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An Ode to Redbuds​

by Chris Shirring, March 2024

Eastern Redbud blossoms (Cercis canadensis)The eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is arguably the best small tree you can plant in your home landscape. It flowers in the spring, has beautiful heart shaped leaves, doesn’t get too large, has almost no pests, and the flowers are edible!

Redbuds are an early successional species and can be seen leading the march of the forest into the field. Commonly, you’ll see these native beauties while driving along a highway or riding on a bike path. In a few short weeks they’ll be the bursts of lavender in an otherwise grey-to-green horizon.

Identifying these trees throughout the year is rather easy. The fist-sized heart shaped leaves are a dead giveaway and occur alternately along the stem which zigzags between each leaf. It is considered a small tree, and will reach heights of 20-30 feet, perfect as a patio or corner-of-the-home tree. The flowers are typically lavender to pink but can also be found in white or reddish.

According to the National Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder, 24 species of butterflies and moths use the leaves of the redbud as a host plant for their caterpillars, which are essential food for baby birds. While native redbuds are always the best option for wildlife, there are dozens of redbud cultivars to add even more color and architectural variation to your landscape. Two of my favorites are the forest pansy redbud (Cercis canadensis “Forest Pansy”) and the ruby falls weeping redbud (Cercis canadensis “Ruby Falls”). Both have the same magnificent burst of flowers in the spring but continue the color parade all summer long with a maroon/purple leaf. The ruby falls weeping redbud will only get about 8’ tall and stay tight in a weeping column. As they age, the flowing branches stretch to the ground and begin to crawl outward creating a carpet type effect.

Be wary though, as some of the cultivars are too weak for their beauty. While the rising sun redbud (Cercis canadensis “Rising Sun”) is truly striking, with leaves cascading in color from yellow to green inward along the branches, it is one of the weakest trees you can plant. The leaves are so plentiful and large that they quickly get too heavy and break the branches.

Tight clusters of flowers that flood the stems in early spring are what set the redbuds apart. As one of the first bloomers, they are a great source of food for pollinators as they emerge. People can eat them, too! Their bright color makes the perfect addition to any salad. Once, someone gave me a jar of jelly made from redbud blossoms, and yes, it’s true that it tasted like wet toast, but it was exciting to eat jelly from a tree!*

Clearly, I’m an unabashed redbud enthusiast.  I find them gorgeous, resilient and the perfect size for most suburban or urban landscapes. The next time you’re making an addition to your yard, consider including a redbud – you won’t be disappointed.

Christopher Shirring

ISA Certified Arborist #6999
FLOW Board Member / Davey Tree Expert Company

*Consider this a challenge – can you make a redbud jelly Chris will like? Let FLOW know!