Eastern redbud blossoms add beauty, attract pollinators

  • The pink flowers of an eastern redbud tree.

    The pink flowers of an eastern redbud tree. Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

 
By Mark Spreyer
Stillman Nature Center
Posted4/7/2020 6:00 AM

As Arbor Day approaches, I thought I'd feature one of my favorite small trees, the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

When a redbud blossoms, its name notwithstanding, it is not the buds you notice but the actual flowers. In addition, the flowers are not red, but more fuchsia or pink in color.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The blossoms, which usually appear in late April or May, are quite noticeable since they appear before the leaves emerge. Also, the flowers are scattered along the branches, creating a striking impression. Not surprisingly, the tree is a commonly planted ornamental.

The first redbuds I saw were planted by my father in the yard. He planted three, but only one survived.

In retrospect, I think I know why the trees struggled. First, the location was too wet. As the saying goes, plant the right tree in the right place.

Redbuds will grow in a variety of soils, including clay. However, they will not do well in a poorly drained location.

Second, since redbud seedlings quickly develop a deep taproot, they are best transplanted at a young age. I'm not sure Dad knew that. Here at Stillman Nature Center, we have planted a few from one of our board members. She regularly has volunteer redbud seedings sprout in her yard.

Such relocating has been going on for centuries. George Washington told in his diary of taking redbuds from the forest and planting them in the formal gardens of his Mount Vernon home.

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Besides looking great, the flowers attract bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. Speaking of which, redbud leaves and flowers are eaten by the caterpillar stage of Henry's elfin butterfly (isn't that a great name?).

Since redbud is a legume, it has pea-like flowers that become small pods. When ripe, each pod will contain four to 10 hard, brown, bean-like seeds.

Peas and other legumes can obtain nitrogen from the air. They do so thanks to a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria located in root nodules. Redbud is an exception to this botanical rule. It is a legume that does not host these bacteria.

The redbud is a small tree, rarely exceeding 30 feet in height, with a broad, open, rounded form. It often grows with multiple trunks, looking more like a shrub than a tree.

These characteristics make it a good choice if you are planting near an overhead utility wire.

So how do the redbuds fit in the forest? At the risk of oversimplifying, think of a forest as a three-story building. The ground floor is home to woodland wildflowers, ferns and toadstools.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The third floor is where the big guys are rubbing branches. Depending on the type of forest, the top story could be a combination of maples, basswoods, walnuts and oaks.

Where does this leave the redbud? It lives on the second floor, or what foresters call the understory.

Obviously, understory trees do not require full sun. In fact, on a sunny day, redbud trees growing in the open often fold up their heart-shaped leaves located in the upper branches. Doing so minimizes the drying effect of the sunlight.

So, if you're looking for a small tree that will add color to your yard, attract pollinators and can grow in partial shade, plant a redbud this Arbor Day.

• Mark Spreyer is the executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Email him at stillnc@wildblue.net.

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