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The Beauty, Ease, and Versatility of the Redbud

One Can Never Have Too Many Redbuds

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Memories of Spring

One of my favorite springtime flowering trees is the redbud, Cercis canadensis. Perhaps it is because, when I was growing up, we did not have a redbud in our yard. So, I always admired them and always wanted one. They are one of the first native trees to bloom. And in my opinion, while in bloom their beauty has no rival.

I find it fascinating the way redbuds bloom. With dainty mauvy-pink flowers that cling directly to the trunk and branches of the tree, the redbud in bloom reminds me of a tree in which every twig and branch is wrapped tightly in a string of pink holiday lights. Redbuds cover themselves in a haze of color, outlining every branch, and heralding the start of the new spring season.

Many years ago, I saw a picture in a magazine of a garden that had numerous blooming redbuds throughout. The scene was ethereal, soft and blousy, and when I purchased my home, I tried to duplicate this image by planting a number of redbuds in my shade garden.

Consummate Beauty

Having more than one redbud in your yard is not only stunning, but easy to do, since generally redbuds are smaller in stature (growing to about 20 feet in height) and redbuds enjoy the company of other trees close by. Their small stature and ability to play nice with other plants is what makes the redbud a popular choice for gardeners, with gardens both large and small.

In the wild, redbuds are noticeable from a distance while they are in bloom, which is usually in late March or early April. They are understory trees, meaning they normally grow under the canopies of larger trees and for this reason can withstand a variety of conditions. Their best habitat is in average soil with average moisture in partial shade.  Although redbuds grow well in sun, they may need some supplemental water during times of heat and drought.

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In the garden, redbuds assimilate into almost any design, whether formal or informal. They can be used as specimen trees standing alone, or under-planted with frilly spring-flowering bulbs, or they can be combined with other plants and look stunning as part of a mixed border planting. Their graceful pink flowers match nearly every spring flower color and can be combined with pinks, whites, reds, yellows, purples, and blues. For a dramatic effect, try planting a redbud among native wildflowers such as Virginia bluebell, golden ragwort, or wild bleeding heart.

After flowering, the redbud is a bit more subdued, but still deserves a place in the garden. With large heart-shaped leaves, redbuds contrast nicely surrounded by finer foliage plants. A combination of Christmas fern, goatsbeard and Solomon’s seal would complement the bolder leaves of the redbud. The addition of more broader-leaved plants such as Annabelle hydrangea and wild gingers would create a heart-pounding partly shaded vignette.

As if delicate flowers and shapely foliage were not enough, the redbud becomes a standout once more in the autumn, when its fresh foliage turns a golden yellow, as if each flawless leaf was kissed by the sun itself. In the fall garden, consider combining purple, blue and pink asters with the sunny yellow redbud foliage for a final standout performance.

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Earlier in autumn, bright green shoots appear on redbuds, resembling snow peas, which harbor myriads of seeds. Later in autumn, the seed pods turn brown and continue to cling to the branches well after the leaves have fallen. This of course looks stunning against the snow or when a sheet of freezing ice coats every plant in a shimmering gloss like a sugar-coated donut.

Since redbud is a popular landscape plant, there are numerous cultivated varieties available. I personally grow Forest Pansy, with dark purple foliage in spring which later turns green, and Lavender Twist, a weeping form of redbud. Other varieties include Appalachian Red with darker neon pink flowers, alba an all-white flowered form, texensis with smaller leaves that start out copper in spring, Ace of Hearts with compact growth to 12 feet and smaller leaves, Burgundy Hearts with red-burgundy leaves which keep their color through the summer, and Hearts of Gold with bright yellow leaves.

A Favorite of Butterflies and Birds

The straight species redbud (Cercis canadensis) is still a standout as well and deserves a place in every garden; however, gardeners are not the only ones who will notice this plant. Redbuds are great sources of early nectar for hungry pollinators.  The little brown Henry’s elfin butterfly prefers the nectar of redbuds and may be seen flitting about from flower to flower delicately drinking sweet sugar water.  Birds that are preparing for mating season can feast on the variety of pollinators that have come to the redbud blooms.  Once the leaves emerge, the spring azure butterfly will lay its eggs on the underside of leaves and tiny green caterpillars will dine on the leaves while they grow to eventually become petite blue butterflies themselves.  In the fall, about 15 species of songbirds enjoy eating redbud seeds.

Tantalizing in Looks and Taste

Native Americans also enjoyed redbuds. The flowers and green seedpods are edible. Redbud flowers would make a beautiful addition to a salad. The seedpods can be sautéed in butter or oil with a little salt. They should be harvested and eaten while they are still young and green, the older they are the tougher their texture becomes. Their flavor is similar to snow pea pods. Just be certain no pesticides, fertilizers or fungicides have been used on the tree.

Whether used as a specimen plant, in a mixed border, as a butterfly garden plant, or as part of your edible garden, redbuds make superb additions to any yard. And with all the different varieties, and their ease of culture and small stature, one can never have too many redbuds. I have six, and have just purchased another one this spring. And after writing this article, I think I’m interested in a few more….

By Natalie Brewer, University of Maryland, Howard County Master Gardener

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