The redbud has the nickname Judas tree, since one legend associated with the species is that the apostle named Judas Iscariot hanged himself from one after his betrayal of Christ. The tree got its redbud name from the brilliant flowers that emerge on it each spring, even before the leaves appear. The redbud grows native in the United States and is an ornamental that works well under the right growing conditions.
The redbud is not a large tree, with the typical specimen only achieving a height in the range of from 15 to 30 feet. The trunk diameter is normally well under a foot and the tree develops a twisting trunk in many cases. The redbud will also often have multiple trunks. The Virginia Department of Forestry website describes the bark as brown and smooth on the immature redbud, but as the tree grows, the bark becomes furrowed and dark gray.
The leaves of the redbud are distinct in the eastern half of the United States among plants in the family that the tree belongs to--the bean family. The leaves are simple leaves comprised of just one blade, shaped in the case of the redbud like a heart. The leaves vary in size between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 inches long and have a broad, short tip. The "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees" says the leaves are a dullish green on their top sides and paler below. The leaves change color very late in the autumn, typically turning chartreuse, but in some years going to yellow.
Flowers and Fruit
Two features of the redbud that make it a desired ornamental are its flowers and their resulting fruit. The flowers bloom in April and are not only on the ends of the branches but are all throughout their lengths, with some even on the trunk, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website. The flowers are only about 1/2 inch long and will be pinkish to purple, except on certain cultivars. The flowers give way to a green fruit in the late spring that has the shape of a pod. These pods are oblong, as long as 3 inches, and turn a brownish color before falling off in winter.
As part of the bean family, a redbud has the ability to take nitrogen from the air and return it to the ground, a trait that lets the tree grow in some poor soils. The tree will develop to full potential in a damp, well-draining area of deep organic soil. Redbuds require a mix of sunshine and shade, as in the wild they normally grow at the edges of forests where these conditions exist. The redbud is not a long-lived species, growing quickly and then starting its decline after about its 20th birthday.
The University of Connecticut Plant Database website lists many interesting and showy hybrids of the redbud tree that people select as an ornamental for their yards. One is the Royal White, which features white flowers; another is Forest Pansy, a redbud cultivar with brilliant burgundy blooms and purplish-red leaves on one side. Two forms with hanging branches along the lines of the weeping willow are the Covey and the Traveller. The Silver Cloud hybrid redbud, despite not having a large number of flowers, possesses variegated foliage.