Redbud boom

Popular trees are survivors ripe for innovation.

03/31/2012 5:00 AM

03/31/2012 12:00 PM

I’ve been living in a pink world this week. When I look out the front windows of my house, my heart skips a beat when I pick out curtains of redbud blooms against a developing leafy green backdrop. A peachy sky backs the scene at sunset, and I can hardly tear myself away from gazing.

“This is one of the better years for redbuds, the way things warmed up,” says Jason Griffin, director of the John C. Pair Horticulture Research Center at 95th and South Hydraulic. “One day they were showing color, and two days later they were in full-blown bloom. They just popped.”

Add them to a list of beautifully spring-blooming plants in the Wichita area, a miracle to me after last summer’s blast furnace. Turns out the redbuds make the list of plants adapted to Kansas’ wacky weather that extension agent Bob Neier will talk about at 8 a.m. today, at the annual Tree Festival at the Extension Center at 21st and Ridge Road. The fest runs until 1 p.m. with seminars, trees to buy and see on the grounds, answers to plant questions and people to identify those mystery plants in your yard, and small-tool sharpening for a fee.

“You look around the streetside plantings in the city, and many are Oklahoma and Eastern redbuds, and they came through looking really good” after last summer, Bob points out.

Jason went to school at North Carolina State, where the backdrop to his education included the forestlike redbud collection of the late plantsman J.C. Raulston. When Jason came to Wichita, he wanted to see how the redbuds would do in his new home. Turns out, with a couple of exceptions, that they do just as well as they do in North Carolina.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of redbuds. It’s one of my favorite groups of trees,” Jason says of the genus Cercis.

Seventeen redbuds at the John Pair Center were planted in 2006. After some early problems — “who would have thought redbud roots were one of the favorite foods of gophers?” — the center now has some good experience with the trees. And one variety is a stand-out when in flower.

“Everyone on a tour (Tuesday) fell in love with Appalachian Red. It’s the only one that looks red.” Other redbud trees have lavender, bright purple or white flowers. “That’s the one everyone goes to.”

Most of the redbuds you see around Wichita are the Eastern (pale lavender) or Oklahoma (bright purple). Jason much prefers the Oklahoma, which is a variety of Texas redbud.

“It has a glossier leaf, generally a darker leaf color, and they love our heat. When the summer gets to 90 degrees, that’s when they’re happiest. The Eastern weakens a bit (at that point), they get tired and they quit growing. The Texas just keeps going.” Most of the whitebud trees you see in Wichita are Texas Whites, he says.

If you see a multi-stemmed redbud, it’s usually a Chinese or Eastern variety. The Chinese varieties are more of a shrub than a tree form and also are hardy here. The redbuds that have not done well in Jason’s trials are other Asian varieties that hail from such places as Korea or Vietnam. Wichita is too cold for them.

You also can find redbuds in a weeping form, and the ones around here are usually are of the Eastern variety, called Lavender Twist. But a Texas variety called Traveller is much better, Jason says. “Its leaf holds its shape better and doesn’t tatter like the Eastern sometimes does in our hot summers.”

Continuing down the large variety of redbuds are the purple-leaf types, including the common Forest Pansy. A couple of other varieties are Burgundy Heart, more compact, and Merlot. All the purple-leaf types turn a muddy color in the summer, Jason says, but the Merlot has the advantage of having some Texas redbud in it and always putting on new leaves, so it has a fresher appearance.

“The other big push on redbuds is yellow foliage, and there’s a couple out: One called Hearts of Gold, which is nice, but for us, it comes out a nice yellow and fades out to pea soup in the heat, and the Rising Sun, which has a green center, and the margin of the leaf is yellow.” Because of the green, Rising Sun holds its color better, Jason said. Rising Sun also can take more sun than Hearts of Gold, but both prefer protection from the afternoon sun, so be careful where you plant them.

The same is true of redbuds that have white variegated leaves, including Silver Cloud and Floating Cloud. They can’t take hot, drying sun.

Among plant geeks, redbuds also are being developed that are dwarf, carry crinkled leaves and have leaves in the shape of spades instead of hearts, Jason said. “Redbuds have undergone this complete overhaul of cultivars in the last 10 years.”

It takes a while for new trees to make it to the local level, but in Wichita, “if you shop around, you will find some of these newer ones.”

Jason plans to continue to expand his trials as new cultivars come out.

Some of his growing tips for redbuds:

Redbuds grow fine in shade but don’t put on a very good flower show there. So give them plenty of sun if you want lots of flowers.

•  In the wild, you almost always find redbuds growing on hillsides. That means they have to have well-drained soil that does not stay saturated.
•  They can get a little pest called the redbud leaf folder. The pest’s name describes its effect: You’ll see the leaves folded in half, the worm in the middle. Most any insecticide easily takes care of it.

One complaint Jason hears about redbuds is the seeds they put on, which hang like black beanpods on the trees in the winter. Some people find them unsightly There’s only one seedless redbud — the Don Egolf, a Chinese variety. Jason brought one of them from North Carolina to Wichita, and it’s now about 9 to 10 feet tall, probably the largest of its kind in the state, he says. “It’s gorgeous.”

The only problems with redbuds that Neier heard last summer were overwatering them to compensate for the heat and the bare top stems of weeping forms sunburning and needing to be pruned out (which Bob says was actually more of a problem on weeping crabapples). You can see nine varieties of redbuds planted on the grounds of the Extension Center during the Tree Fest today.

About Annie Calovich

Annie writes about home and garden, including her Bit of Earth column on Saturdays. She has been at The Eagle since 1985, working as a copy editor, a nation/world editor and a reporter. She’s a KU graduate who started out at The Coffeyville Journal.

Contact Annie at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com

Follow Annie on Twitter: @AnnieCalovich

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