Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern Redbud, American Judas Tree, American Redbud, Redbud

If you’re looking for a small tree that can provide a brilliant pop of color in your backyard, consider an American redbud tree. These easy-care natives add gorgeous color to the spring landscape with their striking pink flowers and lovely heart-shaped leaves that look beautiful after blooms fade. Plus, the redbud’s compact size means it’s a perfect fit for almost any garden. Read on to learn how to care for the easy-to-grow eastern redbud.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Cercis canadensis, the eastern redbud, is a large deciduous shrub or small tree, native to eastern North America from southern Michigan south to central Mexico, west to New Mexico. Species thrive as far west as California and as far north as southern Ontario. It is the state tree of Oklahoma. The prevalence of the so-called “Columbus strain” has seen the residents of Columbus, Wisconsin embrace the plant into their city’s identity. Known as the “Redbud City,” the town hosts “Redbud Day” annually the Saturday before Mother’s Day, organizing a variety of themed events to recognize the tree.

The eastern redbud typically grows to 6–9 m (20–30 ft) tall with an 8–10 m (26–33 ft) spread. It generally has a short, often twisted trunk and spreading branches. A 10-year-old tree will generally be around 5 m (16 ft) tall. The bark is dark in color, smooth, later scaly with ridges somewhat apparent, sometimes with maroon patches. The twigs are slender and zigzag, nearly black in color, spotted with lighter lenticels. The winter buds are tiny, rounded and dark red to chestnut in color. The leaves are alternate, simple, and heart shaped with an entire margin, 7–12 cm (3–4.5 in) long and wide, thin and papery, and may be slightly hairy below.

The flowers are showy, light to dark magenta pink in color, 1.5 cm (1⁄2 in) long, appearing in clusters from spring to early summer, on bare stems before the leaves, sometimes on the trunk itself. There are cultivars with white flowers. The flowers are pollinated by long-tongued bees such as blueberry bees and carpenter bees. Short-tongued bees cannot reach the nectaries. The fruit are flattened, dry, brown, pea-like pods, 5–10 cm (2–4 in) long that contain flat, elliptical, brown seeds 6 mm (1⁄4 in) long, maturing in August to October.

  • Bark: Red brown, with deep fissures and scaly surface. Branchlets at first lustrous brown, later become darker.
  • Wood: Dark reddish brown; heavy, hard, coarse-grained, not strong. Sp. gr., 0.6363; weight of cu. ft. 39.65 lbs.
  • Winter buds: Chestnut brown, obtuse, one-eighth inch long.
  • Cotyledons oval, flat
  • Leaves: Alternate, simple, heart-shaped or broadly ovate, two to five inches long, five to seven-nerved, cordate or truncate at the base, entire, acute. They come out of the bud folded along the line of the midrib, tawny green; when they are full grown they become smooth, dark green above, paler beneath. In autumn they turn bright clear yellow. Petioles slender, terete, enlarged at the base. Stipules caducous.
  • Flowers: April, May, before and with the leaves, papilionaceous. Perfect, rose color, borne four to eight together, in fascicles which appear at the axils of the leaves or along the branch and sometimes on the trunk itself.
  • Calyx: Dark red, campanulate, oblique, five-toothed, imbricate in bud.
  • Corolla: Papilionaceous, petals five, nearly equal, pink or rose color, upper petal the smallest, enclosed in the bud by the wings, and encircled by the broader keel petals.
  • Stamens: Ten, inserted in two rows on a thin disk, free, the inner row rather shorter than the others.
  • Pistil: Ovary superior, inserted obliquely in the bottom of the calyx tube, stipulate; style fleshy, incurved, tipped with an obtuse stigma.
  • Fruit: Legume, slightly stipulate, unequally oblong, acute at each end. Compressed, tipped with the remnants of the style, straight on upper and curved on the lower edge. Two and a half to three inches long, rose color, full grown by midsummer, falls in early winter. Seeds ten to twelve, chestnut brown, one-fourth of an inch long.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Eastern redbuds grow well in full sun to part shade. Full sun typically encourages optimal flowering, but providing some shade is recommended in hot climates.

Watering

Eastern redbud likes moist soil and requires a regular watering schedule. When the top 2-3 inches of soil are dry, it’s time for watering. Water it regularly and thoroughly, instead of frequently will less water. During summer, the plant will probably need more water than usual. However, don’t let your Eastern redbud sit in soggy soil.

Soil

This tree is not picky about soil type and will tolerate sandy and clay soils with a range of pH levels. The soil should remain consistently moist and does not need to be overly fertile; moderate fertility is fine. Most importantly, the soil must drain well.

Fertilizing

Eastern redbud can be fertilized in spring with a granular, general-purpose fertilizer. Another option is adding well-rotted manure or garden compost to the soil before planting. Young plants can greatly benefit from fertilizer during their initial years of growth. You can also use a liquid fertilizer 2-3 times during the growing season.

Planting Instructions

Planting a redbud is much like planting any other tree. Once you select the site for your redbud, dig a hole at least three times as wide as the tree’s roots. Be sure the root ball is even with the ground when you place the tree in the hole. Once your tree is in the ground, ensure it is straight and backfill your hole with native soil. Water thoroughly after planting.

You can easily grow a redbud tree for free by collecting and planting seeds from a neighborhood tree or rogue seedling. Redbuds are prolific self-sowers and if you live near one, you may well find baby redbud seedlings sprouting in your yard or garden. Growing a redbud from a nearby tree ensures your tree will adjust easily to local growing conditions. It is also possible to buy and plant containerized trees. Either way, all seedlings and saplings need regular water until established.

Pruning

Though generally low-maintenance, good redbud tree care does involve protecting branches. Their long, lateral branches tend to break and require a location with shelter from the wind. Prune redbud trees to avoid irregular branching and to keep their structure strong. Remove branches with V-shaped joints to prevent breakage and tree damage. Prune during dry weather in fall to maintain a natural growth habit and get rid of any dead branches.

Propagation

As Cercis canadensis is a cultivar, it can only be propagated by grafting. This is generally not feasible for hobby gardeners.

Pests and Diseases

The rosebud may develop the following diseases:

  • Anthracnose (leaf spots): Control with liquid copper fungicide spray.
  • Botryosphaeria canker and dieback (Botryosphaeria ribis): Control by pruning 3 to 4 inches below each canker (sanitize your tool between cuts) and applying fungicide spray.
  • Verticillium wilt (Verticillium albo-atrum and V. dahliae): Control with careful pruning (including sanitizing of pruning equipment), deep-root watering, and proper fertilization.

Rosebud flowers attracts these pests:

  • Deer
  • Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica)
  • Leafhopper (Tortricidae)
  • Mealybug
  • Potato leafhopper (Empoasca fabae)
  • Rabbit
  • Redbud leaf folder (Fascista cercerisella)
  • Spittlebug
  • Two-marked treehopper (Enchenopa binotata)
  • Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

You can take steps to prevent these pests from getting into your garden, such as barriers to keep large and small animals out and natural insect repellents to keep critters away.

III. Eastern Redbud Varieties

  • Alba: A naturally occurring form with white flowers; smaller than species tree, reaching about 15 to 25 feet in height
  • ‘Ace of Hearts’: A compact cultivar that grows only 12 feet high and has bright pink blooms
  • ‘Forest Pansy’: Rich purple leaves, turning to bronze in the heat of summer; rose purple blooms come relatively late
  • ‘Pink Pom Poms’: Dark-pink double flowers; glossy leaves; no seed pods, due to sterility
  • ‘Covey’: A weeping variety, forms an umbrella shape and grows 5 to 6 feet high and 6 to 8 feet wide; leaves turn yellow in fall

IV. Uses and Benefits 

  • Culinary uses

The flowers can be eaten fresh or fried.

In some parts of southern Appalachia, green twigs from the eastern redbud are used as seasoning for wild game such as venison and opossum. Because of this, in these mountain areas the eastern redbud is sometimes known as the spicewood tree.

Native Americans consumed redbud flowers raw or boiled, and ate roasted seeds. Analysis of nutritional components in edible parts of eastern redbud reported that the flower extract contains anthocyanins, green developing seeds contain proanthocyanidin, and linolenic, α-linolenic, oleic and palmitic acids are present in seeds.

  • Ornamental uses

Eastern redbud is found in public parks and home gardens across North America. Its flowers are beloved for their likeness to pink sweet peas, giving this tree a remarkable appearance in the springtime. Eastern redbud can be used to add some lovely cherry-blossom-type hues to your garden and works wonderfully as a barrier or standalone piece. Perfect for cottage or traditional gardens, it works well when planted with dogwood trees, witch hazel, and snowberry plants.

  • Ecological benefits

The leaves are eaten by the caterpillars of some Lepidoptera—for example, Henry’s elfin, the redbud leaffolder, the red-humped caterpillar (which can cause extensive defoliation in late summer but generally does no lasting harm to a healthy tree), the fall webworm (also a late-season defoliator), the white flannel moth, the American dagger moth, the grape leaffolder, and the Io moth.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) Details

Common name Eastern Redbud, American Judas Tree, American Redbud, Redbud
Botanical name Cercis canadensis
Plant type Edible
Hardiness zone 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Fall
Height 20 ft. 0 in. - 30 ft. 0 in.
Width 20 ft. 0 in. - 30 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Pink
Leaf color Green