Eastern Redbud: An All-American Star
Our Arboretum Manager takes a look at one of his favorite trees.
What is a Redbud?
Cercis canadensis, AKA Eastern Redbud, is a small, deciduous, native, understory tree. Typically growing 20-30’ tall, Redbuds grow in an upright rounded form, often multi-trunked, and with a canopy spread wider than it is tall. The leaves are a unique heart shape, green, and 3-5” across that change to pale yellow in the fall. Seeds are produced inside bean-like pods that turn brown in summer and can remain on the tree into winter. A member of the plant family Fabaceae, AKA the “Pea” or “Legume” family, the lavender pink pea-shaped flowers are what Redbuds are best known for. Flowering in the spring before the foliage emerges, baren branches explode with colorful blooms. The floral show put on by our friend of the forest is a truly spectacular sight!
In the wild, this happy little native tree inhabits the eastern and central parts of the United States, from New York to Florida and from Texas to Michigan. In Michigan, I have seen them growing in the forest, the woodland margin, and out in open fields and meadows. Their adaptability is a major factor in their wide geographic distribution and given the circumstances; they are not necessarily fussy about much.
Redbuds in the Landscape and Garden
Apart from the natural areas, Redbuds have found another environment in which they can thrive; man made ones. As a landscape or garden tree, Redbuds have many ornamental qualities that are welcomed and appreciated and, for this showy native tree, its popularity is well deserved.
Redbuds don’t really have an “off” season. They are attractive year-round and always have something to offer. It starts in spring when the beautiful pink flowers bloom on bare branches, a familiar and anticipated site. The flowers are followed by those bold, heart-shaped leaves that remain all summer long before turning varying shades of yellow in the fall. After leaf drop the branching structure is revealed, the zig-zag growth of the stems along with the fine texture of the gracefully upswept branches can be appreciated. The dark bark looks great against the white of winter snow and serves as a great stage for the spring flowers living just beneath its surface.
It is not just looks that have propelled Redbuds into the spotlight, they are also popular because they are versatile and can be used in a variety of landscape situations. Redbuds are shade tolerant and adaptable to different soil conditions like high or low pH, and varying moisture (except extremely wet or dry). It’s not bothered by clay soil if it drains, and deer tend to avoid it as well.
Redbuds are also tolerant to Juglone, the chemical produced by Black Walnut trees, Juglans nigra. Released by the roots, this chemical can stunt and kill sensitive plants growing within their root zone. The best solution is to avoid sensitive plants and choose tolerant ones and their cultivars. Since they are not bothered by this chemical warfare, Redbuds have an advantage over some of the other flowering trees like Crabapples (Malus sp. & cultivars) and Magnolias (Magnolia sp. & cultivars), for landscape use. My small backyard is affected by a large Black Walnut tree growing in my neighbor’s yard. As a plant enthusiast, it was pretty disheartening to realize I could not have my own Magnolia, among other things, in my backyard gardens. Thankfully, Redbuds are still an option, and I planted one in my backyard, and it is flourishing!
Most Redbuds in gardens and landscapes are not the same Redbuds living in the wild, they are cultivars. A cultivar is short for “cultivated variety.” Simply put, cultivars are different varieties that have been selected and/or bred by humans for desirable characteristics. Another admirable thing about Redbuds is that even though there are many cultivars available today, the straight species Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is still widely used. Usually, the straight species of any landscape tree experiences a decline in planting once more ornamental cultivars become available because the new kids on the block are deemed “Better” suited for landscape use. However, in my experience in the nursery world, we sold just as many “normal” straight species Redbuds as we did cultivars. So, if you are looking for the classic native beauty, it’s out there.
There are numerous Redbud cultivars available today, and each one has qualities unique to it when compared to the straight species. The main characteristics I use when discussing Redbud cultivars are Flower, Foliage, and Form.
- Flower pertains to the flower color, usually varying shades of pink or white.
- Foliage refers mainly to the color of the leaves. Cultivars can be green leafed, purple leafed, yellow leafed, along with some variegated and multicolor ones too.
- Form is the shape the tree grows into based on its growing habit; for Redbud’s I tend to informally place them into two groups, the uprights, and the weepers.
Upright growing cultivars
These cultivars grow more like the straight species. Their branches grow up and out. The mature height can vary from the full size typical of the species to a dwarf that stays significantly smaller. Below are some of my favorites.
- ‘Forest Pansy’ - A Beautiful red-purple leaf cultivar. Flowers give way to vibrant red-purple new leaves that fades towards green as the heat cranks up in summer, as is typically of most purple leafed landscape trees. Flowers are more rose-purple and the tree grows similar in size to the species.
- ‘Hearts of Gold’ – A vigorous, striking yellow leaf cultivar. Leaves fade to green during summer but regular watering during drought can help them stay yellow longer. One of my favorites for a small, yellow leafed specimen tree. Growing typical Redbud size, maybe a little smaller. Flowers are a similar color to the species.
- ‘Rising Sun’ – Similar to ‘Hearts of Gold’ but with vibrant golden orange new growth that fades to yellow then green. Plants I saw had all three colors on the same tree in September. This unique look made these easily recognizable in the nursery amongst others.
- ‘Royal White’ – Classic Redbud look with stunning white flowers instead of pink. Green leaves. Grows to the size and shape of the straight species.
- ‘Appalachian Red’ – Stunningly colorful cultivar with flowers that are more vibrant and saturated in color than the species. More neon-pink/magenta than red. Regardless, this cultivar is a true showstopper in spring and has been described as “Electric” when planted next to the straight species. Typical size of the species. Green Leaves.
These are dramatic cultivars with branches that grow downward from the trunk to create a contorted, pendulous, fountain effect. They have dense cascading branches that give the tree a dome shape as they descend. Each one is unique based on how it has been grown in the nursery and pruned in the garden or landscape. With age these trees become one of kind specimens and their leafless silhouettes range from graceful to downright spooky. Since many things can be done to influence a Weeping Redbuds shape by pruning, I focus more on the differences in leaf color or flower color rather than their form.
- ‘Lavender Twist’ - A green leafed weeper with rosy lavender pink flowers. A heavy bloomer and vigorous grower. I have a young ‘Lavender Twist’ and I am excited to see it grow into something like this!
- ‘Ruby Falls’ - Gorgeous red-purple leafed weeping cultivar. A wonderful way to add the drama of a weeping red leafed tree to a garden with bonus spring blooms!
- ‘Vanilla Twist’ – Traditional weeping growth habit with pure white flowers. Green foliage.
- ‘Golden Falls’ - Bright golden yellow leaves, lavender pink flowers. The first yellow leafed weeping Redbud is a newer introduction that is sure to stun.
As you can see, Redbuds have made quite a journey. This small flowering tree started in the forests of North America and now, can also be found in gardens around the world. Thanks to their versatility, adaptability, and beauty, Redbuds have solidified themselves into modern horticulture. With so many choices available today there is a Redbud for every garden. Whether the classic straight species or one of its ornamental cultivars, there is no going wrong with a Redbud. Try one and see for yourself what makes them a star.