Redbud becomes a true ornamental tree

Posted Jan. 07, 2011, at 6:10 p.m.

I turn off the main highway onto the dirt road, a half-mile of potholes ending at the driveway of my Ellsworth home, the last two minutes of the two-hour trip from the high school parking lot in Eastport. Every Friday evening I make this trip, the reverse of a trip made every Monday morning, September into June.

Since early November, I have been greeted at the start of our driveway by a unique form of Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis). “Cercis solaris” I call it, for the large shiny orbs of various colors hanging from its otherwise naked branches. The small tree, no more than 6 feet high, looks like a solar system, planets the size of softballs orbiting a sun hidden within the heart of its arching branches.

Decorating the branches of winter trees with super-large ornaments is one way to endure the long wait for spring, a gesture that brings color and light to a corner of the cold garden, a greeting to the occasional visitor turning into the drive. Our first encounter with this concept was a tree, perhaps a crab apple, on the outskirts of blue Hill. Decorated with metalloid balls even larger than those hanging from our redbud, the branches of this tree brightened our frequent journeys through an otherwise bleak winter landscape. We slow down as we come near the tree, wanting to keep it with us for as long as possible.

Perhaps there is no garden plant more bleak than a redbud in winter. While I have written several homages to the beauty of redbuds in spring, summer and autumn, I have never found cause to discuss their contribution to the winter landscape, until now. These circling planets, these colorful reflective fruits of winter, are a delight to come upon the morning after a winter storm when each orb, sporting a cap of fresh snow, reflects the low morning sunlight.

Come spring these winter fruits will give way to pealike flowers, rosy pink with a bluish or purplish tint, opening before the leaves appear. The short-stalked blooms literally cover the naked branches. Their tiny clustered buds are visible now in planet shadows.

The blossoms in turn become the summer fruits, small dry pods that often persist on the tree into winter. The genus name, Cercis, is derived from the Greek “kerkis,” a shuttle, in reference to the resemblance of the pod’s shape to that of a weaver’s shuttle.

Unlike other members of the pea family (Fabaceae), redbud leaves are simple rather than compound and heart-shaped, about 4 inches across, lustrous green in summer and turning yellow in the fall. Our tree, like many of this species, is multi-trunked and forms a lovely summer umbrella of cordate leaves.

I grew up in Georgia, where small understory redbuds are native harbingers of spring, where large old specimens grow along the river banks, some 30 feet tall, their short main trunks dividing low to the ground into several stout ascending branches. In March, these gray leafless branches, most spreading outward, a few curving back downward as if remembering the weight of a past winter’s ice, are covered with pink flowers and gray Spanish moss. The efforts of earnest gardeners to bring pink and gray together are no match for what nature accomplishes on such fine spring days!

Since moving to New England some twenty years ago, I have looked for redbuds, finding them often enough in Western Massachusetts to know that the tree can be grown there. (I remember several beautiful redbuds growing in the Botanical Garden at Smith College.) I was excited to find a few saplings of an Illinois population, the northernmost native range of the species, growing in the Littlefield Garden nursery in Orono, and to learn that they had actually flowered there. Redbud flower buds are often freeze-killed in Maine winters and entire trees are sometimes lost to ice and snow.

One of these saplings made its way to Marjorie’s garden in 2000 and died back to the ground the first winter, probably the result of root loss during transplanting. But in the spring of 2001, it regrew and has prospered since, flowering every spring for the past several years.

And, this year, bearing a most delightful winter fruit.

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