A sure sign of spring
by Steve Carroll, Contributing Columnist
Few spring sights rival the impact of rounding a curve on a back-country road and coming upon a group of Eastern redbud trees in flower. The purplepink flowers are stunning against the forest backdrop, even more so if intermixed with dogwoods that are also in flower.
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is one of the earliest and showiest of our flowering trees, with flowers typically opening in late March to early April in our area. The flowers grow in clusters along branches as well as directly from the trunk, and typically open before the leaves begin to expand.
Redbuds are in the pea family, which the shape of the flower clearly shows. We have three redbuds in our small yard, and I eagerly await flowering each spring, both because of the colorful display but also because the edible flowers add a crunch and mild spiciness to our salads. Flowers are an important early-spring source of pollen and nectar and are visited by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. (Fun fact: the flowers look like hummingbirds when viewed from the side.)
TRAITS OF A TREE
After pollination, green seedpods develop; these eventually turn brown and persist into winter. As seeds disperse, they often germinate in nearby garden beds. Though easy to remove and generally not a problem, I’ve visited one property where redbud saplings covered hundreds and hundreds of square feet.
The heart-shaped leaves are smooth-edged, and 3 to 6 inches long and wide. They are purple or green as they first expand, turn green through the growing season and yellow in the fall.
Eastern redbud is a small tree, generally topping out in a rounded or vase-shaped crown that may reach 20 to 30 feet tall and wide. They grow quickly when young, but, sadly, are short-lived; we’ve already had to replace one 20-year-old specimen in our yard.
Redbuds prefer full to partial sun and do best in moist to dry sites. They grow naturally from southern New England to northern Florida, and as far west as Michigan and Texas. In our area, redbuds are common in the mountains and piedmont but less common on the coastal plain.
Redbud’s heavy, hard wood is little used commercially, but it is quite valuable in the landscaping and nursery trade. This small tree is also much appreciated by wildlife. It’s an important source of nectar and pollen at a critical time of year. Songbirds, quail and other animals eat the seeds, deer browse the leaves and twigs, and leafcutter bees and other insects feed on the foliage.
The beauty of redbud was not overlooked by our Founding Fathers. George Washington planted a circle of flowering dogwood at Mt. Vernon with redbud in the middle, and Thomas Jefferson planted redbuds at Monticello and at his Poplar Forest property.
Redbud is one of our smallest trees, but Virginia boasts the National Champion, which grows on National Park property along the George Washington Parkway in Fairfax. When last measured it was 32-feet tall with a 39-foot crown spread. Unfortunately, this champ is in decline, so sometime soon it will likely be dethroned.
In the meantime, look for and appreciate redbuds of all sizes and shapes as you travel this spring.
Steve Carroll is a botanist and ecologist who speaks and writes about trees, gardening and the world of plants. He is the co-author of “Ecology for Gardeners,” published by Timber Press.