In this illustrated guide (with pictures) I will teach you how to grow the Eastern Redbud Tree from seed. This is one of the cheapest methods to obtain this beautiful flowering ornamental tree in your yard or landscape. It is a relatively easy process that just takes some patience for germination. Growing your own plants from seed is one of the most economical ways to beautify your yard through landscaping. Furthermore, this tree can grow upwards of 2 feet per year (60-70 cm) so it really doesn’t take long to have your own saplings that can rival the nursery and garden centers!
Basically to germinate Eastern Redbud seeds you will need to soak the seed in hot water. Then give it a cold/moist stratification period of 1-2 months (or just winter sow the seed), then plant it 1/8″-1/4″ deep. Germination will occur in the spring.
Background and physical description
The Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a flowering deciduous tree that is native to North America. This tree grows 25-30′ tall (8 m- 10 m) and has approximately a 25′ spread. It will grow fastest in full shade, but since it is an understory tree it can still survive in full shade. It will just grow slower.
This tree is commonly used as an flowering ornamental in many yards and businesses and is a great alternative to the ecologically invasive and damaging Callery Pear tree. It is a great source of nectar to early season pollinators, and very attractive.
More facts and growing information about the Redbud Tree are available here at this link.
This tree can grow in full sun or full shade. It can grow in any soil except coarse sand or overly compacted clay. For soil type, it thrives in loam and well drained soil. It likes medium moisture, but is really quite adaptable once established.
Illustrated Guide to grow the Eastern Redbud from Seed
I have found the following process to be the best method for germinating the Eastern Redbud from seed. I’ve germinated 10-20 trees per year for the last two years. This is my method that I have used, and had good success. Seeds of the Eastern Redbud need to be in a cold/moist environment in order to have a successful germination rate. I’ll cover this and the scarification process below.
1 – Obtain seed.
This step is kind of obvious, but it can be kind of hard to find the seed online. Another problem with buying seeds online, is you may not know the source. This can be important, as if the company you buy from got their seeds from a southern Redbud Tree – say in zone 8 or 9, it may not survive a winter in zone 5. That is because the southern tree may have evolved differently.
I’ve only found one source for buying seeds, and it is a good one as you can choose the USDA zone. But a much better alternative is to go and collect some seed yourself from a tree nearby, or in the wild. The seed will be free, and the tree will also be adapted to your local climate. So, go ahead and grab some seed then come back. Also, this study found that larger seeds tend to have higher germination rates. So, once you have collected your seed, if you are only going to plant some of it – choose the largest seeds!
You can read how to find/gather seed for this tree on this link!
2 – Prepare / scarify the seed.
This seed has a very hard outer shell that makes it hard for water to soak into the seed. This is common with most legumes. So, to prepare it for planting we need to find a way to get water passed that shell.
To investigate this, I conducted an experiment to find the most effective scarification method, and I found the highest germination rate by soaking in very hot water. This was way more effective then rubbing the outer shell on sand paper, even when combined with hot water soak. I can’t explain why soaking alone was more effective than a combined ‘knick’ the outer shell + soak, but it was. I had approximately a 30% germination rate for boiling water soak versus <5% with sandpaper + soak. And since I’m not one to argue against results, I know just do the hot water soak. Click on the table below to go to the experiment article.
So, I place my seed in an empty coffee cup. At the same time I boil a small amount of water on the stove (enough water to fill the coffee cup up half-way).
Once the water is boiling I remove it from the heat, wait 10 seconds then dump the hot water into the coffee cup. The shock of the hot water will open the shell up a bit and allow water to penetrate inside. Then just let the seeds soak for about 24 hours before planting.
3 – Prepare pots for planting.
Next, fill some plastic pots or containers with a regular moistened potting soil (I don’t get fancy) leaving 1/2″ of room at the top (12 mm). Once the seeds have soaked for 24 hours and you are confident that they imbibed the water, place them in the soil pressing them firmly. Then, cover with an additional 1/8″-1/4″ of soil (3 – 6 mm) and gently firm it up.
4 – Winter-sow the seeds
Since these plants need stratification, it is best to let mother nature do the work for you! You can just cover the pots in the lid they came in, or a plastic dome. Just poke holes in them so that air can circulate and that some water may enter. Since I generally grow many plants that need cold stratification, I purchase a plastic dome that fits over my tray of seeds. I then poke plenty of holes in the plastic, and secure the dome with twine and duct tape.
Set the tray outside, where it can get some sunlight in the morning, and wait until Spring! Once the outside temperature starts to reach 60 degrees Fahrenheit you should remove the plastic cover. Since the dome acts as a little greenhouse the temperature will be much hotter inside. I’ve cooked young seeds/seedlings this way, so learn from my mistakes! Remove the cover and just let mother nature germinate/grow your seeds. Below is a brief video showing how I prepare flats for winter sowing.
Note – if you are having a mild winter, or are trying to germinate this seed in Spring you will need to ‘trick’ the seed into thinking it has gone through a winter. The easiest way to do this is to place some seed in a paper towel, then fold twice so it is 1/4 the original size. Then spray the towel with water so that it is moist (but not sopping wet). Put it in a zip-lock bag and place into the refrigerator for one month. Then you can plant the seed into soil.
5 – Wait for your germination
Once your seeds start germinating, I let them grow in their tiny six packs until true leaves form. Once I get true leaves, I wait a day or two then soak the cells heavily and remove the seedling. They will pull right up out of the potting soil. I then immediately replant them in a large pot so they can grow to a large size during the summer. Then in the fall, I will transplant the young sapling into its final location to hopefully flourish!
6 – Plant your saplings
It is best to wait until early Fall to plant your saplings. That way the young tree won’t have much water demand since the outdoor temperature will be cooler. Also, the roots will grow long past the frost dates and better establish themselves. I’ve spoken to professional landscapers that plant most perennials and trees well into Fall with good success. The picture below is one I planted in mid-October (I’m in Pennsylvania, zone 6) and it has been just fine.
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