DON’T GO BY WHAT PEOPLE TELL YOU, judge by what you see in the landscape. I learned this from the redbud. Some folks claim it isn’t hardy hereabouts, but take a look in Chatham, in Niverville, and along Schodack’s Brookview Road, and you’ll see them now, in full spring color mode. Normally blooming after the shadbush but before flowering dogwood, this crazy year they’re all overlapping, with the redbud the queen of the show.
While neither the buds nor the flowers are red on Cercis canadensis, it doesn’t matter, since their hot pink-purple-magenta hues hint that Mother Nature might have spent time as a showgirl. Initially shaped like miniature Christmas bulbs and covering each twig, branch and the smaller trunks, the buds open into small pea-like flowers. Since all this color happens well before the obscuring leaves emerge, redbuds can be identified a quarter-mile away. This makes a good pastime for us Yankees when we can travel south in April, since they’re common understory and woodland-edge trees from Pennsylvania all the way to Texas.
Redbud’s flash fades as spring rolls on, but it still retains charm. The overall habit ranges from vase-shaped to rounded, with the youngest branches exhibiting a distinct zig-zag growth pattern. The matte green leaves are heart-shaped, up to four inches across, and usually turn a handsome yellow-orange in autumn. The pea-like flowers yield pea-like pods that don’t prove to be as obnoxiously prolific as a maple’s. Growing to only perhaps 25 feet, it can fit into a small garden, in either a sunny or shady spot, in average soil.
One vice attributed to redbud is a propensity to split under a heavy ice load. I witnessed this three winters ago, when a sizable branch was peeled off the main stem of my young tree. Without the branch, the tree was essentially destroyed, so in a fit of optimism I trudged through the ice and fastened the limb back in place, using three two-and-a-half inch drywall screws. Heck, I reasoned, if a surgeon can screw bone back together, why can’t a horticulturist fix living wood? The wound calloused over, the limb continued to live, and today the tree is still an attractive specimen. While this isn’t a Cornell-approved remedy, faced with another injured woody plant I wouldn’t hesitate to give it another try.
A cousin to our native tree, also called redbud but with the botanical name Cercis siliquastrum, figures large in a Biblical legend. This redbud grows in a wide range, from southern France all the way to eastern Asia, and is a bit taller, but similar in flower and foliage. The story goes that after betraying Christ, Judas Iscariot hanged himself from this Cercis, which blushed pink in shame (it originally featured white blossoms). With this heavy cross to bear, it developed weak wood so that it would never be considered for such a dirty deed ever again. The tree was thereafter known as the Judas Tree, a name which some even apply to our own American redbud.
To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email