Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis: “Pea Flowers”
In early spring the distinctive and profuse flowers of eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), a small tree native to eastern and central North America, defy color-description. Are they pink? Rose? Purple? Lilac? We need a new redbud word. Clustered against the gray bark of their leafless branches, the darker buds (magenta?) open to a thick and pale pink pelt, giving the tree a psychedelic and slightly prehistoric appearance.
Read on to learn how to cultivate this native tree, and why.
Photography by Marie Viljoen, unless otherwise noted.
Equally happy in sun or semi-shade, redbud is a natural understory tree which also adapts well to the high shade created by clusters of city buildings. Cold hardy redbud will grow in USDA zones 4 to 9. Its one steady requirement is ample moisture; this is not a tree for dry areas.
The famous pea-like flowers are not only pretty but edible. Add a handful to a salad or to summer rolls for a burst of crisp sweetness.
If you would like an alternative to green leaves, ‘Forest Pansy ‘ has deeply purple foliage.
The appealingly heart-shaped foliage rounds out the slender trees and creates deep shade beneath the branches. In fall the leaves turn a bright yellow.
- Some subspecies of Cercis canadensis will tolerate drier conditions: Ask for C. canadensis var. mexicana and C. canadensis var. texensis at native-plant nurseries.
- Redbud is the state tree of Oklahoma.
- Native Americans enjoyed the flowers as food.
- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew the tree in their gardens at Mount Vernon and Monticello.
Keep It Alive
- Native to states with high annual rainfall, eastern redbud needs plenty of moisture and good drainage.
- Apply a layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture (do not mound it around the trunk, or the tree will rot).
- If planted in a container, choose one 24 inches or more in diameter, and monitor water closely (do not forget essential drainage holes).
- Redbuds are very stressed by a brief drought; stress makes them prone to disease (just like humans).
- If a branch is injured, prune it off cleanly: Injuries serve as portals for the fungi that cause dieback and Verticillium wilt in redbuds.