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Yardsmart: The beautiful redbud's western cousin

Summer drought made this wild redbud turn in late August, and it retains the color deep into fall.
Summer drought made this wild redbud turn in late August, and it retains the color deep into fall.
SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer

In the driest years in the California foothills, western-redbud leaves change late in the summer. Their beautiful rounded leaves take on tones of a smoky sunset, much like the color of evening skies during fire season. These small trees with their many trunks become vivid fountains of the wild, the only bright spot in seas of gray-green chaparral.

This is the tougher cousin of the eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis. The western species, Cercis occidentalis, can be found in the Sierra foothills, where it is plentiful. Blooming vivid fuchsia on barren branches in early spring, it is often the only bright spot of color in the entire landscape.

Redbud is exceptional on slopes where water drains quickly. In the wild, it grows a huge underground root crown as it matures. Insulated by the earth, a wildfire can burn a mature redbud to ashes, but it is, in fact, far from dead. Once the rains begin to fall at the end of the burning season, redbud springs eternal.

I have seen redbud after it has been burned to the ground or scraped clean away by a bulldozer. This process removes the older, less productive branches. New shoots spring from that root crown, slender and long like those of a willow. A sizable root crown can produce dozens of these new shoots in a single season. Owing to the red color of the inner bark, American Indians prized redbuds for basket weaving.

Redbud is useful for homesteads in the western wildfire country. A fire-adapted species can come back after a big burn, offering valuable erosion control. The living roots and root crown of redbud stabilize the burned-out slope during that first, all-important rainy season. Slopes both natural and cut can fail in these rains, and are the reason for many Southern California mudslides. Only living roots can help to stabilize such conditions, and redbud is one of the most beautiful, not to mention most functional, choices.

Redbud grows from seeds that you can purchase or collect if there are plants growing nearby. After flowering, the brown pods (like those of snow peas) dry to a paperlike quality; inside are flat, hard seeds that grow easily in the ground or in small pots. They can be collected in the winter, then must be gently rubbed with sandpaper to break the hard seed coat that otherwise prevents germination. In late winter, refrigerate the seeds for a month, then pour boiling water over the seeds and let them sit for three to five days in the water. This will result in a cracked outer shell, which tells you it's time to plant them a half-inch deep in your winter-cool soil. As temperatures warm later on, the seeds will sprout. These in-ground seedlings will root deeply from the start and offer maximum erosion control.

Redbud can be grown from very young seedlings. These are rarely in stock so you'll have to request a special order from a quality garden center. Again, the younger the plant, the less distortion that will be caused by time growing in the pot, which may interfere with the development of strong taproots. In the first years of growth, water the plants deeply but infrequently to prevent surface rooting. Then gradually back off on water in year three so they take on more adventurous rooting.

If you can't get western redbud, order seedlings online from Forest Farm Nursery, www.forestfarm.com, or order seeds from Larner Seeds at www.larnerseeds.com. For those who live in the rural West and are looking for strength, color and natural beauty, give these redbuds a try. Discover their epic resistance to fire and drought, the two great characteristic mechanisms west of the Rockies that have sculpted these wild lands and their plant communities for millennia.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read the blog at www.MoPlants.com/blog. E-mail her at mogilmer@yahoo.com. Also, join her online for the Garden Party social networking at Learn2grow.com.