How to Plant and Grow a Redbud Tree
Learn all about colorful redbud trees, plus get expert tips and information for choosing, planting, growing and caring for Eastern redbuds in your home landscape.
The early spring blooms of eastern redbud are a welcome sight for gardeners who have spent the winter in eager expectation for the coming growing season. New varieties of this native tree are especially striking in flower, foliage, and form, making this versatile understory tree a valued addition to the garden.
Botanical Name: Cercis canadensis
Common Name: Eastern Redbud
Bloom Time: Early spring
Light Needs: Full sun to light shade
Hardiness Zones: 4 to 9, depending on where the plant is sourced from
Height & Width: 20 to 30’ high and 25 to 35’ wide, differing by variety
Growth Rate: Medium to fast
Eastern redbuds are beloved for their vibrant spring flowers. Blooms vary in color from white to delicate pink and even shocking electric fuchsia. However, redbuds typically produce magenta buds that open to a deep pink. Given the right conditions, redbud trees may hold their blooms for up to three weeks.
Bronze heart-shaped foliage emerges just as the flowers begin to fade. New leaves quickly transform to a lustrous green, eventually mellowing to a golden yellow in the fall. In addition to the standard green foliage of the species, some varieties produce purple, golden or speckled white foliage.
Cercis canadensis has an extensive range, naturally found as far north as New Jersey, south to Florida and northern Mexico, and West to Missouri. Cultivated redbuds have a much further distribution, northward to Maine and west to California. For best success, be sure to grow a regional ecotype as northern redbuds may not survive southern summers and southern trees will not survive northern winters.
How to Use in Your Landscape
Redbuds shine out singly as specimen plants or en masse. These understory trees are naturally found in woodland margins and are excellent companions to dogwood, oak, pine and elm. For a dramatic mass planting effect, create a small grove of redbuds along a wooded edge or just beyond a larger tree’s canopy. Only have room for one tree? Make a statement with a variety that has a weeping habit or colorful foliage.
How to Plant Redbud
Redbuds need at least 4 hours of sun a day. Plant in full sun for a more compact and symmetrical habit or in light shade for a more arching, delicate form. These adaptable small trees will grow happily in most soil types as long as the soil isn’t excessively wet. Plant out in cool fall or spring conditions to allow the tree to get established without excessive water demands.
Growing From Seed
Redbud grows happily from seed. Young redbuds grow very quickly. When given plenty of water and good nutrition, a redbud seedling can grow as much as 7 feet in five years. In addition to quickly filling space in the garden, young redbuds will also begin to bloom in as little as four years.
Seed will need to be prepared before planting by scarifying (scratching the seed coat to allow water to enter) followed by a cold treatment. Redbuds have adapted so that their seeds survive feeding by animals and cool winter weather. These treatments will mimic those natural processes.
Begin by using a nail file or sandpaper to gently scuff a small section of the seed coat. Wrap the seeds in a moist paper towel, then fold and place the paper towel in a sealed plastic bag. Store in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for 60 days before planting.
Rather than going through the trouble of seed treatments, many gardeners simply allow established trees to self-seed in the landscape. Volunteer seedlings that appear the following season can be dug and planted in another spot. Some redbud varieties have been bred to produce limited seed pods, which will reduce the number of seeds produced and volunteer plants in the landscape. Keep in mind that seedlings from varieties bred for foliage, form or flower probably won’t have the same traits as their parents.
Growing from Nursery Plants
If you are planting a container-grown redbud, use a spade, planting knife or hand saw to completely remove the circling roots from the outside of the root ball. Although this may seem drastic, new research suggests that once roots begin circling, they will always grow in that direction, even if they’ve been untangled.
Remove some of the potting mix from the top of the container to find the root flare (the spot where the first roots emerge from the trunk). Nurseries tend to bury trees a little deep in the pot to prevent them from blowing over in the wind. You’ll want to plant your tree so that the root flare is even with the soil surface.
Lift the turf and dig a hole roughly 1.5 times the width and the same depth as the container. Avoid digging a hole that is too deep or wide. Trees planted in holes that are too deep tend to sink down, even if soil was backfilled initially to plant at the right depth. To encourage the roots to anchor in and spread out into the native soil, avoid digging a hole much wider than the container, and be sure to use your native soil without mixing in compost or other soil amendments. Water well and spread a healthy layer of mulch to limit weed competition and conserve water.
Like most young trees, newly planted redbuds will need at least one inch of water each week. Slowly pour water onto the soil below the dripline of the tree, allow the water to percolate into the soil, then pour a little more. Water every two or three days during the first growing season unless your garden receives at least an inch of rainfall. After the first season, you can cut back to watering as-needed in drought conditions.
Remove any dead, diseased, damaged or crossing branches to keep the tree growing strong. Try not to leave a stub. Stubs not only look bad, but they can also delay the tree’s ability to heal after pruning. It’s best to follow the limb all the way back to the next offshoot and cut just above the next branch.
Larger branches will have a visible raised “collar” on the bark. Remove the branch just beyond the collar so that the collar remains on the tree. If you’re not sure exactly where the branch collar is, err on the side of leaving a small stub rather than cutting into the collar.
Small branches one-half inch or smaller in diameter can be removed with hand pruners. Shoots that are up to 3 inches in diameter should be removed with loppers. Any larger branches should be removed using a hand saw. If using a hand saw, begin with an undercut to prevent the weight of the removed limb from ripping bark and damaging the tree.
If a redbud is stressed due to lack of water, too much water, excessive cold, extreme heat, or an injury (often caused by mowers and string trimmers), they are more susceptible to serious maladies including canker and Verticillium wilt. Look for redbuds that have been produced for your local market, maintain weed-suppressing mulch below the dripline of the tree, and keep trees properly watered, especially while they’re getting established over the first year.
Keep an eye out for cankers on redbud branches. Cankers first appear as small sunken areas along the stem. As cankers grow, they cut off the circulation in the affected branch, causing wilting and eventually death. Remove the diseased branch, and be sure to cut at least several inches below the canker. Healthy wood will be free of any dark discoloration. Sterilize your pruners between cuts to prevent spreading the disease.
Leaf spots are fairly common, especially later in the growing season. Although leaf spots don’t look great, they aren’t a serious problem for the tree. To help manage leap spots, rake up and completely remove fallen leaves in the autumn.
Redbuds aren’t extremely long-lived trees. Even the happiest redbud will begin to decline after 20 years and will rarely live past 50 years. If you have the room for it, consider adding a new succession every decade or so to establish a new generation to fill in as older trees begin to decline.
Popular Redbud Varieties
- Flame Thrower - new foliage unfurls bright burgundy, fades to apricot, then golden yellow, and matures to a rich green
- ‘Floating Clouds’ – striking green leaves with white speckles; less susceptible to sunscald than similar varieties
- ‘Forest Pansy’ - bright purple foliage emerges and slowly deepens in color, fading to dark green; foliage may remain deep purple through the season in regions with cooler evenings during the summer
- ‘Hearts of Gold’ - chartreuse foliage appears as pink blooms begin to fade; plants will keep their butter yellow color longer when regularly and consistently watered
- ‘Appalachian Red’ - deep colored buds unfurl to reveal neon pink blooms
- ‘Dwarf White’ - petite statured and slower growing than other eastern redbuds and produces prolific white blooms
- ‘Flame’ - very attractive rose pink double blooms
- ‘Tennessee Pink’ - prolific delicate pink blooms
- ‘Cascading Hearts’ - excellent overlapping foliage covers draping branches; less affected by sunscald than many other weeping redbuds
- Lavender Twist - very attractive umbrella-shaped, cascading habit; especially striking when in bloom
- ‘Ruby Falls’ - purple-leaved weeping redbud that makes a dramatic statement as an accent tree
- ‘Variegated Weeper’ - green leaves with white, creamy splotches that tumble into an attractive weeping habit
For Cool Conditions
- The Rising Sun - vibrant orange new growth matures to golden yellow and eventually green with good cold hardiness
- ‘Royal White’ - large, prolific white blooms with excellent cold hardiness
For Warm Conditions
- ‘Merlot’ - waxy, glossy purple foliage performs better in heat than ‘Forest Pansy’ due to the fact that it’s a hybrid of the heat tolerant southern native C. canadensis subspecies texensis (as are the following varieties)
- ‘Oklahoma’ - magenta blooms followed by striking waxy foliage
- ‘Texas White’ – prolific white blooms followed by glossy, heart-shaped leaves
- ‘Traveler’ – attractive glossy leaves and umbrella-shaped weeping habit
Other Selected Species
- Chinese Redbud (C. chinensis) – large shrub and heavy bloomer with varieties in white, pink, and rose-purple available (zones 6 to 9)
- Western Redbud (C. occidentalis) - extremely drought tolerant species native to the American west; produces very attractive, relatively small blue-green leaves along with characteristic fuchsia redbud blooms (zones 7 to 9(10))
- Chain-flowered Redbud (C. racemosa) - Chinese native that produces very attractive, wisteria-like racemes of flowers (zones 7 to 9)
- Judas-tree (C. silquastrum) - although this Mediterranean native is similar to eastern redbud in appearance in many ways, it does flower and leaf out at the same time rather than in succession like many other redbud species (zones 6(7) to 8)