Once, in 2008, when referring to the redbuds blooming along the rural Oklahoma roads, I said my world was purple and gray. Although it seemed much earlier that year, actually they didn’t start blooming until April, and it looks from the pictures as though everything else held off that spring. Last year, they bloomed in March and were bitten by the late freeze.
Oh, but this year is the best bloom we’ve had in a long time, and they are just past their prime. The rest of the Oklahoma landscape is turning green with them, and it’s this nice contrast of the two colors, spring green and vivid purple which makes them so popular.
I’m often asked how to grow the native redbuds, Cercis canadensis ‘Oklahoma’, often from people who purchased a small tree in bloom, planted it, and watched it die that summer, or in a year or two. Here’s the thing. The little trees are a finicky lot; and not unlike some of our other native plants, they have very specific requirements. If these aren’t met, they die. By the way, I’m really good at killing natives so I feel your pain.
I’ll also be the first to tell you I’ve never planted a redbud tree. Like a free gift from God, mine grow wild all over the property, but I can give you a few hints for sucess.
- Good drainage. If you notice, most of the redbuds in our area of the state grow right around I-35 and further east. The soil in this part of the state is mostly red sand with pockets of clay. If you want to grow a redbud on the western side of Oklahoma City, or its suburbs, I suggest digging the hole very, very wide and throwing the clay away. I would then replace that soil with something sandier as part of the backfill. I might also use some garden soil and burm up an area of my yard as a separate garden. Not too fertile though. Our native soil is very lean, and this is a native tree. I know this runs contrary to what we’re being told now about planting trees (and I’ll probably get some negative comments, but this is what I would do.) The fact is, redbuds don’t like wet feet. Use the leftover clay to make bricks or something.
- Partial shade. Most redbuds grow in the partial shade of taller trees. None of the trees in the middle part of the state would ever be called statuesque, but redbuds are understory trees. All of mine come up where they get some shade from oaks.
- Water your tree with drip irrigation once a week (or more if it is terribly hot) for the first year, and also in years of drought especially when they are young. This can be as simple as a regular garden hose set to drip overnight. One summer, I saved my peach and apple droughts this way. I must credit my father for this method as he told me about it fifteen years ago.
- Don’t expect them to live forever. The average redbud lives about twenty years. They are still worth planting for their spring bloom and heart-shaped leaves which clack together in the breeze.
- They are hardy in USDA Zones 6b through 9a.
- They seem to like fairly alkaline soil.
When I’m trying to decide what a plant wants from me in order to thrive, I always study how it likes to grow in its native habitat. I hope this will give some of you confidence. While I’m enjoying my state tree in all its royal splendor, I hope you find a place for redbuds in your heart too.