Return of the Eastern Redbud

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Let me introduce (or re-introduce) you to the spectacular native eastern redbud or Cercis Canadensis. The spring display of the eastern redbud is a glorious surprise even to those who know it – and a welcome beacon of early spring. It puts on an amazing show of magenta sweet-pea-shaped blossoms on its dark trunk before the leaves debut. Its eye-catching early blooming makes it a neighbourhood show-off – see if you can spot one in April/May! Eastern redbuds trees grow in partial shade, are drought and pollution tolerant once established, and need some winter chill to put on their spring show – making them alluring to local Ontario gardeners.

The eastern redbud is an understory tree of about 10-25 feet at maturity – usually found growing in the dappled sun of the forest edges in eastern North America. The redbud’s size depends on where it’s grown: it is larger in more temperate zones. It has an elegant, wide branching pattern and can grow in a ‘clumped’ multi-trunked pattern (like birches do). The heart-shaped leaves of the eastern redbud, referred to as ‘cordate’, have a pinky hue as new growth, deep green in summer, and yellow in fall. It’s renown for it’s clustered pink-purple blooms that appear all along its ‘old wood’ branches, trunk, and twigs – an unusual blooming pattern. The blooms are never red as the name ‘redbud’ suggests: perhaps the name derives from the ruddy hue of the early buds against the trunk. It is an attractive urban/ suburban scale tree that would fit beautifully into many back or front yards because it rarely overwhelms a space.

The redbud provides bees and other pollinators with the early-season nectar they need to survive and thrive while you admire it’s fuchsia-cloaked branches. Butterflies and migrating hummingbirds are drawn to redbud flowers. As the blooms fade, the leafy canopy unfurls to lure songbirds to nest and find shelter while providing cool shade for other local species.

The graceful eastern redbud has the dubious distinction of barely being included on our native species list. At the time of list’s compilation, there was only one tree listed in Canada. Just ONE – it was found on Pelee Island and died shortly after the count. Of course, there were likely more – missed along forest streams on Erie’s shores. Looking at the natural latitudes, regions, and conditions of growth of the eastern redbud, we can surmise that this tree once grew in the Carolinian forests bordering Lakes Erie and Ontario (though this range varies depending on the sources used to create the native growing zones). A few may have been scattered through southern Ontario; the edge of its range.

The first redbuds I noticed were in posh city gardens in an upscale neighbourhood where the professional gardeners I observed likely introduced them. I was in awe – not knowing what they were but loving their gentle arching branches and stunning magenta displays. Their smooth bark becomes textured and grooved in attractive light cinnamon colour as they age – which creates winter interest. I was hooked even before I discovered that they were native trees. I will admit to having a multi-year crush on this tree that shows no signs of waning now that I’ve planted one*.

Redbuds are poised to increase in popularity as their beauty becomes more widely known. While I have not seen it, there is a white-flowering redbud (called alba). As gardeners discover redbuds, I’ve seen new cultivars introduced – a dwarf weeping-form redbud (at my local nursery), a variegated-leaf redbud (online), a golden-leaf redbud (online), and a purple-leaf redbud named ‘forest pansy’ (nursery). If you are buying a redbud cultivar, only ‘Cercis canadensis’ is native: there are non-native European, Chinese, and now hybridized species of these trees so choose carefully to support native wildlife and biodiversity.

Redbuds enjoy rich, well-drained soils and sun-shade locations but dislike icy winter winds and transplanting. They are not nitrogen-fixers like many other legume plants – so mulch them. The biggest challenges to gardening with them is their sensitivity to deep-freeze winters in colder zones, their reputation of dying with no apparent reason, and the fact that they do poorly in pots and in transplanting (so garden centers hesitate to carry and warranty them). I recently heard of a garden center that lost it’s whole crop of them due to their finickiness.

The edible redbud flowers are ‘perfect’ – meaning they carry both male and female parts so your tree can self-pollinate. The tree produces bean pods with seeds – which are eaten by deer, birds and squirrels in the forest. An excess of bean pods is an exceptional opportunity and call to guerrilla garden in empty lots and green highway slopes. It can take more than 10 good seeds to produce one small tree and about 7 years for a redbud to flower, but wouldn’t they look beautiful?

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Eastern Redbud … as the flowers fade on the graceful branches, the leaf shoots appear

There are no known redbuds in Altona Forest – if this area held these beautiful native trees they disappeared when the region was first settled. It’s not a prolific or common tree. I would love to see a few eastern redbuds planted along Altona Forest’s edges and so would local birds and butterflies! I think it would echo past centuries when redbuds could have grown along the streams and sunny edges of our beautiful woods.

Do you plant native species? Native species are easy to add into your current garden and can be striking while supporting local wildlife. Here are some reasons you absolutely should add some native plants to your space:

  • They are winter/drought hardy to your region
  • They are generally low-maintenance
  • They draw and support local wildlife in ways we never even considered
  • They are beautiful… like the redbud!
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The first hints of buds often appear long before the snow has melted

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* Since writing this article my tiny suburban garden now sports 3 redbuds – the original older tree in these photos, one small ‘ruby falls’ nativar that is at the edge of it’s range and gave me one flower in it’s second year despite winter burlap-wrapping, and one ‘rising sun’ (clone from southern US cercis canadensis stock) that survived it’s first winter but gave no blooms.

Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

Eastern Redbud in Canada

All About Redbuds

Redbud Structure

 A Gardener’s Short

Growing the Eastern Redbud

Growing Redbuds

Transplanting Tips

Images of parts of the tree

Redbud Factsheet (US)

Redbud: Blossom to Sapling (US)

Redbud growing characteristics

Redbud Ontario Gardener Feedback:

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PLEASE NOTE: A coloured Province or State means this species occurs SOMEWHERE in that Province/State. Ontario is coloured, regardless of the fact that redbuds only naturally grow in the south tip on Lake Erie and perhaps Lake Ontario. Range map provided courtesy of the USDA website and is displayed here in accordance with their Policies

Return of the Eastern Redbud ~ © 2015 Natasha G

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