I exaggerate not a jot when I say that gardening in North Texas is the US Marines boot camp of horticulture. We’re not really in prairie, nor in desert, nor in temperate forest or plains, but we fluctuate between the three throughout the year. Rainfall fluctuates wildly from year to year, and so do temperatures and humidity. The joke “If you don’t like Texas weather, just wait a minute” is literally true through most of spring and autumn: I’ve never lived in a place where I could watch a raging thunderstorm on one side of a street while my side stayed sunny and dry before I moved here. The south wind is so unrelenting through the year that many trees gain a permanent tilt toward north, which means they’re torn to pieces when we get Arctic blasts in the winter. What we call “forests” are known throughout the rest of the planet as “bonsai”, and I can state with authority that precious few places in our world can list animal garden pests and include young alligators hiding in ponds, alligator snapping turtles digging nests in flowerbeds, and armadillos tearing up the hostas in search of ants and grubs. I won’t even start with the opossums, night herons, and Harris’s hawks: some morning commutes to the Day Job are a dinner theater version of South America in the Miocene.
In response, the native flora adapted. Not only did it adapt, but it’s well on its way to turning North Texas into a deathworld. (You try breathing without your head exploding from allergies if you don’t believe me. Thanks to the pollen count, the local air is now best described as an aerogel.) Plants have to be tough to survive here, which is why even cactus only grows in Dallas in containers or raised beds. Our Blackland Prairie clay even kills house foundations.
Under such, erm, interesting conditions, one of the most recognized and most obscured trees in the area is the redbud, Cersis canadensis. Its common name comes from the brilliant red-purple flowers it prodigiously produces in the earliest portions of spring, and the sight of a redbud blooming is justifiably seen as a sign of the end of winter in the area. Many people grow redbuds in their yards for precisely this reason, not knowing that the flowers are edible and in fact delicious if you like snow peas. (Speaking from experience, they’re a very interesting visual addition to salads, and they hold up remarkably well in stirfry.) These blooms generally disappear by the end of March, to be replaced with clusters of seedpods that also resemble snow peas. Considering that C. canadensis is in fact a member of the pea family, this shouldn’t be surprising.
After the blooms drop, though, is when the redbud gets both more invisible and more interesting. When I say “invisible,” I mean that it blends in remarkably well in standard Texas woodland areas, such as along the banks of rivers and streams. An old trope before redbuds started showing up in large numbers in cultivation was to mark a tree with a ribbon or sign while it was blooming, because it was next to impossible to spot in the middle of summer. The leaves are short and broad, evocative of ginkgo, while the branches themselves spread out to form a nearly vaporous canopy. In the winter, with the trunk’s dusty purplish bark, it nearly disappears on cloudy days or in storms. This makes it an interesting denizen in urban areas where residents can pass by it for months or even years without noticing it, until they look in the right time.
Because of its alien appearance, I’ve recommended redbuds for goth gardens in Texas for quite some time. Yes, the blooms are cheery in early spring, but the tree does remarkably well in shady areas, particularly afternoon shade in the lee of tall buildings. (When my ex-wife and I were dating, we lived in an apartment building with a huge redbud that grew right alongside the foundation, and it thrived under nothing but morning sun.) It spreads readily, and doesn’t produce obnoxious fruit in fall, thereby making it a suitable alternative to ginkgo. It’s already adapted to poor or thick soils, and I still need to find out if it’s able to fix atmospheric nitrogen for its growing requirements. And now, best of all, Eaton Farms has a new cultivar, “Pink Heartbreaker,” that grows in a weeping form.
The back space has a big maple tree that may or may not survive the summer drought, and the Czarina and I have been preparing for the eventuality of removing it within the next few years. If it goes, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone, replacing it with a redbud isn’t even a point of discussion. And yes, it’ll probably be a “Pink Heartbreaker,” just because it’ll work well with the antique roses.