Greet Spring with Redbuds
Redbuds (Cercis spp.) are understory trees and are among the earliest to bloom in early spring, just after forsythia and before the dogwoods. Their amazing pink, fuchsia, and purple pea-shape flowers cling to leafless twigs, branches, and even the trunk. This trait is referred to as cauliflory, meaning flowers on the stem (“cauli-” means stem or trunk and “flory,” flower). The redbud clan, however, is known and appreciated for more than early flowers (which also are edible, delicious fried or in salads).
Notable, too, are their 3- to 5-inch pointed, heart-shape leaves that are sometimes glossy and/or undulate along the edges. What’s more, the trees remain attractive all year, often putting on a colorful show in fall, and the overall vase shape and rounded heads of leafless redbuds display an appealing architectural effect in winter.
Plant at a Glance: Canadian redbud, Judas tree
Botanical name: Cercis species, cultivars, and hybrids
Family: Caesalpiniaceae (Leguminosae, Fabaceae)
Hardiness: Zones 4–9
Conditions: Redbuds are not very fussy about soil conditions as long as the soil drains well. Average to rich soil is fine; C. canadensis tolerates rocky conditions as well. Most species are happy in acidic to mildly acidic soil (pH 5.1–6.5), but C. chinensis prefers more alkaline soil. They do best in sun or part shade in the North but prefer afternoon shade in regions where sun is more intense.
Bloom time: late winter through early to mid-spring
Height: 9–30 feet
Best features: Redbuds produce clusters of small pealike flowers in shades of pink and fuchsia to purple-pink. These are packed, sometimes tightly, against the stems, often almost obscuring them. Flattened peapod-shape fruits containing the seeds follow and remain on the stems. In fall the foliage turns orange or yellow with several selections exhibiting superior fall displays.
Planting: Select a sunny or partly shaded location for your redbud. Install container plants anytime, but dormant plants should be planted in spring or fall when the soil is neither frozen nor too warm. Winter planting is best where winters are mild. Take care not to break the main taproot; container-grown plants are less easily damaged than balled-and-burlapped specimens. Satisfactory soil pH ranges from slightly acidic to barely alkaline. Plant the root ball slightly higher than the surrounding soil to encourage runoff.
Pruning: Remove dead or damaged branches anytime, but otherwise prune redbuds right after blooming. Young specimens need a light touch, more to shape than anything. Older plants often have low-hanging branches that should be cut back to the trunk. If branches appear to be crowded, remove up to 25 percent of the top growth to facilitate better air movement.
Propagation: Most gardeners buy container-grown or field-grown plants that have been balled and burlapped for sale. Softwood cuttings, treated with rooting compound, can be rooted with care. Seed germination is very slow and tedious.
Pests and diseases: Several insects are attracted to redbuds including leafhoppers, Japanese beetles, mealy bugs, and spittlebugs, but they seldom do serious damage. Verticillium wilt and canker are the most severe diseases on redbuds, usually due to stress and infected soils. These soil-borne pathogens cause sudden wilting, twig dieback, leaf yellowing, and premature dropping. Control by pruning out affected parts; dispose of infected material and dip pruners in a sterilizing solution (1 part bleach + 3 parts water).
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