Eastern Redbud Tree
Redbud trees make me happy. Well, let’s face it, most flowering plants make me happy. But the Eastern redbud tree, or Cercis canadensis, holds a particular charm for me. That’s because it’s one of the first trees to bloom in spring. It provides irrefutable evidence that winter is finally over. Its lavender-pink blossoms serve as a precursor to all the glorious color and pageantry that spring has to offer. These smallish trees are mostly inconspicuous the rest of the year, but they are in their glory when countless thousands of them burst into bloom throughout the eastern half of the United States every spring. If one redbud is a show stopper, then a grouping of them in bloom is truly a joy to behold. Although it shares the spotlight with wild plums, cherries, flowering magnolias, forsythias, dogwoods, quince and other early-blooming species, the redbud clearly steals the show.
The redbud tree bore special significance throughout the early history of this country. According to the Arbor Day Foundation’s website (http://www.arborday.org), “Early settlers found the blossoms of the redbud a delicious addition to their salads. Early folk healers used the bark to treat common maladies and sometimes even leukemia….but the sheer springtime beauty of the redbud may be its greatest hold on the American spirit.”
Andrea Wulf’s book Founding Gardeners references the redbud as one of the trees George Washington included in his Mount Vernon landscape because it “deserves a place in my shrubberies.” Finding “a great abundance of the red-bud of all sizes” in the forest, he directed that they be dug up and transplanted into his gardens. Furthermore, Wulf states that Thomas Jefferson included the Eastern redbud in his plants at both Monticello and Poplar Forest.
The name of this tree has an interesting bit of history associated with it. A related species found in the Mediterranean, C. siliquastrum, is called a Judas tree based on the belief that it was the tree upon which Judas Iscariot hanged himself after he betrayed Christ. According to legend, the blossoms, which were originally white, turned red either from shame or blood. The name redbud stuck and the tree has been referred to by that name ever since. In Trees of Eastern and Central North America, author Donald Peattie says somewhat tongue in cheek: “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson called it Redbud too, and that should be good enough for any American.”
With such an abundance of redbuds in the wild, they might seem common and ordinary. So why plant them in your landscape? Well, for one thing, their spring-time blaze of color is a pure pleasure to see after months of drab winter colors. For another, the heart-shaped, dark green foliage is graceful and attractive during the summer months. As autumn approaches, the foliage turns a pleasing shade of yellow. Clusters of flat green “pea” pods develop on the branches in the summer, adding additional textural interest to the tree. The pods turn dark brown when mature and persist into winter. The tree’s dark bark, divided trunk, bare limbs, and broadly rounded crown form an interesting and attractive wintry silhouette, particularly when covered with snow. Redbuds add texture and interest to a mixed shrub border, either when grown as a single specimen or as a grouping, and they are particularly appealing in a naturalized setting.
Eastern redbuds are native to the eastern part of the United States and thrive in zones 4 – 9. Members of the Fabaceae or pea family, they are small understory trees that normally grow 20 to 30 feet tall and tend to have a pleasing irregular shape. As the tree ages, it develops a broader vase shape. In early spring, the flower buds display a magenta or purplish-red hue. As the pea-shaped flowers open up, their color softens to a paler lavender-pink or mauve color. The blossoms appear in clusters on new growth, as well as on the trunk and older branches, and persist for about three weeks. Heart-shaped, dark green foliage emerges after the tree finishes blooming.
Redbuds grow in full sun or partial shade and are adaptable to a range of soils, including clay, loam and sand. Although they are hardy and adaptable, they are happiest in moist, well-drained soil. Because redbuds are native to such a large area of the country and are therefore subject to a wide range of growing conditions, it is generally best to acquire a specimen that has been grown locally. For optimum success, choose a small, well-rooted specimen because larger specimens may not transplant successfully.
Despite its name, redbuds are available in more than one color. For example:
- ‘Royal White,’ ‘Alba,’ and ‘Texas White’ are white-flowered forms yet they are still called redbuds.
- ‘Tennessee Pink’ produces clear pink flowers as opposed to the lavender-pink blossoms typical of the species.
- ‘Forest Pansy’ has purple foliage, which is stunning in the spring. The purple foliage tends to green out in the heat of summer, however, and benefits from some afternoon shade.
- ‘Hearts of Gold’ has chartreuse foliage, which emerges orange-red initially. As the foliage matures, it turns a gold-green color, which then fades to chartreuse. This small cultivar generally tops out at about fifteen feet.
- ‘Silver Cloud’ is a variegated green and white cultivar that is about the same size as the species but with smaller leaves.
And then there are the weeping forms.
- ‘Traveler’ is probably one of the better known weeping cultivars. It tops out at around five feet but can spread to ten feet or more in width.
- ‘Covey,’ which is also sold under the name ‘Lavender Twist™’ is another popular weeping form.
- ‘Ruby Falls’ is yet a third weeping form. This cultivar is the result of a marriage between ‘Covey,’ which gives it its weeping form, and ‘Forest Pansy,’ which gives it its purple foliage.
- There’s even a variegated weeping form called ‘Whitewater.’ White and green variegated leaves emerge in the spring and gradually turn mostly green over the growing season.
If there’s a down side to redbuds, it’s that they are short lived in general and may decline after twenty years or so from disease. Despite this dire warning, I have had the great good fortune to see older redbud specimens with limbs that bent down and nearly touched the ground. But those are rare and, should you encounter one, it will take your breath away with its graceful form and beauty. Redbuds decline for a variety of reasons. They are susceptible to fungal diseases, such as Botryosphaeria canker, which encircles the branches, effectively cutting off the water supply to the leaves. Verticillium wilt is another nasty disease that affects redbuds. The Verticillium fungus blocks the tree’s vascular system, rendering the tree unable to move water and nutrients. Pruning out any dead, cracked, or diseased branches about six to eight inches below the diseased area will help control both fungal diseases. It’s important to cut into healthy wood and then disinfect pruners between cuts with rubbing alcohol. Also, a well-watered redbud tree is less likely to succumb to disease than a tree that is stressed by drought.
As for pests, redbuds are subject to a few, such as treehoppers and scale. Treehoppers are seldom serious and an infestation can be controlled by spraying horticultural oil when temperatures are between 35° and 85° F. Scale insects present themselves as crusty or waxy-looking bumps typically on new wood. Scale infestations should be treated with horticultural oil in the spring or early summer if nymphs are present.
Redbuds are not exclusive to the east coast of this country. Two other subspecies of redbud, Oklahoma redbud (C. reniformis) and Western redbud (C. occidentalis), are also native to the United States. Oklahoma redbud is native to the southwestern part of the country (Texas and Oklahoma) and is Oklahoma’s state flower. It tends to be a little smaller than Eastern redbud and has thick, leathery leaves that make it more drought tolerant than the eastern species. Western redbud is native to California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. It is a drought-tolerant, shrub-like tree with blue-green foliage that tops out around fifteen to eighteen feet tall and wide. To complete the picture, C. siliquastrum (or Judas tree), which I mentioned above, is native to Europe and western Asia. C. chinensis is native to China and Japan. A third non-native species, C. mexicana, is native to Mexico.
Plant expert Michael Dirr sums up the charm of the Eastern redbud in Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs as follows: “A treasure in the April landscape when its clustered magenta buds unfold a blanket of rosy pink. No equal, no competitor, can be found among small flowering landscape trees—the stage is reserved for this native species.” I quite agree with his assessment. Wonder where I can get a bumper sticker that says “I brake for redbuds!”
Arbor Day Foundation (http://www.arborday.org).
Clemson University (http://www.clemson.edu/extension).
Dirr, Michael A., Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, 2005.
Field Guide to North American Trees Eastern Region, published by National Audubon Society, 1996.
Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida Environmental Horticulture Department (http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu).
Peattie, Donald Culross, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, 1991.
Virginia Cooperative Extension (http://www.ext.vt.edu) Publication 426-611: Selecting Landscape Plants: Flowering Trees.
Wulf, Andrea, Founding Gardeners, 2011.