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Plant of the Week: Redbud

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Latin: Cercis Canadensis

Picture of a redbud tree covered in pink spring flowers.  Picture inset: closeup of pink flower structure.

As spring moves into full swing, the purple pea-flowers of redbuds dot the roadsides and landscapes. As one of our most familiar spring blooming trees, it precedes dogwoods by a week or so and is usually in full bloom by the middle of April here in the Ozarks.

Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are native to most of the eastern woodlands from south Texas to the Great Lakes and east to the Atlantic coast. Because they don’t like boggy ground, they're missing from the gulf coastal plains from east Texas to the Virginia tidewater region.

As a tree, the redbud never gets large enough to make saw logs or old enough to form deep emotional attachments. It's usually somewhat vase shaped, like an American elm but seldom over 30 feet tall and wide. It's notoriously short-lived, seldom surviving more than 35 to 40 years.

Redbud leaves are easy to identify, looking as close to a Valentine’s day heart as any of our native trees. The usual color is a flat green, but a purple leafed variant called ‘Forest Pansy’ is common from nurseries. A white variegated form called ‘Silver Cloud’ is also available.

Some redbuds seen in the landscape have a smaller, shiny leaf. These are a subspecies of the more common form found in drier parts of Texas and Oklahoma called C. c. subsp. texensis. The most common of these is the deep purple-flowered selection called ‘Oklahoma,’ probably the most common of the grafted redbuds in the nursery trade.

Fall color on redbuds is yellow, but seldom rating much more than a second glance.

Redbuds are in the pea family and show most characteristics of that family. The flowers have the typical form of the pea and arise directly from branches. The blossoms are followed by clusters of 3-inch long legume pods that hang on the tree all winter, producing the least desirable feature of the tree. Unlike most legumes, redbuds do not fix their own nitrogen.

Most nurserymen still grow seedling redbuds that produce flowers I call "purple." Unlike my brothers, I’m not color blind, just color dumb. Others refer to redbud blossom color as "rosy pink with purple tinge," "magenta, " "pinkish-purple" or "purplish-pink." Take your choice.

Whatever you call it, the redbud has the potential for some ghastly color combinations in the garden. At the moment, the pink dogwoods are in bloom here in Fayetteville, and several of these are adjacent to redbuds. Being no color snob and hard to convince that almost any color combination doesn’t have some merit, I'm surprised to find this combination makes my stomach roll.

Flower color in redbuds has a natural range of variation. Twenty-five years ago, on a trip to Tulsa, I spotted one of these variants, a clear pink-flowered form growing in a pasture outside of the town of Kansas in eastern Oklahoma. A couple months later when the tree leafed out, I hopped the fence and collected budwood.

The buds took and the trees have grown to maturity - a good thing because the original tree has since died. The color is about that of ‘Coral Bell’ azalea and much more appealing than the shades of purple found in the seedlings.

Dennis Werner, a horticulturist at North Carolina State University, is breeding redbuds and feels that the tree is self-incompatible. To get seed set, it must be pollinated by a different tree. If this is in fact true, it would be interesting to grow the pink I found next to ‘Pinkbud’ or ‘Tennessee Pink’ to see if it would be possible to produce pink-flowering redbuds from seed.

Redbuds are easy to grow in the landscape, being adapted to about any soil type provided it is not swampy. Container grown plants often establish better than balled and burlapped trees. They flower well in moderate shade but are at their best in full sun.

Watch the trees while young for narrow crotch angles, because they are prone to produce a lot of branches that become susceptible to ice-breakage as the trees age.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - April 9, 2004


The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.