By Joseph Mooney
eastern redbud-kansas forest service
Close up redbud flowers

Close up of Cercis canadensis flower buds not quite open yet. The flowers are edible.

Redbud bark

The bark on older eastern redbud trees cracks and peels to reveal a beautiful mottled-purple color palette. This tree, in front of the University of Michigan Central Campus Recreation Building, is at least 30 years old.

Each week we showcase a plant that’s native to the continental United States. This week’s plant is eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).
It doesn’t get much better than eastern redbud. Even if you don’t have or plant one in your garden spaces, on an early-spring walk you’re sure to see one, two—no, many—redbud trees lighting up the landscape in a fairy forest you probably overlooked the rest of the year when every leaf was merely green.
Those clouds of pink bloom inspire many of us to plant either our native species, C. canadensis, or one of the cultivars available that offer red, purple, or gold leaves or weeping forms.
Eastern redbud’s main habitat is an understory tree in rich forests or along rivers or streams, although it will grow in a fairly wide range of soils as long as they are well-drained. C. canadensis reaches its northernmost range in the southern counties of Michigan. If you do plant eastern redbud, choose specimens if possible that come from local sources to ensure cold hardiness in southeast Michigan. Once you plant a redbud it’s best to leave it where it is as the tree quickly develops a deep taproot. If a neighbor has a redbud you’ll likely find several seedlings every year in your garden beds and these can be dug up easily and planted if you’re okay with some delayed gratification.
Cercis seed pod vs snow pea pod

These two seed pods look a lot alike. The pod on top is Cercis canadensis; the bottom is an edible snow pea.

redbud leaf

I heart redbud! The heart-shaped leaves of C. canadensis alone make it worth planting.

Redbud salad

A sprinkle of redbud flowers lights up a salad. C. canadensis flowers are edible.

Twenty or thirty years seems to be the lifespan of the eastern redbud, and that may be one of the few drawbacks to having one of your own. The definitive text Michigan Trees: A Guide to the Trees of the Great Lakes Region by Barnes and Wagner (2007 edition) lists the Michigan Big Tree redbud in Washtenaw County at a height of 29 feet. A 2012 story by Rick Meader in the Ann Arbor News claims the Michigan Champion Tree for this species is growing in front of Beaumont Hospital in Wayne, Mich. (No personal experience of this.)
A few fun facts: eastern redbud’s seed pods look a lot like snow pea pods because both of these plants are in the pea family (Fabaceae). The flowers are edible and have a mild, slightly sweet flavor. The genus name Cercis comes from the Greek word kerkis, meaning weaver’s shuttle, referring to the shape of the seed pod. The redbud exhibits cauliflory, in which the flowers appear on the trunk or limbs of the tree, a characteristic usually associated with tropical trees.
#nativeplantoftheweek #matthaeinichols #umichnature #umich
Sources: University of Michigan Herbarium, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, USDA, Missouri Botanical Garden, University of Wisconsin Extension.