By Jean Zimmerman, Council Board Member and Commercial Arborist for SavATree

Some folks out there are not that fond of the Eastern redbud, who judge its spread as almost invasive, the way a single specimen will proliferate along a roadside during April like a brightly colored blossoming weed. But with its distinctive habit, I happen to think Cercis canadensis possesses poise in miniature and even a kind of magic.

Redbud ramiflory: flowers emerging directly from branches. Photo of Cercis canadensis ‘Alba’ by Ethan M. Dropkin Courtesy Cornell Woody Plants Database

That habit lies in its flowers, which emerge in March or April as a purple bud opening to a hallucinatory pink or a deep magenta. The redbud flowers unlike any other tree in America, with blossoms emerging directly from the branches and trunk of the tree. The botanical term for this growth is caulifory, referring to flowers and fruit that emerge from out of the main stem, and ramiflory, which means flowers that grow from branches. The redbud manages to do both, giving the tree a mystical flavor, like something you might find on an old Japanese landscape scroll. Most plants possessing these characteristics grow in the tropics. The redbud’s flowers show pink on brown or black bark, recalling poet Ezra Pound’s famous line, “petals on a wet black bough.”

Redbud leaf by Ethan M. Dropkin Courtesy Cornell Woody Plants Database

After flowering, the tree produces heart-shaped leaves, green and lustrous in summer, that are 3 to 5 inches (7.6 to 12.7 cm) long and wide. After that come seedpods, primarily late in the season and occasionally overwintering. Cercis is small and low branching, with a rounded crown of 20 to 35 feet (7.6 to 10.7 m) in height and width. Acid or high pH soils, moist or dry, are hospitable, and it can flourish in full or partial shade. It is featured in Zones 4-9.

Persistent redbud seedpods, characteristic of the legume (Fabaceae) family. Photo Courtesy Cornell Woody Plants Database.

Cultivars include ‘Forest Pansy’, ‘Ruby Falls’, and the white-petaled ‘Alba’, which looks great among a grouping of pink. One thing is for sure: in springtime you will see these little trees flaunting their stuff for a very brief time, propagating by the side of highways, or contained primly in domesticated front yards.

Mature redbud Courtesy Cornell Woody Plants Database

Annual redbud festivals take place in Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin, and the pink explosion of petals was honored in 1937 by its adoption as the state tree of Oklahoma. At these festivals the fairgoers could take a break from corndogs to consume salads decorated with Cercis blossoms. They are deliciously edible and can be tossed over organic mixed greens with sesame vinaigrette. ?