Redbud tree’s color makes it a prime pick, especially for small yards

What’s that pink glow? It’s redbud time! Unlike most trees, which bloom only at the ends of stems, redbuds set flower buds right on their bark. When the buds open in late April or early May, before the leaves unfurl, the fluffy pink flowers trace the outline of branches.

The redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a small tree, reaching about 20 feet, and often has multiple stems.

“They almost act as a shrub rather than a tree,” says Kris Bachtell, vice president of collections and facilities at the Arboretum. Redbuds naturally grow at the edges of forests, so they can tolerate part shade. “They’re pretty adaptable, but they can’t handle poorly drained soil,” he says.

Redbuds are native to the United States. Bachtell remembers visiting a small wild grove in southern Cook County as a child. Chicago is at the northern edge of their natural range, and that makes it important to buy a redbud that was grown locally. If you buy a tree that spent its youth in Tennessee, it may not be hardy here.

A redbud that has a cultivar name, such as ‘Lavender Twist,’ is likely to have been grafted, like many rose bushes and most flowering crab apples, Bachtell says. When you buy a grafted tree, you will need to be alert for suckers growing from its base and regularly prune them out.

Grafted trees aren’t likely to live as long as the straight species: “You’ll probably get 20 years out of them,” he says.

Spring is not the only prime time for redbuds. In fall, the large, heart-shape leaves turn bright yellow. Put it all together, and it’s easy to see why the redbud is such a popular choice for Chicago-area gardens.

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