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Native Spotlight: Eastern Redbud

Native Spotlight: Eastern Redbud

Native Spotlight: Eastern Redbud

Driving to my grandmother’s house in Eastern Kentucky for Easter was always a treat.

I loved visiting my grandmother, her house was nestled in a ‘holler’ in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Grandma’s meant love, good food, and viewing nature.

The drive always seemed long, but in the spring it was made more interesting by the flowers. Every tree along the highway was glowing, and no tree glowed brighter than the Eastern Redbud.

Cercis canadensis range map

Eastern Redbud Native Range, wikimedia commons

The purple blossoms to the redbud stood out in contrast to the barren trees along the road. A splash of color in the gray, the blooms always made the drive seem a little bit shorter anticipating the next display of purple blooms.

The Eastern Redbud,Cercis canadensis, is a member of the pea family. It is a small tree that lives in the under-story of the forest. It is usually around 20 feet tall, although it can grow taller. It forms a beautiful vase shape with its branches.

The Eastern Redbud forms a beautiful vase shape with its branches.

One of the first trees to bloom in the spring, redbuds are known for their bright pink or purple blossoms that appear before the leaves. Because it blooms at a young age, these trees are great for new homes. Their flowers are not their only attribute. Once the flowers fade the leaves appear. Their heart shaped leaves begin a reddish brown and by summer are deep green. The leaves turn a brilliant yellow in the fall.

Eastern redbud’s native range includes most of central and eastern North America. It is found from southern Ontario to Florida and west to Texas.

Because redbuds bloom at a young age, these trees are great for new homes. Click To Tweet

Redbuds are very tolerant trees. They grow in all but the most saturated soils, tolerating clay and black walnuts. They prefer medium moisture soils and appreciate part shade in warmer climates. While they will grow in almost any soil, transplanting can be tricky. Be sure to get a young tree with a warranty as they have a long taproot.

Redbud Quick reference box

  • Zone 4-8 (some cultivars less hardy)
  • Full Sun to part shade in moist, well drained soil
  • Small tree
  • Large taproot, transplant young
  • Early to flower
  • Native from central and eastern North America
  • Nectar, pollen, buds

If the normal Redbuds just aren’t flashy enough for you, many cultivars have been developed.

‘Forest Pansy’ is my favorite redbud cultivar. I have it growing on the corner of my house where I can appreciate its scarlet purple leaves all season. It holds the red color well into the summer and turns orange in the fall. ‘Merlot’ is one of ‘Forest Pansy’s’ children, and grows more compact than its parent. If pink is more to your taste, consider ‘Carolina Sweetheart.’ This small tree’s leaves begin life pink and then fade to variegated white or solid green. This is a newer cultivar and so far only rated to zone 6.

‘Silver Cloud’ was found in Kentucky and has variegated leaves. If you want to grow this cultivar be sure to give it some shade to prevent sun burning of the white leaves. ‘Floating Clouds’ is another beautiful variegated cultivar.

‘Hearts of Gold’ takes colorful foliage to another level. This dwarf cultivar has leaves that begin almost orange and turn chartreuse as they age. ‘Rising Sun’ follows a similar tract with its leaves beginning life as a peach color and then fading to green. Both of these yellow versions look best in full sun.

Rising Sun Redbud

‘Lavender Twist’ is a weeping cultivar originally from New York. To get this tree to grow upward, you must stake it. It will weep down from the staked point. ‘Ruby Falls’ is a newer weeping cultivar, grown from ‘Lavender Twist’ and ‘Forest Pansy,’ the best of both parents. It sports burgundy leaves for much of the summer season. Don’t try this tree in zones colder than zone 6 as it is not has hardy as its parents. If you like your weeper with white flowers, try ‘Vanilla Twist.’

‘Royal White’, ‘Appalachian Red’ and ‘Tennessee Pink’ all change the color of the blooms from their usual purple hues. The former blooms a creamy white and the latter two a clear pink.

Check out some of these cultivars in the slideshow below.

Western readers can enjoy a similar tree. The Western Redbud or California Redbud, Cercis occidentalis (syn. Cercis orbiculata) is a great option west of the Rockies. Other than being more adapted to a western climate, it is less cold hardy than its eastern cousin. Don’t let saplings go below 10F. While they can’t get too cold, they do need 4 seasons so they do not do well along the coast. While doesn’t tolerate cold as well as its cousin, it is just as tough. The Western Redbud handles drought much better than the Eastern version, often found in full sun in barren hillsides. It is also fire adapted.

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Redbuds truly are one of the best trees for your wildlife backyard. Because of their early bloom, they are an important nectar and pollen source for bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. These small trees have adapted well to our random spring freezes. While many other flowering trees (weeping cherries and magnolias) will loose flowers to a frost, the redbud’s adaptations allow it to bloom through all but the lowest of temperatures. This makes them a needed nectar source in your backyard. In fact, visit a flowering redbud and you may hear a humming sound of all the little winged creatures enjoying the feast.

Other than feeding adult butterflies, the tree also is the larval host of Henry’s elfin butterfly (Callophyrus henrici), and the surprisingly colorful Lo moth (Automeris io).

Beyond insects, mammals also love this tree. Squirrels enjoy the buds and summer seed and deer use it for browse (protect young trees until they have mature bark). Squirrels are not alone in their love of redbud seeds. Many bird species such as: cardinals, bobwhite, quail and grosbeaks rely on this food source.

How many out there grow this beautiful tree? Tell me about it in the comments!

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