Our native eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a beloved tree in landscapes and woodlands throughout much of the East Coast. It mostly gets recognition for the masses of lavender-pink spring flowers and, although the heart-shaped foliage is quite lovely, once other trees leaf out it sometimes can fade into the background.
Types of Redbuds
In 1947, a breakthrough redbud was discovered at Forest Nursery in Tennessee. The plant leafed out with dark burgundy leaves and was dubbed ‘Forest Pansy’. For many years this plant held pride of place in landscapes despite the fact that the foliage would turn to a muddy green when temperatures started rising in mid-summer.
Now, many years later, the potential shown by ‘Forest Pansy’ and the more recently discovered gold-foliaged ‘Hearts of Gold’ is reaching a peak. The number of new selections with fantastically colored foliage is truly astounding and is being led by Dr. Dennis Werner, professor emeritus at NC State University and the JC Raulston Arboretum.
The clear breakthrough is the recently introduced plant known as Flame Thrower (Cercis canadensis ‘NC2016-2’) that leaves out burgundy before turning coppery apricot and then chartreuse. Since new foliage emerges all summer long, the kaleidoscope of color continues as well. Flame Thrower or as it is known in Europe, Eternal Flame, was named the Royal Horticultural Society’s Plant of the Year during the famed Chelsea Flower Show in 2021.
Flame Thrower isn’t the only redbud that provides all summer interest. There are numerous other new selections on the market.
Some of the best burgundy or purple leafed forms include Burgundy Hearts (‘Greswan’) and Black Pearl (‘JN16’).
For unusual form and foliage, ‘Ruby Falls’ provides great color and makes a cascading artistic garden statement.
For those who want something a bit more bright, the original ‘Hearts of Gold’ found here in North Carolina by current Reynolda Gardens director Jon Roethling is still among the best.
‘The Rising Sun’ is another lovely gold and for those who want to match their weeping ‘Ruby Falls’, ‘Golden Falls’ answers that call.
Variegated redbuds haven’t been left behind either. ‘Silver Cloud’ followed by the improved ‘Floating Cloud’ both have leaves brightly speckled white. The newer ‘Alley Cat’ is touted as the best of the current bunch and so far has been living up to the hype. Of course, not to be outdone by the purple and gold forms, ‘Whitewater’ is, you guessed it, a speckled weeper. Perhaps the most eye-opening form is ‘Carolina Sweetheart’ with burgundy foliage speckled with white and pink that puts on a seemingly never-ending, changing, carnival of color. It is not for the subdued garden.
Redbuds are justifiably popular as easy to grow, showy, spring flowering trees whose moderate 15 to 25 feet height fit in most gardens. In almost any garden spot from sun to shade they flourish, although the color is best with more sun. While the new forms can still strut their stuff alongside the best of the spring showoffs like dogwoods and cherries, they take the show to a whole new level with a summer color display like no other.
Mark Weathington is the director of the J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh.