Eastern Redbud: The First Blush of Spring

It's the middle of winter now, but it's never too early to start dreaming of the blossoming spring. Get inspired by the native Eastern Redbud in part 5 of our species highlights.

Blog written by AmeriCorps service member Esmeralda Figueras

Our next tree needs no introduction, but here’s one anyway: Redbuds are small, deciduous trees with showy pink flowers. Chances are you’ve admired their blossoms in spring, maybe while hiking along the Natchez Trace or driving down Davidson Street. 

The name “Redbud” actually applies to the whole genus, Cercis, which contains about 10 species of small flowering trees, but around Nashville it mostly refers to just one species — Cercis canadensis, the Eastern Redbud. Eastern Redbuds are native to most of the eastern United States, including all of Tennessee.

A Redbud’s Buds

The blossoms of the Redbud tree are beautiful from afar, but they can appear bizarre up close. Unlike Dogwoods or Cherries (or, frankly, most trees) redbuds don’t just blossom from the tips of new twigs and branches. No, they flower from the middle of new branches, and old branches, and even in clumps on the trunk! The technical term for this is cauliflory. Other plants which exhibit this strange blooming habit include cacao trees and jackfruit trees (…but not cauliflower.)

Once you get over the cauliforous-ness, you may notice that the flowers of the Redbud tree look very familiar. This is because Redbuds are in the Pea Family! Yes, the homegrown beauty Cercis canadensis is in the same family as the humble Sweet Pea, the flashy Royal Poinciana, and the favorite food of giraffes, the Acacia Tree.

A Rose by Any Other Name

How would you describe this color?

Pink? Fuchsia? Magenta? Certainly not red. So why is it called redbud?

There are many theories ranging from “the person who named it was colorblind” to “redbud actually refers to the leaf bud, which is dark red” (most early leaf buds are red, so we find this explanation rather unlikely.) Maybe the answer lies in historical linguistics.

The first recorded use of the name “redbud” is from 1705. The word “fuschia” was only just invented in the 1690s… as the Latin name for a new genus of tropical plants. Fuschia wasn’t recorded as a color name until 1892. “Magenta” wasn’t invented until the late 1850s, when various chemists first discovered how to make synthetic dyes. 

What about the word “pink”? Pink is an old word. It’s also a very complicated word. The color pink used to be a yellow-green color. Pink also used to describe narrowed or half-shut eyes and is still in use as the common name for a genus of flowers. Those flowers are called œillet, literally small-eye, in French. Pinks were a favorite flower of Queen Elizabeth I, which made them very popular – popular enough to overshadow the other color pink. The theory is Pink (short for pinked eyes) the name of the flower came to eventually mean pink (the color of those flowers) which is pink in the modern sense. So back in the 1600 and 1700s, pink as we know it existed, but the flower probably would’ve still been people’s first association.

That means calling it Pinkbud would have been almost like calling it Rosebud– a very confusing choice of name. So what do you call pink if you don’t have a word for pink? Light red. In fact, the word for pink in many languages worldwide still literally translates into some variation of “light red” or “rose colored.”

Thus, Red-bud.

Wildlife

This native tree is one of the first things to bloom in early spring, making it an important source of nectar for hungry bees coming out of their winter slump. The vibrant blossoms also attract early season butterflies, like Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Duskywings, and Hairstreaks. It’s also a host plant for Henry’s Elfin caterpillars.

While the bees and the butterflies (and the hummingbirds) all sip at the nectar in the blossoms, Cedar Waxwing birds are known to devour the whole flower. This seems slightly less nonsensical when you remember that the favorite food of Cedar Waxwings – berries – are in short supply during the spring migration. Other birds, such as chickadees, bobwhites, and quails, will eat the seeds of redbuds later in the year.

Pruning

Redbud branches will grow all over the place if you don’t keep an eye on them – often, there will be branches rubbing against each other, and sometimes there will even be twigs that are growing in the complete opposite direction of the sun. For the health of your tree, you may want to lightly prune these problem branches in the third year after planting. The ideal time to prune is in late winter, when the tree (and its pests) are still dormant. Be sure to cut unwanted branches off near the base, without cutting into the collar. Check out this video for more pruning advice. 

Planting

The Redbud is an iconic springtime tree in our region, producing densely packed clusters of bright purple-pink (not red!) flowers when it blooms. Redbuds typically reach heights of 15-30 feet (with a canopy spread of 20-35 feet) and grow well in both full sun or partial sun. In fall, the heart-shaped leaves turn yellow. This is a well-adapted tree for most soil types.

Rosie Redbuds in Neighborhoods Near You

These lovely trees are a popular landscaping choice and native to the area, so be on the lookout for them in your community! Can’t find any, and wish you had more of them in your neighborhood? Learn how to get a Redbud or another flowering tree of your own through the Neighborhood Planting Captain program of the Cumberland River Compact, provided in support of the Root Nashville campaign, or reach out to hello@rootnashville.org to put your name on the waitlist for more free tree opportunities.

Header image source

Image source: buds on branch 1

Image source: buds on branch 2

Image sources: butterfly, bird, and moth

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