Tag Archives: redbuds

Introducing Cercis canadensis

Redbud portrait

26 years ago, I was in a rather bad place. I was stuck in a dead-end groundskeeping job at a now-long-dead Texas Instruments site, where I had the option of paying rent or buying food but not both at the same time. In an attempt to get into a better situation, I moved at the end of February 1987 to a much more amenable apartment, without considering that moving, in the short term, can cost even more than staying put. Hence, I was beyond broke, forcing myself to go to work with levels of willpower that should qualify me for a Green Lantern ring one of these days. In fact, the only thing that kept me going for the first month of spring was that the new apartment’s porch overlooked Carrollton’s Greenbelt Park, and that park was full of huge redbud trees.

Redbud branches

Although ranging through most of North America (hence the Latin name Cercis canadensis), redbuds are as much of a part of Texas as armadillos and mesquite. When I first moved here, the common advice given to new gardeners was to wait until the redbuds bloomed before planting anything freeze-sensitive, because they only exploded when we were reasonably safe from killer frosts. (That wisdom may be challenged this weekend, by the way, but seeing as how we last saw a late killer frost in 1997, we’re overdue.) For about two weeks, their blooms brighten otherwise stark woods and parks, to be replaced with pear, peach, and crabapple blooms as they sprout leaves. For the rest of the year, they’re curious ornamental trees, bearing big heart-shaped leaves and seed pods that resemble nothing so much as snow peas. They don’t get overly big, they don’t choke out other trees, they offer sporadic but reasonable shade, and they thrive on the poor soils that are practically a North Texas trademark.

Redbud blooms

Redbud blooms

Redbud blooms

Those seed pods, by the way, not only give away their heritage, as redbuds are woody members of the pea family. They also give a hint on edibility. Specifically, while the seed pods are tough and stringy, the flowers are not only edible but tasty if you like snow peas. Pluck them after they open, preferably after a rainstorm so they’ve been washed of dust (instead of washed in dust, the way this spring has been going), and eat them raw. The Czarina is particularly fond of garnishing salads with them, and as soon as she can figure out how to preserve them without their turning to mush, I expect to come home one evening and find the freezer stockpiled with fresh-frozen redbud blooms.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning that if you plan to get a redbud tree, do so NOW. Various cultivars exist, mostly ranging in bloom intensity between light pink and a deep pomegranate, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between them when they’re not blooming. Likewise, when they stop blooming, they tend to blend in with other trees, so unless your powers of botanical identification are fully operational, you’ll walk by even fully mature trees in scrub woodlands. The trick is to get them now, so that they’re fully established for next spring’s fireworks, and let them grow a bit into a decent shape.

As for bonsai possibilities, don’t ask me. Yet. One of these days, though…

Introducing Lupinus texensis

The people who chose Texas’s state symbols had a decidedly appealing sense of humor. Our state bird, the mockingbird, is a persistent cuss with no fear of man, beast, or god when said entities get in the way of a meal. The same could be said of the state flower, the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), as it combines beauty and sheer tough-as-railroad-spikes-for-breakfast resilience in a very welcome spring package. It’s much like seeing the Czarina put up the winter coat and run around in T-shirts in March.

Lupinus texensis

As can be told by the Latin name, Texas bluebonnets are lupines, members of the legume family. The genus name came from the presumption during the Nineteenth Century that they wrested nutrients away from less aggressive plants. In reality, much like fellow residents honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and redbud (Cercis canadensis) are legumes, pulling nitrogen straight out of the atmosphere with the help of symbiotic bacteria, thus allowing them to thrive in poor soils. In fact, most of the best bluebonnet areas in North Texas are half “black gumbo” clay and chalk fragments, which can keep wildflowers alive and not much else.

Texas bluebonnets

Right about now is both the best and the only time to see bluebonnets, as they get in as much growing time as they can before the heat withers them in May. The seeds are small, black, and incredibly tough, and they remain buried for years before the right conditions prevail to allow them to germinate. (I’ve sown bluebonnet seed left in storage for over a decade, and was as surprised as everyone else to watch it explode.) Right about now, mowing teams leave most Texas highway roadsides alone, because the bluebonnet emergence is a major tourist attraction.

Fields of bluebonnets

To settle a longtime rumor, it is not true that Texas garden writers who fail to write about bluebonnets every other year or so are arrested and fined. We’re actually strung up by our toes and used as Viking pinatas for a few hours. Not that I have any worries: yes, the blooms are beautiful, but the underlying plant is a marvel. In a way, it has a similar habit as my beloved carnivores, in that it has special adaptations that allow it to thrive in areas that would kill most other plants. The difference is that bluebonnets don’t inspire science enthusiasts the way Sarracenia pitcher plants do…yet.

More fields of bluebonnets

And for the record, these photos were taken on the edge of Richardson, Texas, on land belonging to Fujitsu. During the main growing season, the mowers stay away, and Friday afternoons feature dozens of families stopping to take photos of their kids among the blooms. When the temperatures start to rise and the rains slow, the mowers finally hit the space, after the bluebonnets drop seed for next year’s crop. In the meantime, I pass by the field early in the morning, on my way to the day job, and catch the fields as the early morning mist starts to fade. With the right kind of eyes, you can almost see mammoths, glyptodonts, and other Ice Age Texas residents on the edge, getting in an early breakfast. And people wonder why I love spring out here, even if the pollen is trying to kill me.