Published March 10, 2011 | By Robert LaHoff, Halls Garden Center & Florist
Most gardeners are chomping at the bit this time of year, pent up with cabin fever. Eager to get their hands in the dirt and create new garden experiences there is one tree, this time of year, that is so shocking in its appearance, that it seems to stop everyone dead in their tracks when they see it in bloom. One of the first deciduous trees to welcome spring may be modest in stature, but its presence is bold, especially when clothed with flowers. Of course I’m talking about Redbuds!
Over the years I have grown to love the genus Cercis and most of its members. A highly adaptive tree with respect to soil types, Redbuds perform well in full sun to part shade, but need a little help from its caretaker concerning water. Redbuds don’t like wet feet nor do they enjoy being deprived of water. Well-drained soil truly is the goal. Native to New Jersey, Redbud’s appearance is typically spreading with a flat top to a rounded crown peaking to equal heights and widths of about 20-30 feet. On older specimens a crackling orange hue bleeds into the blacks and browns of the outer bark. More interesting still are the 3” pods (legumes) that form in the fall, starting out reddish-green and finishing brownish-black. Make no mistake though, clearly most people are after the shocking flowers that start out as colorful nubs, born directly on the stems, and finish like streamers hanging within the tree.
There are so many noteworthy choices, of the native type, to choose from and equally as many from the ones native to China. So let’s get to it! A very handsome and extremely popular one to start is ‘Forest Pansy’ Redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’). The heart-shaped leaves emerge red-purple and when the heat index rises these colorful markings tone themselves down to an eventual red tinge with prominent dark-green markings. The flowers of ‘Forest Pansy’ are a better rose-purple than the species and open a bit later too. ‘Covey’ is a weeping form with an eventual umbrella-shaped crown. Ideal as a specimen, particularly around a water feature, ‘Covey’s’ flowers and fruit are quite similar to the species and the eventual height of this garden gem is only 5-8 feet. Clearly there would be room for one in any garden. ‘Ruby Falls’ is the hot, new weeper that again, is small in stature. A selection from the breeding work of Dr. Dennis Werner, NCSU, and the parentage is ‘Covey’ and ‘Forest Pansy’. As things suggest we now have a weeping form with red-purple foliage and rose-purple blooms to be excited about. ‘Hearts of Gold’ has huge, gorgeous, golden heart-shaped leaves and that alone is enough for me. The fact that it too has lavender-red flowers and that the new tips, in the spring, take on an orange-red hue are simply a bonus. This is a new and rare tree so be patient in your search. ‘Little Woody’, as the name suggests, is a tiny wonder for any garden. A heavy bloomer with mauve clusters of flowers also has lustrous, dark green, crinkled foliage. Finally, for the native Cercis, is ‘Pauline Lily’. Found in the mountains of West Virginia and named for the wife of its discoverer, ‘Pauline Lily’ has blush colored flowers, almost white, and is a heavy bloomer with typical heart-shaped leaves that turn yellow in the fall.
There are two Redbuds native to China that I adore. The first is Cercis yunnanensis ‘Celestial Plum’. Introduced by J.C. Raulston Arboretum (like many other outstanding plants) ‘Celestial Plum’ has deep plum-purple flowers. Forming a small, multi-stem tree, Michael Dirr points out that it is “quite resistant to canker”. My friend and colleague Eileen Ferrer introduced my other Chinese favorite to me years ago. Cercis chinensis ‘Avondale’ is, in my mind, the showiest of all the redbuds. A selection from Duncan and Davies in New Zealand, ‘Avondale’ has brilliant deep purple flowers along its branches and main trunk! Eileen’s was a multi-stemmed tree, branched very low to the ground and gave an impressive vase-shaped appearance. So stunning, it continues to stop traffic every time one sees it.
Small in stature, redbuds offer big rewards in almost any garden. Perhaps one of the greatest quotes said about these harbingers of spring and a feeling one gets once they see the flowers emerge is by Michael Dirr, “In my heart, I know that spring is close and the joy and excitement of a new gardening season looms on the horizon”.