Eastern Redbud and Whitebud (Cercis canadensis)

Creativity isn’t always the botanist’s strong suit- doesn’t take much to guess why the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) and eastern whitebud (Cercis canadensis var. alba) were so named. They’re very popular ornamental trees on the east coast of the United States, where their cute little buds and flowers emerge in the spring, growing directly on the branches and trunk of the tree, just like the yellow ashoka I mentioned a few days ago (https://herbalramble.wordpress.com/2017/03/17/981/). Unsurprisingly, they’re related: both belong to the legume or pea family (Fabaceae).

eastern whitebud

Eastern whitebud flowers, in New Haven

Of the two, I think I saw the redbuds more often, which are technically pink. Princeton had a couple of tiny redbuds that the Canada geese liked to hang around. New Haven, on the other hand, seemed to have a preference for whitebuds, which were also quite young and titchy. By far the largest tree I saw was in Washington D.C., just a short distance away from the white house. That huge eastern redbud grows, hopefully in the present tense, along a little street. Getting up close to it and a flowering ginkgo was to me a lot more exciting than being within 500m of the POTUS. Something tells me I wasn’t in D.C. for the right reasons.

eastern redbud

Eastern redbud flowers, in Washington D.C.

Redbuds and whitebuds are native to North America, from southern Ontario to northern Florida, although they can be found in California as well. A deciduous tree (sheds leaves in winter), it can grow up to 6 to 9m in height and 8 to 10m wide. The dark brown bark provides a nice backdrop for the flowers, which are little cashew-shaped blobs pollinated by butterflies and long-tongued bees. Later, heart-shaped leaves emerge, growing alternately. It being a member of the legume family, one can correctly assume that it produces pea-like pods, which contain flat, elliptical brown seeds.

Besides just being pretty, the flowers of the redbud can be eaten either raw or boiled, as are its seeds upon roasting. Green twigs can be used to season venison (deer) and opossum meat, earning it the name ‘spicewood tree’. Its pods and seeds are enjoyed by birds such as chickadees, and leaves feed the larvae of the io moth.

eastern whitebud tree

Eastern whitebud tree in the summer, with its heart-shaped leaves

Both redbuds and whitebuds are relatively easy to grow, requiring little fertilizing and little pruning. It tolerates full sun to partial shade, preferring moist, well-drained alkaline soil at a pH of 7.5 or above, and can tolerate a wide variety of soil types. Interestingly, the tree’s quite a challenge to propagate if you’re not simply buying one from a nursery. For starters, its seeds exhibit double dormancy; they require both scarification (breaking down the seed coat) and stratification (periods of cold) to germinate. The former can be done by boiling the seed, which is rather counter-intuitive, and the latter by chilling it for 5 to 8 weeks. If that doesn’t sound like some sort of masochism, I have no idea what does. It isn’t without reason, though. One can imagine that in the wild, it would require forest fires to germinate, as do many other plants, followed by a cold winter to signal the arrival of spring. Artificially, it can be grafted with varying levels of success, and more successfully via cuttings or tissue culture.

I do miss these lovely trees, but given the constant heat, they won’t grow in Singapore. Gardeners of North America, we’re counting on you for this one.


  1. http://homeguides.sfgate.com/plant-eastern-redbud-trees-45198.html
  2. http://plantcareguide.com/eastern-whitebud
  3. http://www.naturehills.com/eastern-whitebud
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cercis_canadensis
  5. https://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_ceca4.pdf
  6. https://www.arborday.org/trees/treeguide/treedetail.cfm?itemID=912
  7. https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/chiwonlee/plsc368/student/papers99/wdanielson/wdanielson.htm

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