Messiest Trees That Drop Debris Everywhere

Ginkgo fruits litter the ground at the foot of a tree
(Image credit: AH86)

Messy tree droppings often knock a perfectly acceptable specimen out of a landscape plan, and for good reason. Droppings from trees are not only messy but can be dangerous, stain cars, homes and pavement, and in general add to yard maintenance. For these reasons most people would prefer to avoid planting these “dirty trees.” If that pertains to you, read on to learn about eight of the messiest trees.

  1. Poplars (Populus spp.) are susceptible to many diseases and insect pests. Structurally, the branches of poplars are weak and tend to break when inclement weather such as wind or snow arrives. The root system of the poplar also tends to grow into sewer lines and buckle sidewalks, something no homeowner wants. Some varieties -- specifically cottonwoods -- produce fine white seeds that can not only clog AC units, screens and gutters, but can play havoc for those with seasonal allergies.
  2. Some varieties of the honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthus) have large thorns making them potentially difficult to handle. While there are thornless varieties of the tree available (G.triacanthus var. inermis), sprouts from these grafted trees often produce thorns. Also the tree produces copious amounts of large, messy fruit. Like poplars, honeylocusts are susceptible to diseases and insect pests.
  3. The habit of weeping willows (Salix babylonica) is dramatic, but the trees themselves are quite fragile and tend to incur storm damage. Even when the weather is calm, weeping willows drop branches often. These trees are also susceptible to canker diseases which also facilitate dead fall.
  4. The black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is native throughout most of the United States but may become invasive in grasslands. With an aggressive root system, black locust spreads via suckers which can overtake nearby garden spaces. Another thorny tree, black locust also produces lots of messy fruit. It is prone to several insect pests and diseases.
  5. The Northern catalpa or catawba tree (Catalpa speciosa) is a pretty tree with big, heart shaped leaves almost impossible in their perfection. It also produces fluffy white blooms along with long, thin seed pods which unfortunately become the home of thousands of catalpa caterpillars. Initially pleasing to the eye, the catalpa is a mess once the blossoms, seed pods and those caterpillars have dropped.
  6. The sweet gum tree (Liquidamber styraciflua) is used as an ornamental tree specifically for its brilliant fall foliage. Prior to the stunning autumn foliage, however, the tree produces fruit: gum balls, which are hard, spiked balls that are extremely difficult to rake up. The tree can produce thousands of these potentially painful fruit which are hard and sharp enough to puncture the sturdiest garden gloves or boots. To add insult to injury, the fruit also doesn’t compost easily.
  7. Magnolia trees (Magnolia grandiflora) are practically synonymous with the South. A very pretty tree with large, glossy green leaves accented by big, aromatic, white blossoms in the spring, it’s difficult to imagine this specimen as a garbage tree. However, once the blossoms drop you are left with a mess that is difficult to clean up, not to mention the propensity of this tree to drop small branches and of course those crisp, waxy leaves. And then there are still the hard cones, which do not break down readily in compost.
  8. The black walnut (Juglan nigra) is yet another tree that should be avoided. It produces a toxic compound that can kill neighboring vegetation. Most parts of the tree, with the exception of the nut, also have a particular aroma, described as pungent, which may or may not be palatable to the grower. Like many of the above trees it also produces fruit that is difficult to clean up.

Lastly, while it is enticing to plant fruiting trees, if you know you aren’t going to be able to keep up on fruit harvest, it is better to plant ornamental varieties which are either fruitless or bear small fruit that is eaten by birds reducing any possible mess.

Are Crabapple Trees Messy?

On the subject of fruit trees, crabapples are excellent pollinators -- so much so that commercial fruit growers often include them in their orchards to cover pollination gaps. Crabapples are often included in the home garden for their gorgeous floral displays in spring. Plus crabapple trees are devoured by birds and small mammals and their branches make excellent habitat.

Again, for every beneficial quality of the crabapple, some would say there is a detrimental effect. Crabapples can be messy, very messy. Once those beautiful blooms drop the landscape will be covered in a snowfall of petals which while it doesn’t last long, can become slippery and will blow and stick to other surfaces. Then if you or the wild creatures don’t eat the crabapples, you will be left with a mess of rotting fruit that only the yellow jackets will enjoy.

Last Word on Adding Trees to the Landscape

Messy trees may drop their fruit, leaves or even needles all at once, creating a huge mess that can damage man made items like cars and homes or turf grass or planting beds. Some of these “dirty trees” may also drop seeds that will end up popping up as little trees throughout your landscape.

To every downside there is usually an upside, and such is the case with messy trees. Yes, you will have to commit to routine cleaning and raking but the inclusion of some of these messy trees provides a more diverse environment, creating habitat for wildlife.

Nature is perfect in its own way, but it is not regimented. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that all trees can be messy, at least to a type A neatnik personality. That said there are some that are messier than others. Before you plant a tree do your research and some soul searching to decide if you are willing to tackle the upkeep.

Amy Grant

Amy Grant has been gardening for 30 years and writing for 15. A professional chef and caterer, Amy's area of expertise is culinary gardening.