Simple and gracefully beautiful is the only way to begin to describe the much-loved native tree, the redbud, Cercis canadensis. One of the earliest of the flowering trees to bloom, the redbud, along with the daffodils, signals that another winter is indeed coming to a close and that the gardening season is here again.
Long before there were modern garden centers and nurseries, gardeners were digging up redbud seedlings from the woodland edges and transplanting them near their homes. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson documented their use of redbuds, noting that they were such a lovely sight.
It is hard for me to imagine that what we perceive as a modern-day landscape plant was as popular in the 1700s as it is today. Perhaps its extensive native range, which runs from Connecticut to the Gulf of Mexico, aided in its familiarity as early Americans and explorers recognized it as they traveled from town to town along the eastern coast.
Foliage, flowers, and pods
There is something familiar about a native redbud, even comfortable. It grows only 20 or so feet tall and many times equally wide. It has leaves that are large, 3 to 5 inches in length and width, and they have a wonderful heart shape. Fall color is generally a consistent and good yellow. The smaller stems have an interesting zigzag pattern to them when young, and the bark becomes dark with age, almost black, when it’s raining and wet.
The flowers are what we all remember the most. A color I find hard to describe, it’s not red, pink, or lavender but somewhere in between. The flowers are often described as rosy pink with a hint of purple. Blooms appear well ahead of the leaves, and even though they are small, only 1/2 inch or less each when fully open, they make a lasting impression. The blossoms can be found all over the plant, from twigs to trunk, and plants will begin to bloom even when they are very small.
Naturally following flowering is seed production, and the redbud forms a pod like a pea. It slowly forms throughout the summer and then ripens in the fall, when it turns a dark brown. The pods are about 3 inches long, and when they are abundant on the tree they are very obvious, especially in the winter. Many find them an attractive addition while others think it is the worst characteristic of the native redbud.
It is hard to find a plain old native redbud in a garden center anymore, but there are quite a few cultivated varieties or cultivars that are now commonly available and very popular.
‘Forest Pansy’ is one of the most popular. The new growth emerges a shiny reddish purple that fades to green, usually by early July. The flowers are the same as the native redbud. Another popular cultivar is ‘Alba,’ or the White Red Bud. It sounds funny, but the flowers are a beautiful white. There is some question about the hardiness of these two varieties, so if you have a protected site with moderate temperature swings in the winter, it may be the best location for one of these two redbuds.
Some other hardy ones include: ‘Ace of Hearts,’ known for its beautiful foliage and interesting layered effect caused by exaggerated zigzag branching; ‘Heart of Gold,’ with its golden yellow foliage; ‘Little Woody,’ which is a dwarf form growing only half the size of most redbuds; and ‘Covey,’ also called ‘Lavender Twist,’ which is a beautiful weeping form. All of these cultivars have the traditional rosy pink flowers.
I am really excited about a cultivar of redbud called ‘Appalachian Red.’ It is not red at all but has a bright, almost neon pink flower. It definitely gets your attention. The foliage looks like any other redbud, but when you see it in flower you will definitely want one.
Nurseryman Theodore Klein
The redbud ‘Silver Cloud’ was introduced by the late Theodore Klein, an incredible nurseryman in Crestwood, Kentucky, who introduced us to many wonderful plants over his lifetime, several of which are only now becoming more available. Silver Cloud has interesting irregularly variegated leaves and is best grown in a well-drained but moist site that is partly shady. It is bright and beautiful in the right location. You can view a photograph of the foliage at www.yewdellgardens.org in the photo gallery.
You may want to visit Yew Dell gardens in Crestwood. The residence, garden, and nursery of Theodore Klein are now an arboretum for all to enjoy. I will always remember riding around with Theodore in his golf cart several years before his passing. He was always a gracious host, reminding me to hold on so I wouldn’t fall out, and showing me each plant he thought I would find interesting, describing each with such love as if it were a child. Indeed, even just one passionate person can make a difference.
I can’t imagine anyone saying they wouldn’t want a redbud in their garden for any other reason than that there are simply already so many beautiful ones around to enjoy.