Tree Talk

The explosive rosebud

The explosive rosebud

The explosive rosebud

Walking the sidewalks of our neighborhood this month, you’re likely to come under a canopy of leaves producing shade that has a gentle wine red glow. You look up to see masses of heart-shaped leaves, the sun filtering through them and making them shine like garnets. 

Had you been under the same tree, or line of parking strip trees, in April, you might have walked under a skeletal roof of handsome black branches one day, only to see the next that each twig was tightly lined with masses of small, magenta to deep rose blossoms. It happens that quickly. And the colorful flower show lasts for over a week or more if the following days are cool and overcast rather than bright and warm. But either way, this tree, a cultivated variety of the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’) is just announcing its annual show. And it is for the hot season foliage that redbuds are most treasured. Soon after the explosion of bloom, the tree sends out its leaves, first diminutive and light green, then expanding and becoming a deep celadon green, ripening into a rich burgundy red. There, rustling in the summer breezes, these leaves stay, casting rosy shade until they color-up and drop in late autumn. 

Little wonder so many Madison Park gardeners have chosen this tree to embellish the front of their houses or provide a gentle screen for a south or west facing window or patio. Paired with trees that have dark green leaves or set against a background of conifers, this tree is a stunner.

Given our nutritious soil and gentle climate (which provides the needed cold snap in winter to make the flowers set), this tree can grow to 25 or 30 feet in as many years. Most often it branches out and stretches up to a height of 12 to 20 feet and then slows down. Trunk and limbs are finely barked in near black. The leaves are as abundant as the spring flowers. This can cause a slight problem when the tree is young. The vigorous new limbs can shoot out at an angle. Filled with leaves, they can get weighted down by rain and will sometimes snap. 

To keep this from becoming a problem, snip back long, errant branches by a third or more, back to an outward pointing leaf bud. If new growth juts out nearly horizontally, you may want to take it off completely to encourage the tree to grow more uprightly. In time, this pruning will train the tree into a dense crown. As the plant matures, it will assume an elegant vase shape and you’ll have little to do but watch it grow and enjoy its beauty.

Several other varieties of this remarkable flowering tree are on the market, but hard to find. For white blossoms search out Cercis canadensis ‘Alba’; C.c. ‘Flame’ has double pink flowers; C.c ‘Silver Cloud’ sports leaves which are marbled with white. 

Another species, Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis) is native to California, Utah and Arizona, but is less spectacular than the Eastern Redbud we grow. 

And anyone who has been in Rome in April has seen the Judas Tree, (Cercis siliquastrum) lining the streets of the Eternal City. Native to Roman Catholic Europe, legend is that this is the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. So humbled by the role it had played in biblical history, the once gigantic tree, shrank to a small, fragile plant, only to erupt in masses of blossom around Easter in a color reminiscent of blood.

Most nurseries will offer redbuds or special order them for you. Give one a good spot where it can spread out to a width equal to its height. Full sun will guarantee dark red leaves. A shaded location will result in leaves that are green where they are shaded, but red at the ends where they reach out to light (like the ones in the photograph). 

Late October and November are the ideal planting months. But if you cannot wait, you can buy the tree now and plant it. Just be absolutely certain that it gets ample water until our seasonal rains begin and temperatures drop. Keep the plant well watered for at least two more growing seasons until its roots run deep. Large green vinyl bags which wrap around the trunks of small trees and can be filled with as much as 20 gallons of water, are now on the market. You’ll see them everywhere, nowadays. One product is called Treegator, for sale in garden stores and on line. Fill them up once a week and the water slowly leaks out around the base of the newly planted tree, giving it the steady irrigation it needs to get established. What you’ll be giving yourself, and all who visit your garden, is an eye-popping springtime explosions of blossom, followed by a summer or rosy shade.


STEVE LORTON, a Madison Park resident, is former Northwest Bureau chief for Sunset Magazine.