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Eastern Redbud (What Time is it in Nature)

April 25, 2015

Spring is here and with it comes big changes in the landscape. Many things bloom at Prairie Ridge during this time of year, including several plants in the Nature Neighborhood Garden, the prairie, and the woods. One tree species is particularly showy currently, the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis).


Eastern Redbuds are native to most of eastern North America, from central New England west to the lower Great Plains. Though Eastern Redbud is found across a huge area, it is not an especially common tree in any one area and is instead scattered across the landscape. The trees are small, topping out at about 30 feet, with irregularly shaped trunks.  They are typically found in the understory of wooded areas.

Redbuds get their name from their showy reddish or pink flowers:

Redbud flowers

The flowers bloom early in the season, before the leaves of the Redbud appear and well before many other trees begin to leaf out. They grow in clusters of 4-8 flowers along old twigs and branches, even occasionally growing out of the main trunk. The leaves are relatively large (3-4 inches long), dark green, and heart-shaped. Even after the flowers have fallen from the tree for the year, the short stature, irregular trunk, and heart-shaped leaves let you know that you’re looking at a Redbud.

Eastern Redbuds are pollinated by a variety of bee species, including some bees that conspicuously appear early in the year, such as Eastern Carpenter Bees. Once pollen is transferred from one flower to another, a seed pod starts to develop. Clusters of flat, green pods are visible through much of the summer, but the seeds are not released until the fall when the pods have hardened and turned brown. The seeds need a period of cold to germinate the following year, and some seeds that fall to the ground may lie dormant for a few years before a new tree begins to grow.

Though many parts of the tree are edible to a variety of species, Eastern Redbud is not a favorite food of nearly any animal. A variety of wildlife makes occasional use of the seeds, leaves, or flowers, including White-tailed Deer, Eastern Gray Squirrels, and Northern Cardinals. It is occasionally attacked by moth larvae and weevils sometimes eat or otherwise destroy seeds, but outbreaks of insects are rarely fatal to the trees. Humans have used the bark to treat whooping-cough and dysentery and the flowers are sometimes consumed in salads or fried and eaten. Because they do not produce many foods favored by people, their short and irregular trunks are worthless as lumber, and they are somewhat intolerant to shade and very moist soils, Eastern Redbuds are more highly prized as an ornamental species than as a useful one.

There are several Eastern Redbuds currently in bloom at Prairie Ridge! One excellent specimen is to the left of the road as you walk toward the Outdoor Classroom from the entrance and you can find several others in the Jesse P. Perry Arboretum. The bloom seems to be happening very quickly this year, so if you want a chance to see the Redbuds, plan a visit to Prairie Ridge soon!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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