- Author: Laura Lukes
Redbuds in bloom are a most welcome harbinger of spring. Their dense clusters of magenta flowers bloom early, providing splashes of color against a winter landscape of browns and grays. Is the name redbud really the best our ancestors could come up with for this beautiful tree? How could they call that color “red”? Even Wikipedia manages a more accurate “pink to purple.” Other sources are more specific, identifying the brilliant flora as bright pink, rosy pink, magenta, or reddish purple.
Cercis occidentalis is native to the arid western states. It is commonly known as Western or California redbud, and sometimes Arizona redbud. Occidentem is Latin for “western sky” or “part of the sky in which the sun sets,” derived from the Latin verb occido – “go down, set.” The Occident is the longitudinal opposite of the Orient, and many species from China and other eastern regions are termed orientalis. Somewhere along the line, C. occidentalis acquired the second or synonymous binomial C. orbiculatum. Orbiculate translates naturally enough as round or circular in shape (in this case, in reference to the redbud's leaves). And if you are thinking now of Judas Tree as a common name, that belongs to the Eastern redbud. (Interestingly, the Latin name of the Eastern redbud is C. canadensis. And yes, you guessed it: canadensis is used in taxonomy to denote species indigenous to or strongly associated with Canada).
A hardy plant, the redbud is drought tolerant, sun-loving, and successful in a variety of soils. Typically, it prefers rather harsh environments with marginal, well-drained soils. It grows best in chaparral ecosystems below 4,000 feet in elevation, and prefers canyon walls and other steep slopes. It can also be found in gravely and rocky soils along streams above their flood zone. Western redbud tolerates some seasonal water and will grow in the bottom of ephemeral streambeds in little pockets, as well as on foothill benches, or tucked into crannies created by boulder outcroppings.
Western redbud is a popular landscape tree on the valley floor precisely because of its impressive beauty, which isn't restricted to eye-catching floral displays. The rounded, heart-shaped leaves are a silky combination of copper and green when they first emerge, darkening to various shades of green, gray-green, or blue-green. According to the USDA, the Western redbud's “autumn display of yellow turning to red and brown rival that of some eastern hardwoods.” This plant sets its fruit in the form of thin dry seed pods in autumn. Each pod contains about seven hard, bean-like seeds. As they ripen, the pods change in color from purple to russet brown. (On some redbuds, the mature pods hang on the branches into the next winter.) Once the redbud has shed itself of leaves and pods, the bare branches provide winter beauty as a silver-gray silhouette.
As a legume, redbud is an edible native. Native Americans enjoyed redbud flowers, young seed pods, and even young leaves, both raw and cooked. Apparently, redbud flowers taste almost as good as they look. Fully-opened flowers are somewhat tart and slightly sweet, and add interesting color and flavor (and Vitamin C!) to salads.
This beautiful and hardy native shrub is nowhere near as dull and plodding as its common name implies. While the redbud makes year-round contributions to the landscape, the Arbor Day Foundation correctly notes that “the sheer springtime beauty of the redbud may be its greatest hold on the American spirit.”
For more information on gardening in our area, visit the Butte County Master Gardener webpage at: http://ucanr.edu/sites/bcmg/. If you have a gardening question or problem, call our Hotline at (530) 538-7201 or email email@example.com.
Cercis occidentalis blossom close-up by Allicon Garcia: https://ucanr.edu/repository/view.cfm?article=166638%20&search=Cercis
Cercis occidentalis near Briceberg by LaurentianShield - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78098719
Cercis occidentalis leaves and seed pods by John Comeau - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26493957
Cercis occidentalis seed pod close-up by John Rusk from Berkeley, CA, United States of America - H20150416-0002—Cercis occidentalis—RPBG, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59290592
By Jeff Oster, UC Butte County Master Gardener, October 25, 2017.
Western Redbud, California Buckeye, Toyon, and California Flannelbush are all plants in this category that attract pollinators, provide interest over several seasons of the year, and can be grown in a number of different gardening environments. They are especially effective planted in groups for repetition of form, and can create informal hedges or provide a backdrop for smaller plants.
Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis) is native on dry slopes of the coast ranges and Sierra Nevada foothills to 4500 feet and eastward to Utah (usually situated next to a spring or seasonal creek). It is a deciduous, multi-trunked shrub or small tree with a long life span, growing two to three feet per year and reaching to six to twenty feet over time. Magenta flowers appear in February to April before the leaves, and last for two to three weeks. The leaves are kidney-shaped and bluish-green; they can provide a lovely garden backdrop for summer-blooming plants, and turn yellow in fall. Reddish-purple seed pods hang from the branches in winter. The bushes are impressive in groups.
Western Redbud likes full sun, and will grow faster if given some summer water. It will tolerate clay soils and soils with lime or acid (pH levels 5.5 to 8). It can provide good stabilization along a ridge or bank. The roots perform the useful role of fixing nitrogen. A good winter chill is necessary for good flower set. The flowers and young pods are edible; the plants will self-seed.
Western Redbud attracts hummingbirds, goldfinches, butterflies, and bees (including leaf-cutter bees) to its flowers. It is deer resistant, and resistant to Oak Root Fungus. While generally pest-free, Western Redbud is susceptible to caterpillars and scales, and to crown and root rot.
California Buckeye will grow in conditions ranging from partial shade to full sun, and it is drought tolerant but needs regular water during the first few years. It will tolerate clay and serpentine soils (pH 4 to 8) and seasonal flooding, and is useful as a slope stabilizer. In the garden it will drop leaves early (going summer dormant) if it gets dry; otherwise leaves will drop in the fall.
The nectar of the California Buckeye attracts hummingbirds, native bees and butterflies.
California Buckeye is poisonous to livestock, Asian honey bees, and fish. Its seeds are toxic unless processed. It is deer-resistant.
While Toyon likes full sun, it can tolerate full shade, and will grow in a variety of soils (pH 5 to 8), and can help stabilize a ridge or bank. It is drought tolerant after a few years, but will tolerate some water if drainage is good.
Toyon attracts a wide range of pollinator insects including native bees, pollinator flies, and butterflies. Winter fruit attracts cedar waxwings, towhees, finches, flickers, grosbeaks, bluebirds, robins, thrushes, mockingbirds, quail, tanagers, warblers and sparrows. Often the ripe berries ferment before they are eaten, so birds may get a little tipsy. Mammals, including coyotes and bears, also eat and disperse the berries.
Toyon is susceptible to fire blight and root rot (if over-watered). Over time, it will become deer resistant.
California Flannelbush likes sun to part shade. It is drought tolerant and needs no summer water but must have good drainage, preferring well-drained (sandy) soils (pH 6 to 8) near natural drainage channels (placement along the top of a riverbank is ideal.
California Flannelbush attracts bees and butterflies, has few pest problems, and is deer resistant.
The following two charts refer to plants referenced in the three part series on native plants that thrive in Chico and Lindo Channel.