Eastern Redbud

Issue: 
July-August 2002

ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS of owning property is the ability to plant and grow some of the wonderful trees that one sees while working in Toronto’s better gardens. The best specimen of redbud (Cercis canadensis) I’ve seen was in the front yard of Mrs. Rainsberry at 3 Banbury Avenue in North York. In my second year of monitoring her property (1991), she offered me a redbud seedling, 1 to 2 years old, and I planted it out adjacent to my front window. It is now 15 feet tall, 15 feet wide and has been blooming (and impressing neighbours) for more than five years.

The eastern redbud grows naturally from northern Mexico to the southern edge of Ontario (Pelee Island) but has been brought north as it is listed as hardy to Canadian Zone 6 and North American Zone 4. I have it growing in Canadian Zone 5b with no dieback.

... a tolerance of soil types and alkaline soils, coupled with a beautiful flower show and unique leaves.

Its best feature is the flowers. The tree develops flower buds along older branches right up to last years branch growth. The clustered flowers are pink and are compared in shape to pea or bean flowers. Flowers develop first and branch and leaf growth starts to develop at the end of flowering. I use my redbud as a magnet for the hummingbirds and have a feeder in the tree to keep them coming back all season.

The leaves are heart-shaped with a smooth edge. Where the blade meets the petiole, the petiole is swollen, which is an unusual feature. If your tree is lucky enough to meet up with some pollen during flowering, flat bean-like pods are produced. The fruit hangs from the branches and can provide some winter interest.
The bark is smooth when young but becomes scaly with age. The underbark is reddish-brown, a feature very noticeable if your cat uses the tree as a scratching post.

John Laird Farrar in Trees in Canada lists it as a very small tree with a maximum height of 8 metres. He gives the alternate name of Judas Tree for redbud. According to the Floridata website “an Old World relative of this tree was used by Judas Iscariot to hang himself.” Michael Dirr in Manual of Woody Plants describes it as a “ native tree with a touch of class” that grows 20 to 30 feet in height. He also discusses the cultivar ‘Forest Pansy’ which has purple leaves; I have seen a few of these and they look wonderful. White flowered cultivars are also possible.

During my 15 years as a pest monitor, I have found few pests on redbud. The leaf-cutter bee will cut small or large shaped C’s from the leaves for use in nest building. Hormone-type herbicides will produce strange leaf deformations if drifted onto the plant. One plant I cared for had a small amount of lecanium scale. Michael Dirr mentions verticillium wilt and stem cankers as potential problems

Although it is shade tolerant, it produces noticeable small dead branches on the inner canopy which may require yearly crown cleaning. It is almost impossible to get a redbud specimen at a nursery without tight stem (branch) unions with included bark.

With its tolerance of soil types and alkaline soils, coupled with the beautiful flower show and unique leaves, doesn’t your landscape deserve a redbud?

— Patricia Thompson, Kelly's Tree Care. Photos from: Trees of Ontario, Lone Pine Publishing, 2001.

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