Cercis is from the Greek kerkis, which means “a weaver’s shuttle” and refers to the shape of the fruit; canadensis means “of Canada.”
Eastern redbud is named for where it grows, in eastern North America, and the beautiful, reddish flower buds. Other names include Judas-tree.
NATIVE RANGE AND HABITAT
Eastern redbud’s native range is New Jersey to northern Florida, west to Missouri and Texas and northern Mexico. Trees grow on upland and disturbed sites in a variety of soils. Trees are frequent in mesic woodlands across Kentucky.
Redbud is not ranked as a plant of conservation concern by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.
Growth Habit and Form
Eastern redbud is a small deciduous tree. Trees typically grow 20 feet in height with a similar spread and have gracefully ascending branches and a rounded shape.
Eastern redbud leaves are alternate, simple, broadly heart-shaped and 3 to 5 inches high and wide. Leaves emerge reddish, turning green as they expand. Leaves are dark green in summer and yellowish in autumn.
The showy flowers are pea-like and rosy pink with a purplish tinge. Flowers develop before the leaves in spring, emerging in clusters along the branches. Redbud is ramiflorous, bearing flowers and fruits on bare branches. This is a rare trait in trees that grow in temperate climates. Flowers bloom between March and April and persist for 2 to 3 weeks. Flowers are pollinated by bees. By mid-summer the flowers are replaced by bean-like seed pods (legumes) that persist through the winter. Redbud flowers and young legumes are edible.
The fruit is a flat, oblong legume that is 2 to 3 inches long. Fruit ripen in October and may persist through winter. Legumes have small, red-brown seeds that are ¼ inch long. The seeds are scattered by birds and wind.
The thin bark is gray and becomes scaly on older trees. Stems are slender, dark reddish brown to black and zig-zag.
‘Alba’ is a white-flowered cultivar, otherwise similar to the species.
‘Appalachian Red’ has deep red-purple flower buds and bright pink flowers.
‘Flame’ has double rose-pink flowers. It seldom produces fruit. The cultivar was found in the wild in Illinois in 1905.
‘Forest Pansy’ is grown for its leaves that retain their deep purple color through most of the growing season. It is less abundant in flower than the species.
‘Lavender Twist’ (‘Covey’) is a vigorous weeping cultivar from New York.
‘Pinkbud’ and ‘Withers Pink Charm’ both have flowers that are true pink.
‘Royal White’ is a white-flowered redbud with larger flowers and more compact form. The parent tree is located in Bluffs, Illinois and was selected by J. C. McDaniel at the University of Illinois.
‘Rubye Atkinson’ has true pink flowers that appear smaller than the typical species.
‘Silver Cloud’ was introduced by Theodore Klein in Crestwood, Kentucky. The leaves are variegated, with small to large creamy white speckles. It grows best in some shade.
‘Tennessee Pink’ has true clear pink flowers. It was selected by Hidden Hollow Nursery.
Cercis canadensis ssp. texensis is from the western portion of the range. The branches and stems are thicker and more rigid. It is hardy in USDA Zones 6 to 9.
‘Texas White’ of the ssp. texensis has white, creamy flowers and lustrous green leaves with wavy margins. This cultivar originated in the late 1960s or early 1970s at the old Germany Nursery in Fort Worth, Texas.
The variety mexicana has smaller, more circular leaves with undulating margins and a smaller, shrubby form than the typical species.
Eastern redbud is an ideal garden tree. Trees can be used in small groupings, as specimens and for patios. Trees are suitable for small sites with full sun to partial shade. It is especially beautiful in woodland and naturalized gardens.
Hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9.
Medium, 7 to 10 feet in 5 to 6 years.
Cultivation and Propagation Information
Eastern redbud is a relatively easy tree to grow, particularly suited to full sun to part shade and well-drained soils. The tree does equally well in acidic or basic soils. It is best planted balled-and-burlapped or container-grown as a young tree in spring or fall. Eastern redbud was introduced into cultivation in 1641. George Washington reportedly transplanted redbuds from the woods to his gardens at Mount Vernon in Virginia. Propagate by seed. Seeds have hard, impermeable seedcoats and internal dormancy. Scarification and cold moist stratification are recommended. Cultivars are budded on seedling understock by experienced grafters.
Diseases and Insects
Canker is the most destructive disease of Eastern redbud and can cause stems to die back. Leaf spot and Verticillium wilt (fungal disease) are other disease problems.
Flowers are pollinated by bees.
TRADITIONAL AND MODERN USES
Redbud flowers and young legumes are edible.
Extracts from the inner bark and roots were used to treat colds, flu and fever.
The branches and stems have been used for basketry.
Redbud is an important ornamental tree