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Garden Tips Newsletter

What is that vivid purple-flowering small tree in the edge of the woods along the roadsides?
March 30, 2009

I bet you have noticed this tree. It is still in bloom in most of the state. In fact, this native tree grows nearly anywhere Southerners care to plant it. Its ease of culture and glorious spring flowers place it high on the list of popular landscape plants.

Photo of a redbud I think one of the most difficult things to describe about the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is the color of its blossoms. Are they pink or purple, lavender or rose? Actually, they may be any one of these colors, for redbuds exhibit great variability. There is even a form with white flowers. But the most common color is electric magenta, a color seldom seen in nature.

Just as striking as the color of its flowers is the way a redbud blooms. Unlike most other trees, which bloom near the tips of younger branches, a redbud blooms along all of its branches. Blossoms even burst directly from the trunk. An added bonus is that the blooms are edible. The taste reminds me of raw English peas—which makes sense as the redbud is in the legume family. So, go ahead and sprinkle a handful of these vivid blossoms on your fresh green salad!

Most eastern redbuds sold in local garden centers are grown from seed, so their flower colors vary. If you want a pink-flowering tree instead of a purple one, you need to choose it while it’s in bloom. Some grafted selections are available. They include Alba with white flowers and Forest Pansy with reddish purple flowers and screaming, shimmering red-purple foliage that changes to a more subdued color as the season progresses.

Because its flowers are so penetrating in color, use care when you select a planting spot for eastern redbud. It works well in combination with another native tree, the white dogwood. Doesn’t go so well with bright reds or oranges. That’s one reason this tree is used as an accent, either in a grouping or one tree by itself.

Unless they’re quite small redbuds seldom survive transplanting from the wild. So purchase healthy, container-grown or balled and burlapped trees from a nursery or garden center. These trees are adaptable but do best in moist, well-drained soil. They prefer full sun or light shade. Insects are seldom a problem, but a disease called canker can be a serious threat. The best prevention is to keep the tree vigorous through annual fertilization and by watering during dry periods.

The eastern redbud is one of our most beautiful spring flowering trees with a blossom color that is indescribable. After the flowers fade the emerging heart shaped leaves add to the overall beauty of this native tree. If you don’t have this tree in your landscape consider planting one so you can enjoy those beautiful, vivid blossoms on the tree as well as in your salad!

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Lelia Scott Kelly, Ph.D., writes Garden Tips weekly and is a Horticulture Specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. Her office is in the North Mississippi Research & Extension Center, Verona.