Early Blooming Redbuds
In recent years native trees and shrubs have become increasingly popular and practical choices for local landscapes. Whether it’s the result of the trend toward conservation of natural resources or a matter of tighter budgets, growing native plants makes sense. In general they require less water, maintenance and pampering. And in a climate as changeable and often as harsh as Augusta’s, that is very attractive indeed.
Early blooming redbuds, also known as Judas trees, are a good choice when considering native ornamental trees. The namesake of the 16th hole at the Augusta National Golf Club, this notable tree is strikingly conspicuous in early spring, typically producing its subtle yet welcome blooms before the rest of the landscape has awakened.
Considered to be a small tree, the redbud matures at 20 to 30 feet in height and 15 to 35 feet in width. Redbuds grow at a moderate rate, about 7 to 10 feet in five to six years. They tend to be short lived, often declining from disease after about 20 years, a lifespan not unlike two other locally popular trees—dogwoods and Bradford pears.
Native redbud flowers form on pedicels in clusters of two to eight. The clustered perfect flowers are found primarily on the outermost twigs, but also scattered on the inner branches and trunks of the tree. In Augusta, flowers usually appear in late February to early March, with peak blooms around March 7. After that leaves appear and the blooms begin to drop. Then fruit emerges in the form of flat reddish-brown pods, reaching full size by mid-summer. Each pod contains four to 10 bean-like seeds, which remain on the tree until after leaf fall.
Redbuds are ideally planted in naturalized areas, where their flowers are contrasted against evergreens or woodlands. They can be grown as specimens or in groupings in a shrub border. They are also a great tree to plant near a porch or patio.
Although redbud will survive in most soil types, it prefers moist, well-drained sites, but not areas where the soil is permanently wet. It will tolerate acid or alkaline soil, but like most trees, prefers a pH in the 6.0 to 6.5 range.
It will grow in full sun or dense shade, but ideally it should receive morning sun and afternoon shade. While it tolerates moderate drought, irrigation during Augusta’s summer dry spells is recommended.
Redbuds are best transplanted when they are very small. Attention to soil preparation when planting redbuds is also very important to successful growth. Dig a large, wide hole (two to three times the size of the root ball) and work the backfill soil well. However, don’t amend the backfill soil with compost or organic matter as the tree needs to grow in its native soil. If you want to use organic matter, place it on top of the planted tree as mulch rather than in the planting hole.
Place the tree in the planting hole at the same depth it was growing in the pot, in the woods or at the nursery. Planting a redbud too deeply is a major contributor to growth difficulties. It is also a good idea to firm the soil at the bottom of the hole to help prevent settling.
Many gardeners make the mistake of automatically staking a new tree after planting. But if the tree doesn’t need staking, don’t do it. A newly planted tree will grow better and faster if it is allowed to move in the wind. Use a stake only if the tree won’t support itself or is in a high wind area. When staked, make sure the tree has some movement and is not completely rigid, and do not use materials that will cut into the trunk. Check the staking every two to four weeks and make adjustments over time as needed.
As with all plants, mulching is very important and has many benefits. It conserves moisture during droughts and helps keep the roots warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Mulch should be about two to four inches thick, but not placed directly against the trunk. Also avoid the “volcano” mulching where too much is placed around the tree.
When growing near a walkway or patio, low branches of the tree will likely need to be pruned for clearance beneath the canopy. As always, prune out any dead branches that may develop on the tree. Like most plants that bloom during early spring, flower buds are set during the previous growing season, so any pruning or thinning should be done after flowering is complete.
Fertilize redbuds in early spring to mid-summer, using a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10, 16-4-8 or something similar. Make light applications around the drip line or edge of the canopy. A good rule of thumb when applying 10-10-10 would be 2 tablespoons of fertilizer for trees less than 4 feet; 5 tablespoons for trees 4-6 feet; and 6 tablespoons for trees 6-8 feet. For 16-4-8 fertilizer apply 1 tablespoon for trees under 4 feet; 3 tablespoons for trees 4-6 feet; and 4 tablespoons for trees 6-8 feet.
Relatively speaking, redbuds are pest- and problem-free, with the most common exception of canker diseases. Wounds created by improper pruning or mechanical injury (from lawn mowers and weed eaters) serve as entry points for the fungus that infects the wood and causes cankers. Occasionally insects such as treehoppers, caterpillars, scale and leafhoppers can cause damage.
Additional redbud cultivars have been developed over the years. Four particularly unique and interesting ones are Forest Pansy, Oklahoma and Texas White, and Lavender Twist—all chosen as Georgia Gold Medal plants for their ability to grow and thrive in Georgia’s climate.
Forest Pansy with its striking purple/red foliage is a real stand-out in the landscape. Its heart-shaped leaves emerge as a shimmering red-purple in the spring, fading to a deep plum-purple as the season progresses. Rose-pink flowers coat the twigs when in bloom.
Oklahoma redbud boasts glossy, somewhat leathery green leaves with wavy margins and showy magenta-rose colored flowers. The leaves alone make the plant worth having, while the blooms that appear in March are an added bonus.
Texas White, discovered in Fort Worth, Texas, has glossy, green leaves similar to those of Oklahoma, but it bears milky white flowers. The addition of this unusual cultivar to your landscape will likely be a real conversation piece.
Perhaps the most unusual redbud is Lavender Twist, which is sure to provide a notable focal point in your landscape. Lavender Twist begins its spring show with lavender-pink, pea-like blossoms borne along cascading branches. After the heart-shaped leaves emerge, the tree assumes an umbrella-like form in the summer landscape. When winter arrives and the leaves drop, the tree transforms into living sculpture with zigzag branches, a contorted trunk and the usual seed pods. Each tree develops a different and unique growth habit and no two trees are alike.
Lavender twist remains smaller than most redbuds, growing up to 15 feet tall and equal in width. It is a slow grower, so patience is a virtue with this plant. Blossoms form at an early age, often the first year, and flowering improves with age and size.
So if you’re looking for a small native tree that will provide a splash of color in the otherwise gray landscape of late winter/early spring, native redbuds are a great choice.