A Gardening Journal

Weeping Redbud

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Look at these little flowers: Mickey Mouse ears, a Jimmy Durante schnoz.  And then there's the back end of the blossom, raspberry pink and fat as a tick, and pronged out on a stiff pink tail.  If I told you that the whole plant weeps—and really strongly—you may well think, "I'd be a bit self-conscious with those flowers myself."

 

And this plant doesn't just weep.  It pours, it cascades, it overflows, it floods.  It's the pendulous redbud, Cercis canadensis 'Covey', and of all the weeping shrubs and trees for temperate gardens, it's the one that's the most committed to the mission. 

 

Weeping beeches weep directly to the ground, true, but when they reach it, they stop.  (They often take root and sprout a whole other weeping beech tree, but that particular branch stops weeping.)  Weeping cherries are nearly always grafted on trunks so high that their branches run out of weep in mid-air and never reach the ground.  And weeping shrubs like forsythia or stephanandra behave just like weeping beeches:  They root wherever a tip touches the ground, and a daughter shrub springs right up from the roots.  But the weeping branch that had rooted and given rise to the daughter?  Its weeping days are through.

 

Weeping redbuds, though, don't let an encounter with a mere horizontal plain of solid mass—the Earth—slow them down.  They continue apace, just flowing horizontally out across the ground.  The waterfall hits ground, forms a pool, and then flows further outward as needed.  I like that in a waterfall, and I really like it in a tree.

 

(In happy coincidence, I myself need to pay a visit to one of my favorite weeping redbuds in a week:  I'll bring pictures back of course.)

 

My weeping redbud, alas, won't have the room to "puddle."  But I'm grooming it for a far more singular performance anyway.  I'm training it up and over a ten-foot-tall metal arch, hoping (and, ahem, expecting) that branches will cascade clear to the ground even from the very top of it.  I'll then tie them loosely aside just like drawing a curtain.

 

Meanwhile, in mid-Spring before the leaves come out, all redbuds take time out from their waterfall chores for their Mickey-and-Jimmy show.

 

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It's a distinctive floral display, not just (in close-up) a comical one.  The flower clusters spring up directly from older wood, branches as well as larger limbs too, and even the trunk. 

 

As is usual with Spring-blooming shrubs and trees, the buds are formed the previous Fall.  Look at this young branch: there's not a flower at all on all of growth from just last year—the eighteen inches and more at the right—and only a few buds on the side twigs formed the year before. 

 

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And there's not even the hope of a bud at any of the youngest growth, the twig tips.  The real show is at the heart of the plant.

 

When it comes to flowering directly from older wood, the redbud is as much of a champ as it is at non-stop weeping.  The only other tree I can think of that blooms from such old wood is Theobroma cacao, the tropical tree whose fruit provides chocolate.

 

 

 

Here's how to enjoy redbud's Mickey-and-Jimmy show, let alone its unstoppable waterfall, in your own garden:

 

Latin Name

Cercis canadensis 'Covey'

Common Name

Weeping Redbud

Family

Fabaceae, the "Fab" family?  Fabulous indeed, but this is another name for the Leguminaceae family—the legume family: peas, beans, and innumerable garden ornamentals, annuals, perennials, shrubs, vines, and trees among them.

What kind of plant is it?

Small deciduous weeping tree or, depending on how it's handled, a mounding wide-spreading shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 9

Habit

Many stiffly-weeping branches on a trunk that is short indeed unless staked.  Staked or not, the branches eventually weep right to the ground, and then continue to grow horizontally outward in a groundcovering pool of foliage.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Size depends completely on how the plant is handled.  If planted when small and left to grow free-range, the height will never exceed five feet, but that's a mighty short weep to the ground.  Can be staked up to ten feet and higher for a longer weep.  Eight to ten feet wide if unpruned for width, greater if trained outward.

Texture

Sculptural and inherently focal.  In warm weather, the large and overlapping downward-pointing heart-shaped leaves seem almost tiled onto the surface of the haystack of growth.  In early Spring, the profuse small delicate flowers that preceed the foliage are a filigree of strong pink on the bare branches.  In Winter, the stiff and strongly-weeping leafless branches are striking.

Grown for

the pink flowers, in clusters all up and down the branches and even directly from the trunk.  The opposite of plants with flowers only at the tips of the growth, such as Sorbus aria 'Lutescens'.

 

the green-waterfall effect of the entire plant when it's leafed out for the warm months.  The "puddling" of the foliage at the base of the plant, from the branches that just keep growing outward when they hit the ground, is showy as well as endearing.  (Why stop weeping just because you've hit ground?  This is the plant that just wants to do more, and still more.)

Flowering season

Mid-Spring.  Despite the "redbud" of the common name, the buds are dark purple-pink.

 

Culture

Any decent soil with good drainage year-round.  Full sun is best.

How to handle it

Because the plant is such a quick-growing sculpture, be sure to give thought to your options in siting and caring for it.  A wide-spreading low mounding shrub is the least interesting (and most space-hogging) option.  It's also a bit of a trick to weed among (or slither under) the low, weeping, but also rigid, branches.  So you'll probably want to stake up one of the branches as a trunk.  With secure-enough staking there doesn't seem a limit on how high you can stake: I'm training my 'Covey' up and over an archway that's ten feet tall.

 

Because the branching is unusually stiff even when young, take care to train young branches as soon as possible, when they are still somewhat flexible.

 

Perhaps the most spectactular siting would be at the top of high and wide rock ledge in full sun, where the tree can weep down as well as out as far as it wants.  There the trick is to have a big enough volume of soil and enough water to support such a luxuriant cascade; ledge plantings are more often cramped for root room, and sometimes quite dry as well.

 

Wherever you site this redbud, and however you train it, be sure the tree doesn't hurt for water in the warm months.  Water deeply once a week during droughts.

 

Downsides

Usually trouble-free, but can sometimes decline and fail outright if too dry.  That said, I've dealt with individuals that thrived in seeming dust and concrete rubble, and others that failed despite getting enough water.

Variants

 Redbuds aren't just "red" any more.  There are cultivars with white flowers, deeper-pink flowers, and double-pink flowers.  There are also cultivars with glowing yellow, deep-purple, or variegated foliage.  (The yellow foliage is quite sun-tolerant; the variegated foliage is best with afternoon shade.)  Dwarf redbuds are out there too. 

Availability

On-line as well as at retailers.

Propagation

Cuttings as well as seeds, although the hybrid cultivars typically don't come true from seed.

Native habitat

Middle North America, from Southern Ontario to North Florida.

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