Cercis occidentalis — Western Redbud
Grown as either a large shrub or a small, multi-trunked tree, a blooming western redbud is one of the most dramatic of California natives. Vibrant, deep magenta flower clusters are either stalkless or borne in short racemes and appear to hug the branches. In bloom, redbud produces a more angular and geometric effect than the typical flowering tree or large shrub.
Although blossoms are the most striking aspect of Cercis, the leaves are also quite beautiful. Heart-shaped and bluish-green, they provide a lovely garden backdrop to summer-blooming plants. Finally, when autumn arrives, foliage combines shades of red and yellow. Once leaves fall, long, maroon, flattened seed pods become visible, providing a unique decoration in the late-season garden. Pods may be knocked from the tree and swept up if they appear unattractive.
As a California native plant, Cercis occidentalis is a thrifty water-user and a good choice for Sonoma County gardens. Occasional waterings during the dry season will keep it happy, with a bit more in the hottest inland areas, less near the coast. Alternatively, regular irrigation can be halted once the plant is established, and replaced with a good soaking every few weeks during the summer and autumn months.
Western redbud is also a welcome garden choice because its attractive shape and size do not require much, if any, pruning or maintenance. Left unchecked, it eventually grows to approximately 12-20 ft. high and wide. Lower limbs can be removed to create a tree-like rather than a shrub form, although it will never lose its multi-trunked architecture. It likes full sun, though can take a bit of shade, and will tolerate most soils, especially if, like most California natives, it has good drainage.
Western redbud makes a dynamic specimen planting, especially in the smaller garden if it is placed to show off the full impact of its spring bloom. In larger spaces, multiple plants make a dramatic showing. In spring, as part of a chaparral planting, the magenta-clad bushes seem to leap out of their glossy green background.
There is also a white-flowering cultivar of western redbud, Cercis occidentalis ‘Alba’. It has the same growth characteristics as the species, except that branches are coated with snowy white flowers in spring, rather than magenta.
Although Cercis canadensis, the eastern redbud, and its several varieties are widely planted, they typically do not adapt as well to our western gardens, and they show much less tolerance of our soils and dry summers than does C. occidentalis.