I really love your site, too, by the way – the photos are gorgeous. I’ve had a lot of success with those gorgeous Asarinas, except in gopher country.

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Debbie March 4, 2010 at 5:13 am

Hi Gen,

As usual, your video was so informative. What a difference the skirting made to the ‘after’ appearance of the shrub. I have my eye on a few peegee hydangrea shrubs that I planted several years ago and would like to begin to prune into more tree-like structures. I am planning to take my first pruning cuts this season so I will be using some of the techniques you demonstrated.
.-= Debbie´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday =-.

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Genevieve March 5, 2010 at 8:28 am

Debbie, thank you so much for your kind words… I love peegee Hydrangeas! They’d be beautiful “skirted”!

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Aaron March 1, 2012 at 9:35 pm

I’ve found that two of the easiest evergreen shrubs to plant and prune to tree-form are bottlebrush (callistemon citrinus) and escallonia rubra. Both are vigorous growers on the North Coast, even in very windy areas. Use a mulch like shredwood for best results. If they didn’t escape so easily, I’d say some pittosporums and cotoneaster.

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