Mickey Rathbun: Redbuds, southern trees that can thrive in New England

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Growing up in Virginia, one of my favorite spring sights was the blooming of eastern redbud trees, Cercis canadensis. Redbud trees are one of the earliest spring bloomers. Their abundant pea-sized flowers bloom simultaneously, creating purplish pink clouds that almost glow against the pale green landscape of early spring. They grow freely at the edge of Virginia woodlands, enjoying the dappled sunlight provided by the canopy of taller deciduous trees. Their simple, heart-shaped leaves come later.

The redbud’s fruit looks like snow-pea pods, which makes sense, because they are members of the Fabaceae family that includes peas and beans. In the fall, the foliage turns a pleasing yellow and the fruit turns brown and splits open. Their irregular branching habit gives them winter interest, particularly under a blanket of new snow.

I remember redbuds being called Judas trees in Virginia. That name derives from the legend that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on such a tree after betraying Christ. The tree’s white blossoms were said to have turned red with his shame, or perhaps his blood. When I say Judas tree in Massachusetts, no one knows what I’m talking about. Maybe it’s a southern thing. Apparently, George Washington had redbuds in his gardens at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson planted redbuds at Monticello and his other Virginia property, Poplar Forest.

I had always thought of redbuds as southern trees, but they are native New Englanders. This spring I was searching for a memorial tree to plant to honor the passing of a beloved equine friend. As he and I had spent time together in Virginia and Massachusetts, I decided to plant a redbud tree for him.

Before heading out to the garden center, I did some research on redbuds. As I learned, they do well in our climate, provided you stick to varieties that are suited to our temperature zone. It is best to buy one that has been grown locally. That being said, they are fairly fragile trees and benefit from protection from harsh north and west winds. Redbuds will grow in part shade, but for the best flowering they should get at least four hours of sunlight a day.

They prefer slightly acidic loamy soil that drains well. Redbuds have tap roots, straight, thick roots that grow straight down and provide most of the tree’s sustenance. Tap roots go deep into the ground and are better able to draw water, so that they are hardy and can deal with dry conditions. But like most trees, redbuds prefer to be watered regularly, and drought causes stress that can shorten their relatively short lifespan of 20 years or so.

Redbuds benefit from pruning after their flowering period has ended. Trim dead, broken or diseased branches and prune for overall shape, eliminating crossing branches and overly dense growth near the center.

The eastern redbud tops out at about 25 to 30 feet and it fills out to that size in diameter. Its fairly diminutive stature makes it a very useful tree for small yards and for underplanting among larger trees. There are several dwarf varieties that grow to only 10 feet or so. These include the weeping ‘Covey’ and ‘Pink Heartbreaker.’ If you’re looking for a white cloud of spring color, ‘Alba’ and ‘Royal White’ are other redbud choices. ‘Alley Cat’ has pink blooms followed by white-splashed green leaves. ‘Appalachian Red’ has — surprise — red flowers.

Redbuds have done their blooming for the season. But I am hopeful that my new tree will survive the winter and provide me a welcome dose of early color next spring and for many years to come. I think my old horse would have approved of my choice.

Plant sale at Tower Hill

Most of our local fund-raiser plant sales are over, but on Saturday, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston is having a super plant sale with many vendors including the New England Daylily, Dahlia, Hosta, Rose, Primula and Lily societies. Specialty growers of herbs, succulents and epimediums will also be present as well as leading nurseries from all over New England. Members only will be admitted from 9 to 11 a.m. The general public is invited to come in after that. The plant sale ends at 2 p.m. but the gardens are open till 5 p.m. Go to towerhillbg.org for more information.

Farmers Market in Great Barrington

Here’s a great idea for an easy “field trip”: Great Barrington has a lovely farmers market every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. There are lots of interesting vendors and live music. After the market, you can have lunch in Great Barrington and explore the town. It’s nice to get out of our own back yard every once in a while.

Garden photography workshop at Tower Hill

If you’re looking to improve your garden photography skills, you might want to take the full-day garden photography workshop at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. It is scheduled for June 10, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The course is designed for photographers with some knowledge of manual camera settings who want to take their abilities to the next level. Instructor Steve McGrath, a professional freelance photographer and photography teacher, will reveal his tips and techniques for taking quality close-ups as well as landscape shots in Tower Hill’s spectacular gardens.

The course will cover how to use wide-angle, normal and telephoto lenses to strengthen your composition for maximum impact. It will also help sharpen your awareness of light on the landscape and teach you to use creative white balance and ISO for expanding your images.

After a day of photographing in the garden, participants will review their images. Bring a camera with macro capabilities, a sturdy tripod if you have one, and a large memory card.

 Cost: Members: $65/ nonmembers: $75. Registration required. Go to: towerhillbg.org for more information and to register.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at mickey.rathbun@gmail.com.