The Eastern Redbud Tree is one of the most beautiful flowering trees in North America. Every spring, not long after plants and large trees begin to bud out, you’ve probably noticed bright pink-flowering trees while driving around. When in full bloom they are truly eye-catching. The bright pink flowers occur directly on the wood, not necessarily where you would expect to find leaves. So that makes it very distinct from most flowering trees. These trees are extremely versatile in that they can grow in full sun to full shade, and thrive in both. Although in shade the growth rate will be reduced.
Eastern Redbud Facts
- Is Native in the Eastern United States /Southern Ontario, Canada. From New Mexico to Florida, North to New York/Ontario/Wisconsin
- Can be hardy to zone 4 – 9, see hardiness zones here
- Is an understory tree, meaning it can grow in full shade, under the canopy of a forest
- But is versatile, in that it can grow well in full sun and many soil types.
- Has major value for pollinators in early Spring
- Flowers and young seed pods are edible.
- Is a member of the legume family
- Native Americans used this tree medicinally
General Physical Description and Identification – American Redbud Tree
It is a deciduous tree reaching a maximum height of 30′ with 25′ spread. They have irregular branching canopy structures and often have crooked trunks, but still get rounded crowns. Mature bark on the trunk has flat scales that are somewhat rough, while the younger growth has smooth bark. Frequently the tree obtains ‘multiple’ trunks, as the trunk divides low to the ground. The crown will generally be rounded.
Eastern Redbud Leaves
The alternate leaves are heart shaped and approximately 5″ long and wide. In the fall the leaves turn a bright yellow color, making an attractive display. However, the leaf size varies with substantially depending on the climate the tree is located. For instance, local ecotypes in drier climates will have smaller leaves. The leaves in drier climates area also often thicker and less flexible, which is likely a result of evolution within areas with less rainfall.
The flowers of Redbuds are unique in that they occur directly on the bark. Mostly on branches and young twigs but also on the trunk. This is before any leaves have grown, so all you see is the flowers. It is really stunning when you see a particularly nice specimen, or a string of them growing along a woodland edge or roadside. If you have ever driven through Virginia in April/May, you will be treated to Redbuds all along the highway.
After the flowers have faded, pods will form that are approximately 3″ long and 1/2″ wide (7 cm x 1 cm). These will be light green. They turn brown in the fall and dry out. There are 2-10 seeds in each pod.
Establishing Eastern Redbud Trees
Establishing Saplings that you purchase from a nursery / store
This is a common tree that is widely available. There are even special varieties at specialty nurseries. But planting saplings purchased from a nursery should be done in early Spring or late Fall in a location and soil type that is appropriate and preferred by this tree. The soil should be kept moist but not soggy, which is why early Spring or Fall is the best time to plant. This tree should not be transplanted after establishment, as this tree has a taproot. Transplanting anything with a taproot is tricky to say the least, as the root is often damaged during the operation.
If you are planting a tree that is several feet tall (or more) in the Spring, you should apply a layer of mulch. Place a ring of mulch about 2-3″ deep around the tree from the edge of the dripline in towards the trunk. But – keep an area around the trunk free of mulch about 3″ wide. If the mulch is too close to the trunk the bark can rot, killing the tree.
Growing Redbud from cuttings
It is possible to grow Redbud Trees from cuttings. However, it has proved quite difficult and each variety seems to turn into its own research project. Therefore I don’t recommend propagation of Redbud from cuttings. But, this study found that it is possible if timed correctly depending on the variation. Depending on the variety, they found they could root between 40-90% of cuttings depending on ‘when’ they took the cutting. Their timing on taking cuttings ranged from 6-15 weeks after budbreak. So, if you have a healthy population, it could probably be done. But taking cuttings each week and hoping for the best will probably be somewhat detrimental to a single tree. It is better to just grow your redbuds from SEED!
Maybe get some trees for free? Grow your Redbuds from Seed!
Additionally, if you know where some Redbud trees are growing, you can venture out in Spring and try to find some seedlings (assuming you have permission). So drive around your neighborhood in the Spring and look for some pink trees! Redbuds self seed quite vigorously, and young sprouts are easy to move and transplant. If it is less than 6″ tall, you can probably bet that it was germinated this year. Just dig up the seedling (get all the root). Wrap it in a moist towel and go plant it in your yard.
This tree can be grown from seed relatively easily. It does require a small amount of special treatment though, and is best to be winter-sown.
Eastern Redbud Care
This tree can tolerate full sun to full shade. It grows in almost any soil type, except for hard compacted clay or very coarse sand. It prefers moist – medium soil that is well drained. Preventing drought conditions is important for maximizing the growth rate of the Eastern Redbud Tree, as studies have shown that water deficiencies + excessive heat greatly reduce its ability to process sunlight into food via photosynthesis.
If planted in full sun or partial shade, you can expect great health and vigorous growth. If in full shade, it will grow much slower.
Pests and Problems
There are several different diseases that can attack the tree. These are commonly called cankers, and there are more than one. These will appear as dark spots on new growth, and hard knobs (lesions) on older branches/trunks. If you have these, it is best to contact a professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Additionally, there are several leaffolder bugs that eat the leaves, as well as the Japanese weevil. A leaf folder is a small caterpillar-like larva that will fold up a leaf. You should not need to worry about leaffolders if the tree is well established. If the tree is young, and there appears to be a severe infestation, then spraying a pesticide can stop the infestation.
Eastern Redbud Growth Rate
You can expect a growth rate of 2′ per year or more in optimum conditions. I’ve planted out trees in October that were over 2′ tall that I germinated in Spring. So this is a fast growing tree.
Certain birds will eat the seeds such as cardinals, quail, and other songbirds. Deer will browse this tree, eating new foliage and twigs in the winter. But most references write that it is generally not a ‘preferred’ source of food. In my experience though, deer will eat almost any young tree that doesn’t have thorns!
But besides that, this plant is the larval host for the Henry’s Elfin butterfly. Since this tree blooms early, it is a great and important nectar sources for all pollinators such as bees and migrating humming birds. So in addition to being attractive, it serves a great ecological purpose. All the more reason to grow this tree over non-native flowering trees such as the dreaded Callary Pear.
==>Read why you shouldn’t grow those way-to-common white flowering pear trees
Is the Eastern Redbud Edible?
The flowers of this tree are edible raw. They can be used as a garnish, in salads, fried, or pickled. The young pods of the tree can be cooked by sauteing and eaten similar to pea pods. It has been reported that they are particularly high in vitamin C.
Additionally, Native Americans used this tree in several medicinal ways. I don’t recommend you doing this, as there are plenty of doctors and over the counter medications that are perfectly safe and effective. But they made an astringent from the bark to treat Dysentery, and a tea they would drink to help with whopping cough.
Ways to use and landscape with the Eastern Redbud Tree
This is one of the most versatile ornamental trees. It can be planted in the forest, along woodland edges/borders. That is where I most encounter it in the wild.
But due to how beautiful the tree is it has become popular for landscaping, and rightfully so. I’ve seen many examples of isolated specimens thriving in full sun, and will have some pictures below from my neighborhood. But planting a series of these trees along a driveway can be really pretty. Or just planting one near your mailbox, or at the edge of your house will generally look really nice.
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