Western redbud, Cercis occidentalis, is a small deciduous tree in the Fabaceae (Legume) family. Cercis derives from the Greek word kerkis, or “weaver’s shuttle” –a reference to the characteristic flat seed pods that appear after bloom.
Though springtime is the highlight of the western redbud’s growing season, it provides good horticultural interest in every month of the year. Its compact growth habit works well for small spaces, too. Since it’s a native of California, Utah, and Arizona, it naturally flourishes in local gardens with little water or maintenance.
Sustainable gardeners appreciate added ecological benefits as well. A member of the legume family, western redbud hosts nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its roots. As plant parts decay, nitrogen is naturally released into the local ecosystem to support new growth.
C. occidentalis flowers have an ecologically-supportive role to play, too — they’re hugely attractive to hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other native pollinators.
Full-grown Western redbud typically stay below 10 feet tall. It is most often grown as a small, multi-trunked tree or shrub. The silvery-gray branches contrast beautifully with pink flowers in spring and purple seed pods in summer. These distinct markers create the illusion of having a twice-blooming plant in the garden each year. On their own in late winter, branches provide a pleasing silver silhouette.
One of the first signs of spring is Western redbud’s tiny, pink, sweet-pea-shaped flowers. They cling to bare twigs and branches for several weeks before leaves come on.
Leaves are rounded heart shapes, delicate at first and leathery as the season continues. They offer attractive color. Young leaf tips are fresh apple green, but darken to deep green with blue undertones as they mature. In autumn, foliage changes again to golden yellow then rust red before they fall.
Large, flattened seedpods start emerging soon after spring flowers. About 1½- to 3½-inches long, they change color over their long season. In spring, they are vivid lime green, but slowly change to deep purple in summer. As leaves turn yellow and drop in the fall, pods darken to dark brown or gray. It’s not unusual for the shapely seed pods to hang on well into the winter months until disturbed by weather.
Soil and Water Requirements
C. occidentalis is very drought tolerant once established, but can handle occasional watering in summer as long as it is planted in well-drained soil. All of the wonderful CA native plant advantages are in full play for this tree. It’s well adapted and thrives even when practically unattended. A sunny location with a bit of winter chill produces the best flowers.
Western redbud takes pruning well. Its rounded growth habit is easily shaped into a small tree for deck or patio. If you decide to prune, winter time or directly after bloom is best. If the prolific seed pods result in young seedlings around mature plants, they should be potted or moved during dormant season.
If an unpruned tree appears to be losing its vigor, it may be rejuvenated by pruning right back to the ground.
Western Redbud Features and Uses
- Ornamental flowers
- Four-season interest
- Pest and disease resistant
- Attracts hummingbirds, goldfinches, and butterflies
- Good for small spaces
- Versatile use: shrub border or eye-catching landscape feature
- Companion plantings: Ceanothus (California lilac), Heuchera (coral bells)
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