Neil Sperry

In love with redbuds: Here’s everything you need to know about the flowering tree

A great garden in a small space

Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.
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Jake and Sharyn Schaffer's patio garden in San Luis Obispo makes the most of the small landscaping space.

If I could have only one flowering tree, I believe it would be a redbud. It’s a close competition that also includes Mexican plum, golden raintrees and even Little Gem and Teddy Bear magnolias. I’m just in love with the redbuds. And we have so many types now. Let’s do some delving.

First, though, the basics. These are botanically from the species Cercis canadensis and they go by the proper common name of eastern redbud. They’re native from Canada (hence the species name) all the way down the eastern half of the U.S. and clear across the Gulf South. Very few trees that we grow are so widely adapted. It’s crazy to think that the little trees blooming pink in our North Texas woods right now are the same species that you’ll see blooming in a month or two near the Great Lakes.

Redbuds are classed as “understory” trees, meaning that they grow in the shade of other, larger shade trees. At least, that’s the way that you’ll commonly find them in nature. You’ll see them growing in nature in the East Texas Piney Woods and you’ll see them mixed in with live oaks across the Texas Hill Country. The smaller-leafed Mexican redbud (either Cercis canadensis var. mexicana or Cercis mexicana – the botanists can’t seem to agree) is found in the western half of the state. Whichever redbud you find, they’re just glad to have a chance to grow and perform under almost any conditions.

If you look at their tiny flowers closely, you’ll soon realize that they look like small pea or bean blossoms, and that means that redbuds are legumes. They “fix” nitrogen from the air and turn it into nutrients your other plants will be able to access. Their small seeds are borne in flat pods that often hang onto the trees’ branches well into the winter.

It’s been my experience that redbuds take off fastest and establish most reliably when I buy them as container-grown stock. Even dating back to my high school days when I did landscaping in College Station, balled-and-burlapped redbuds commonly struggle more than you’d like, too often succumbing to borers in the process.

I normally look for vigorous 10 or 20-gallon plants, and I try to buy them in bloom to be sure I’m getting the color I want, especially if I’m buying seedling redbuds and not one of the named, grafted selections. I plant my new tree at the same depth at which it had been growing in the nursery, and I use the extra soil to create a low berm around the planting hole. That allows me to fill the basin with water every four or five days as I soak the soil deeply. I fertilize my redbuds with the same fertilizer I use on my lawn, shrubs and groundcovers. I apply 1 pound of fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter, and I feed them immediately after they finish blooming and every 6 to 8 weeks the rest of the spring and first half of the summer.

Cultivars …

These are some of the better-known selections of the species Cercis Canadensis that you’ll find in North Texas nurseries. Some will be harder to find than others. Unless otherwise noted, all will grow to be 18 to 20 ft. tall and wide. All of these are grafted or otherwise propagated asexually (not from seeds), so you can expect them to be more expensive. However, the novelty each of them brings makes them worthy investments.

Oklahoma: Glossy dark green foliage with deep purple-pink blooms.

Forest Pansy: Purple-leafed cultivar that holds its rich color late into the spring. Deep pink flowers.

Ruby Falls: Weeping, dwarf type to 6 to 8 ft. tall and 5 or 6 ft. wide. Purple foliage (shades to green in warmer months) and lavender-pink flowers.

The Rising Sun: Lime-green, but new growth is marked in golden orange-yellow and is produced all spring and into the summer. Grows to 8 to 12 ft. tall and wide. Best with a bit of afternoon shade. Pink blooms.

Traveler: Decidedly weeping, to 6 or 7 ft. tall and 8 or 9 ft. wide. Glossy green foliage with rosy-pink blooms. Great accent tree.

Hearts of Gold: Gold-leafed tree with reddish-pink blooms. Reported to be fairly resistant to burning in summer sun if kept moist.

Merlot: Cross involving Forest Pansy that brings its purple foliage and deep purple flowers, but better summer durability. Grows to 15 to 20 ft. tall and wide.

Alba: One of the many white-flowering forms of our popular redbuds. These are nice when blended in with the pink and burgundy shades.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at www.neilsperry.com and follow him on Facebook.

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