The redbud is a tree that is valued far more than its small size might suggest. This lovely harbinger of spring has been called “a breath of fresh air after a long winter” and no less than “one of our most beautiful native trees” by tree expert Michael Dirr.
What makes the redbud so special is its gift of spring color and its hardy adaptability. This little tree, which usually grows no taller than 30 feet, bears showy pink flowers in very early spring, flowers lasting for two to three weeks. The leaves also emerge with a reddish color, giving way to a lustrous summer green and finally to a striking fall yellow. Even in winter this little tree is pleasant to behold, with its arching limbs and rounded crown. Its size and adaptability make it as welcome in a forest setting as in a home landscape, where it can serve admirably as a specimen tree or in groups.
The Redbud’s Place in History
Early settlers found the blossoms of the redbud a delicious addition to their salads. Early folk healers used the bark to treat common maladies and sometimes even leukemia. And many Native Americans chose the wood of the California redbud for their bows. But the sheer springtime beauty of the redbud may be its greatest hold on the American spirit.
Some Common Species
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is native to the eastern woodlands from New Jersey to northern Florida and westward to the Great Plains. It grows up to 35 feet tall, with a slightly wider spread. Many a landscape is made all the more beautiful with the addition of an eastern redbud, which is distinguishable by divided, multiple trunks, a graceful, rounded crown, and flowers of pink (or, in some varieties, white) borne in groups of four to eight. (Grows in hardiness zones 4 to 9.)
The California redbud (Cercis occidentalis) is a small, shrub-like tree seldom reaching 20 feet tall and native from southern Utah and Nevada through California to Arizona. It is known for its red-purple flowers and for notch-tipped and smaller leaves than those found on other redbuds. (Grows in hardiness zones 7 to 9.)