April: Eastern Redbud
If you recall, a couple of months back, witch hazel, in all its winter glory, ran away with the top prize for best blossoming tree at the time. Amongst a bleak landscape, its yellow firework-like flowers were a harbinger of warmer days ahead. But in February, it wasn’t too difficult to win that prize. The competition was scarce, and the unique tree was a standout in its category. But we all know that champions can’t rest too long on their laurels.
Now that winter is officially behind us, and March’s winds have quelled, April ushers in the age of blossoms. Any walk along the Schuylkill River, in one of center city’s squares, or through the Wissahickon, this time of year will reveal a fierce contest between some of spring’s best artists. Using some of the most eye-catching colors we have seen nature produce in months, a colorful host of trees, shrubs, and flowers will all be vying for your attention. Make sure to be looking!
The Eastern redbud, our tree (or large shrub, if you will) for the month of April, is always a pleasant contender in that mix. Native to eastern North America, its range extends to southern Iowa to Pennsylvania, south to north Florida, and west into Texas.
These deciduous (meaning their leaves fall off in winter) trees grow about 20-30 feet tall and about the same distance in width. Open woodlands, thickets, woodland margins, and along streams and bluffs are excellent spots to look for these trees. Still, because of their smaller size and round shape, they are also commonly found in gardens, cityscapes, and suburban neighborhoods where they provide valuable color without taking up too much room.
As long as a redbud can find mostly sunny conditions, along with moist, well-drained soils, it will reach a maximum age of about 75 years. If planting this tree in your own yard, keep in mind that extended periods without water can expose this species to unwanted diseases, such as anthracnose, verticillium wilt, and Botryosphaeria canker, all of which can kill your tree.
A redbud trunk is wrapped in reddish brown, scaly exterior bark that hides cinnamon-colored interior bark. Its leaves are a symmetrical heart shape and turn bright green with red tinges when they first appear in late spring, then change to a deeper green once summer arrives. Fall coloring can be a toss-up, though a translucent yellow is the most common.
An Early Bloomer
With the identification basics covered, let’s get to why this tree shines best in April. While most other hardwood trees are still bare, the redbud is one of the first tree species to bloom, giving us a performance that appeals both from a distance and up close. Seeing this tree in full view, you might think it claims the Hollywood forests of Pandora or the pages of a Dr. Suess book as its home. Its branches are covered in wispy, reddish-purple flowers that turn each branch into feathery tufts like something out of The Lorax.
But if you get up close, you will note that the flowers are just as spectacular just inches away from your nose. Forming in clusters of 4-8, tiny cauliflorous flowers (meaning they grow from the main stem or older branches) abound from the tree. Each pea-like flower is only about ½ inch wide, with 5 petals and 10 stamens (the male fertilizing organ where pollen is kept). Even younger trees will sprout copious amounts of these tiny, intricate flowers, which in fact are edible to humans and sometimes used as a garnish to liven a salad.
The Pollinators’ Favorite
The richness and abundance of these flowers don’t go unnoticed by the surrounding ecosystem, too. Those flowers are loaded with pollen, which in turn attracts some of the area’s best pollinators – honeybees, bumblebees, mason bees, cuckoo bees, long-horned bees, mining bees, sweat bees, and several species of butterfly and moth all reap the benefits of the Redbud.
As if the redbud wasn’t already the quintessential fit for this time of year, it only gets better. Cultivars, or varieties of a plant that have been carefully cultivated by selective breeding, have allowed all sorts of creative variants. ‘Silver cloud’ redbuds look like they have been used to paint a house – their leaves are a splotchy white and green. The ‘covey’ cultivar forms a weeping posture with twisted branches. And my favorite, the ‘rising sun’ cultivar, sprouts fresh golden-orange leaves which mature to yellow, then revert to green.
This month, while our impatience for Memorial Day beach trips and summer weather reaches its peak, I challenge you to take a moment to breathe in the magic that this time of year holds. The shoulder seasons of spring and fall often feel like a short bridge to those that quickly become too unbearably hot or too bitterly cold. As a remedy, I recommend stopping by Awbury where, along our beech hollow trail, you can find a beautiful Redbud waiting to be spotted. Happy spring everyone!