A Sneak Peek into Spring: The Story of the Redbud Tree
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Horticulture Stories


Stories from the park's horticulture team

A Sneak Peek into Spring: The Story of the Redbud Tree

By Chris Gabbard, Director of Horticulture

I have always been fascinated by which living things are related to each other, specifically unexpected relationships. For example, like how the wonderfully cute and amazing sloth is related to armadillos and anteaters in the mammalian group Xenarthra. That fact was always interesting to me. During my years of working with sloths, I would ask people what they thought they were related to, and 90% of people wrongly guessed monkeys. It is no different in the world of plants, where relationships can be interesting and sometimes surprising.  

There are some very large plant families on this green earth. One of the largest is the Asteraceae, or daisy, family. Some favorites in this family are the asters, sunflowers, daisies, and mums. This family also contains unexpected members like lettuce, artichokes, sagebrush and ragweed. This family is large and contains about 1,600 genera and over 2,500 species. The most notable characteristic is their flower—or more correctly, their flowers—which is actually a grouping of many individual inflorescences. It is composed of disk flowers in the center and surrounded by long petals like ray flowers.  

Another large group of plants is the pea family, or Leguminosae. Also known by Fabaceae, this family contains over 20,000 species including pulses, beans, lentils, and peas. From a nutritional and economic standpoint, this family is important. But as a horticulturist, what really intrigues me is the beauty this family provides to the landscape.

From a very young age, I climbed on large legumes like the mimosa tree that was located on the side of my house. The mimosa tree is an introduced and invasive species to Tulsa. There is one native member of this family that many of us in Oklahoma recognize in the springtime—the beautiful redbud tree, Cercis canadensis. I still remember being a teenager working at a local garden center where I would load up young redbuds into cars and thinking how weird it was that they had bean pods on them. I was able to recognize these unique pods as I picked snow peas, snap peas, and green beans with my parents who were avid gardeners. 

The eastern redbuds range from Pennsylvania down to Florida and west from Nebraska down to Texas. Typically, redbuds bloom before any other tree even sprouts leaves. Redbuds vividly dot roadsides and forest edges with splashes of pink that help us happily wave goodbye to winter. This tree has been extensively cultivated to produce various color variations from the native light pink to dark pink and even white—a favorite of mine. At Gathering Place, the corridor through Four Seasons Garden is planted with all white redbuds and can be a wonderful stroll in the early spring season. Redbuds play another unique role at the park as they are an important species for native pollinators and as food sources for birds and mammals. 


Most people already know that redbuds are in the pea family, but if you’re looking for fun facts to impress your friends and family with you can add that redbuds are also cauliflorous. Unrelated from cauliflower, cauliflorous is a botanical term that describes plants that flower and fruit along the stem and trunks of trees. When translated, the term means stem flower. This is relatively uncommon in the plant world with around only 100 species exhibiting the trait. It is rare to see this in temperate climates as it is more common in the tropics with plants like chocolate (also known as the cacao tree) and coffee.

Regardless of it being in the pea family or having strange flowering habits, it is certainly difficult to imagine spring in Oklahoma without the redbud trees!


Chris is a native Tulsan who has worked in the green industry for over 35 years with experience in aquatic gardening, arboriculture, greenhouse production, park horticulture, and zoology. He has a passion for the interface between ornamental, natural landscapes, and how they enrich the lives for those who visit them as well as the habitat they provide for wildlife. Chris is a Certified Arborist through the International Association of Arboriculture and is Tree Risk Assessment Qualified. He is excited to serve as Director of Horticulture for Gathering Place.

Posted by Sydney Brown at 10:04