The Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) has become a standard urban landscape tree in the East for its beauty, small stature, and toughness. The fact that it is native to our region makes it all the better. It is one of the first trees to flower in the spring before any of its leaves have broken bud, making for a stunning display of pink, purple and white with nothing but the grey-brown bark as a backdrop. After flowering, the redbud opens up the rest of its buds with a green dance of cordiform (tree-speak for “heart-shaped”) leaves that alternate on branches that zig and zag slightly. When summer is at its height, the redbud develops its fruit, a 3” long thin pea pod, with abundance – they often grow right out of the thick main branches. As the pea-like pods might suggest, the tree is in the Fabaceae, or “pea”, family along with other native trees including the yellowwood, the honeylocust, and the black locust, and non-native trees, including the weedy but beautiful mimosa. The redbud is native to the East and Midwest, from Massachusetts south to Florida and west all the way to the Rocky Mountains.
The redbud grows at a moderate to fast pace and can reach heights between 20 and 30 ft., with a crown width of 25 to 35 ft. The crown of the redbud arcs well and can give a nice natural ceiling effect to a walking path or woodland garden patio. In its natural environment, redbud readily thrives in open woodlands with a decent amount of light trickling to the understory. It is more often found on southern slopes and can grow in a variety of soils, but not ones that are very wet. The redbud is an elegant forest dweller, content to reside underneath the sun speckled shade of larger trees, always confident in its unique beauty in spring. This tree is also a rugged one, dealing well with marginal soils and readily re-sprouting after fire damage.
The redbud is a multi-functional tree. Its flowers support pollinator populations, particularly the bees, which are in dire need of support as their populations struggle to remain vigorous in the modern landscape. The flowers are also edible by humans! They work well in baked goods, pancakes, or in salads. The young pods are edible to a lesser degree, tasting decent when stir fried. In addition to food for invertebrates and humans alike, the redbud provides the preferred habitat for the woodland elfin butterfly. Conservationists have placed added value on it for this reason. Alas, despite being part of the pea family of plants, the redbud does not add usable nitrogen to the soil like its cousins do.
There is some ancient lore surrounding the redbud tree. An alternate name for the particular redbud species native to the Middle East is “Judas tree,” as a reference to the biblical betrayal of Jesus by his friend Judas. The lore goes that after this betrayal the redbud was to burst into its crimson show of flowers to honor the passing of Jesus. George Washington was also a great lover of the redbud tree, often including it in his horticultural pursuits and writing about his fondness for it.
The redbud is a tree that transcends the divide between landscape horticulture and conservation, serving both well. It is a gift of the native Eastern Forest that we should treasure and promote. Look out for those pink flowers! See where you can find them in the D.C. area below:
Flickr credit: Elvert Barnes.