By Nancy Buley, Director of Communications, J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
Photographs courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
Eastern redbuds bring cheer to the spring garden when their winter-bare limbs explode with bright pink blooms that crowd along the branches and twigs. Thanks to the efforts of plant breeders, a recent boom in cultivar development expands the flower, foliage and form options available to gardeners. Breeding and selection breakthroughs have given rise to weeping and variegated cultivars, a wider spectrum of flower and leaf colors, and a surge of interest in this tough, adaptable species.
This North American native tree is a source of double delight, thanks to green, heart-shaped foliage that unfurls after the flowers fade. Summer foliage is typically medium green, and fall color is yellow. In addition to brightening the early spring landscape with their ephemeral blooms, redbuds provide great support for bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators as an early-season nectar source. Bloom times vary according to climate zone, with flowers appearing in March to early April in the South, and about a month later in the northern reaches of its native range.
Colorful options offered by cultivars include the purple foliage of the longtime favorite Forest Pansy Redbud. Newer cultivars including Merlot (C. canadensis ‘Merlot’ PP 22297) offer deeper, darker foliage color and variations in pink flower color. Thanks to its parentage that includes C. texensis, Merlot has glossier leaves and better heat and drought tolerance than Forest Pansy. Growth habit is a bit more compact than Forest Pansy, as well.
Additional purple-foliaged cultivars include Burgundy Hearts® (C. canadensis‘Greswan’), Black Pearl™ (C. canadensis ‘JN16’), and Ruby Falls (C. canadensis‘Ruby Falls’ PP 22097), which takes its bright rose-purple blooms and fabulous deep purple foliage to new lows via gracefully weeping branches.
Cultivars with variegated leaves add a new color dimension. Alley Cat and Floating Clouds offer green and white leaf variegation. Carolina Sweetheart™ (C. canadensis ‘NCCC1) and Whitewater, both developed at North Carolina State University, are worth exploring, too.
Hearts of Gold Redbud (C. canadensis ‘Hearts of Gold’ PP 17740) burst on the scene a decade or so ago, delighting gardeners with its golden foliage that deepens to green as the summer wears on. Even more interesting is an aptly named cultivar, The Rising Sun (C. canadensis ‘JN2’). Apricot-orange emerging foliage turns golden orange and matures to green as the heat of summer intensifies.
White-flowering redbuds are another interesting color option. Royal White presents white flowers in springtime and Vanilla Twist (C. canadensis ‘Vanilla Twist’ PP 22744) is a new, white-flowered weeping cultivar that’s sure to become a popular garden tree.
Pink Heartbreaker Redbud (C. canadensis 'Pink Heartbreaker' PP 23043) offers lavender pink flower clusters that cling tightly to the weeping branches of this vigorous, heat and drought tolerant cultivar. Spring growth flushes red and matures to dark green, heart-shaped leaves. Fall color is yellow. Form is wider spreading and more irregular in branch habit than that of the well-known and widely planted Lavender Twist®. Mature height and spread of this tree are approximately 12 x 8 ft.
Pink Pom Poms Redbud (C. canadensis ‘Pink Pom Poms’ PP 27630) is a breeding breakthrough for the species due to its bold, double-petaled sterile flowers. Developed by Dr. Denny Werner of North Carolina State University, it is a true cheerleader for the advent of spring when its voluptuous blooms pop open along the bare branches of the tree like thousands of tiny pom poms. Dr. Werner has devoted much of his career to the breeding of redbuds and is the originator of the majority of the newer cultivars mentioned above. He describes the unique traits of this gorgeous redbud in this YouTube video.
Several newer cultivars expand the hardiness range of redbuds and give northern gardeners the opportunity to enjoy these harbingers of spring. Northern Herald® Redbud (C. canadensis ‘Pink Trim’) was discovered in South Dakota, trialed for hardiness and introduced by North Dakota State University. Too new in the marketplace to be widely available, it is worth waiting for if you garden in a cold climate. More likely to be available in the Great Lakes region are trees grown from northern seed sources. Known as ‘Minnesota Strain,’ or ‘Minnesota Hardy,’ they are reasonably easy to find in the area.
Joy’s Pride™ Redbud (C. canadensis ‘Morton’) is another option for cold-winter gardeners. This time-tested beauty originated at The Morton Arboretum in northern Illinois and is named for the arboretum’s founder, Joy Sterling Morton. Proven reliably cold hardy by Chicagoland through winters in which temperatures have plunged as low as -34 degrees F., it is a vigorous grower that flaunts bright lavender pink flowers in spring.
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