Vol. 21 Issue 1, Spring 2016
By Kerry Bzdyk
After the subdued colors of a long and snowy Virginia winter, there is no more welcome sight along the roadsides and woodland edges of Loudoun County than the beautiful color of the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis). Just as the landscape begins to look more hopeful, and the browns of dormancy begin to give way, their striking blossoms paint welcome splashes of color in an otherwise muted landscape.
The Eastern Redbud is a native, deciduous tree that grows quickly to reach a height of 15 to 30 feet and forms a crown 15 to 25 feet wide. It is a member of the pea family with a wide range including the Great Plains and most of the eastern United States from Massachusetts to Florida. It is one of the first of our native trees to bloom, with bright reddish pink to purple flowers appearing on old twigs, branches and even trunks. Smooth heart-shaped dark green leaves follow. The wood of this tree is heavy and hard, but because of its irregular shape and small size it is not valued for timber. It is a tough tree and is tolerant of many different types of soils and growing conditions, but is found most often along the edges of forests and on south-facing slopes.
In the late winter and early spring, Whitetail deer will graze on buds and twigs of the redbud. Northern Bobwhite and a few songbirds eat the seeds. During the flowering stage, the blossoms are visited by hummingbirds, butterflies (it is the host plant for Henry’s Elfin) and many species of bees. About two weeks after flowers drop, leaves begin to grow. Leaf-cutter bees will use parts of the leaves for nesting materials in the spring and if you look closely you may notice the telltale half circle of damage they leave behind. By midsummer, seed pods have formed where blossoms have dropped. These fruits are reddish brown and 2 to 4 inches long. Inside each are hard, bean like seeds. The pods often persist into the following winter, making the redbud easy to recognize on a winter walk.
Eastern Redbud was used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. Bark was boiled to make a tea to treat whooping cough and dysentery. Roots were utilized as a cure for fevers, congestion and vomiting. Today, edible flowers are enjoyed in salads as well as fried.
With its rugged nature, rapid growth and exceptional beauty in every season, the Eastern Redbud is a natural choice for the urban landscape as well as the suburban garden. Visit one of our local sources for native plants (Watermark Woods in Hamilton or Abernethy & Spencer in Purcellville) to add this all season beauty to your landscape.