Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: Spring is the Time to Buy And Plant Native Redbuds

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday March 27, 2007

If you’re walking down University Avenue, or driving up the freeway to the Richmond Bridge, or taking a car or bike jaunt up around Clear Lake, you’ll have noticed that the redbuds are blooming. We’ve borrowed specimens of this gorgeous scarf that the Central Valley wears around its eastern and western foothills. Good idea, for landscape and ornament in the cities and for the most difficult spots along roads. 

The Tilden Park Botanic Garden has a splendid group of redbuds right along its perimeter fence, poking through sometimes as if wanting to escape, for inspiration if you need it. 

In its native habitat it’s a frequently-seen roadside tree thriving in the oddest rocky bits of soil, inching right up onto the gravel road shoulder, balancing on defiant tiptoe over a streambed gorge: Cercis occidentalis, cousin to T.S. Eliot’s and Katherine Anne Porter’s Flowering Judas.  

Our redbud has an Eastern North American cousin, Cercis canadensis; there are Asian species too, and lots of hybrids and cultivars in the nursery trade. I have a fondness for ‘Forest Pansy’ with its burgundy leaves, but that’s best for places that are more like an Eastern forest—in part shade, with good drainage but deep loamy soil and plenty of water.  

If you want a true Western redbud, look for it in a nursery that specializes in natives, or wait for one of the native-plant spring sales listed below.  

Buy as small a tree as you can stand to, say a seedling in a one-gallon nursery can or pot. It will be easier to plant because it needs a smaller hole, and will catch up to its bigger brethren who’ve been planted at the same time because it will experience less of the standard transplant setback than one that’s already older. 

Dig a broad, shallow hole for your tree, then pile some of the dirt back into the center of the hole. Don’t amend the soil. If you have serious clay, rough out the edges of the hole with your spade, so you’re not making a clay pot to confine the roots.  

Remove the tree from the can, gently spread the roots out so they won’t grow in a circle, and rest it in top of the pile in the hole. Then backfill, tamping the soil down gently. When it’s planted, the tree should be a bit higher than the ground around it, for better drainage; be sure the roots are covered, though.  

You probably won’t need to stake it. Dig a shallow moat around the edges of the hole and pile that dirt around the outside for a temporary watering basin. This should erode away within a year.  

When you have the tree happily situated, it will need water regularly for at least a year or two; after that it’s drought-tolerant.  

It grows into a small, airy tree, about dogwood-sized, and like a dogwood a sculpture of planes when in leaf. It will want full sun, especially west of the hills; it likes the sort of environment that would fry that dogwood. You’ll get more flowers if your tree lives in a slightly severe climate, particularly one with a cold snap in the winter, and cold winters bring out the best in its fall foliage, too: As Marjorie Schmidt enthuses in her seminal book Growing California Native Plants, “...the heart-shaped leaves look like valentines strung along the stems.” You’ll also get more blooms as the tree gets older.  

Redbuds rarely need pruning, but if you get ambitious or artistic, remember that they bloom on old wood and do your work just after flowering or you’ll lose next year’s show. Study your tree in winter, when the leaves have given way to the ascetically handsome red branches, to imagine its best possible shape. There’s a good chance the tree will imagine its own best form if you leave it alone. 



Marin Chapter, California Native Plant Society 

Tiburon Audubon Center and Wildlife Sanctuary 

376 Greenwood Beach Road, Tiburon.  

Saturday Apri 14, 9:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.  


Regional Parks Botanic Garden  

Tilden Park, near the Brazilian Room 

Saturday, April 21, 

10 a.m. - 3 p.m. 


Jepson CNPS Plant Sale 

Benicia Community Garden 

Military East and E. 2nd St, Benicia 

May 5, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. 



Photograph by Ron Sullivan 

This redbud’s for you, on University Avenue.These pea-like blooms appear before the heart-shaped leaves in spring. 


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Green Neighbors” column appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet, alternating with Joe Eaton’s “Wild Neighbors” column. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section.