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A Versatile Understory Tree: Eastern Redbud

Jim Lakin introduces us to another stunning, not-too-big tree native to Minnesota – the Eastern Redbud. This lovely specimen welcomes spring with rosy-pink pea like flowers and ends the growing season with large, heart shaped yellow leaves. It would make a lovely addition to your garden. Read on to learn more.

Jim Lakin MD, Dakota County Master Gardener

A Versatile Understory Tree: Eastern Redbud

Last month we talked about one lovely understory (i.e. not too big) tree, the Serviceberry.  Another stunner that you might consider is the Eastern Redbud.  Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a small, graceful tree native to the eastern and central United States.  It is one of the first natives to bloom in the spring when it presents a stunning display of rosy-pink pea like flowers that bloom close to the branches and even on the trunk.  The result is a spectacular springtime show.  The leaves that follow are large and heart shaped, assuming a clear yellow color in the fall.  As Cercis canadensis is a member of the pea family its fruits are brown to black pods, typical of the Fabaceae or legume family. 

If you are considering a Redbud, you should plan on planting in the spring, probably in mid to late May here in Minnesota.  It grows best in full to part sunlight in a moist well-drained soil.  It is pretty tolerant of both acid and alkaline soils and is hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9.  The Eastern Redbud can grow to 20 to 30 feet tall with about a 25-foot spread.  It has a tendency to form multiple trunks, so if you are going for a single one, some pruning will be necessary. In planning your placement, redbud makes a great specimen, patio or lawn tree.  If you plant daffodils or tulips around it, they will bloom at approximately the same time and put on a really impressive show.

In case you’re thinking Eastern Redbud is too good to be true, it isn’t.  It’s a relatively short-lived tree, about 20 years.  It is also susceptible to several pests including leaf spot and verticillium wilt.  The latter can be controlled with deep-root watering, careful pruning and fertilization.  Deer and rabbits love redbud as much as we do, so it is best to apply plastic trunk guards for the first two to three years until established.  On the plus side they do attract hummingbirds and a number of butterflies as would be expected from a native perennial.

Caring for your Eastern Redbud should include regular watering, about once a week to 2 to 3 inches especially in the first two years.  A good thick mulch helps, but keep the mulch about 1 to 2 inches away from the trunk.  Fertilization requirements are usually light.  A soil test can help to determine if there are any deficiencies.   As we said redbuds do well in full sun to part shade.  However, you should avoid placing the tree in a real scorcher of a location as they do better with a bit of shade in excessively hot environments.

Thus, with a little bit of care your Eastern Redbud will become established and richly reward you each spring.

Photo Credit: Penn State Extension (1), (All Creative Commons) (2)

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