In my garden I’ve planted a bunch of redbuds (Cercis canadensis), but none are the standard green leafed variety. I have nothing against green. There is a green leafed weeping variety (‘Lavender Twist’), but the others have variegated foliage (‘Silver Cloud’), or yellow (‘Hearts of Gold’). ‘Forest Pansy’ leaves emerge a glossy reddish-purple (below), and then turn to purple in May. Through the heat of the summer the foliage will often fade to reddish-green, though it remains quite attractive.
The various colored leaf versions of redbud are mostly natural mutations, and not hybrids where the genes of one tree are crossed with another. Whenever a redbud seedling pops up in my garden, it always (almost always) has green leaves, but if there were a thousand seedlings it’s likely that a few would have a different leaf color or other variation of some sort. When an experienced plantsman with a keen eye spots an anomaly he will flag the tree and grow it on to see if the unique characteristics are stable, but also to see if the tree has sufficient vigor to survive in a garden.
If all grows well, the plantsman will nurture the tree for years until he can tell if the tree is significantly different and better than existing varieties. If so, is there a market to sell the tree? If, if if, there are lots of if’s, but for most interesting mutations there are more but’s so that the tree remains a one-of-a-kind. So, now the plantsman has figured that the tree is different, arguably better, and with has some degree of marketability. How do we make more?
This is not so simple. Most seedlings from the tree will look nothing like it, so the tree must be cloned. Some plants are propagated by tissue culture where plant tissue is grown in a laboratory, but a redbud is likely to have a small cutting taken that will be grafted onto the root stock of a plain green redbud. The process is slow, and it can take a decade to grow the first batch of trees ready for market.
I’ve recently discovered a glossy red leafed redbud seedling (below) growing in my garden. Is it ‘Forest Pansy’? There’s little doubt that part of the new tree’s genetics came from the nearby ‘Forest Pansy’, but there’s another half that contributes to the genes of this tree, so while the seedling might look like a ‘Forest Pansy’, it’s very unlikely that the trees will be identical.
What will I do with this little red leafed redbud? It has sprouted about five feet from a Japanese maple, and I’m not tempted even slightly to move the maple. So, the two are too close together. I suppose I’ll let the redbud gain a bit of strength this spring, then dig it out when the ground is damp and more rain is expected to reduce shock from the transplant. I’ll find a spot to plant it with a little more space that’s partially shaded, and then I’ll wait. After a year or two there might be enough information to decide whether this young tree is just a curiosity, or if it has some value.
Most likely the red will fade (probably worse than ‘Forest Pansy’), or there will be some other defect so that this redbud’s only value will be inspiration for stories that I tell. There are hundreds of Japanese maple seedlings that pop up in the garden every year, and with genetics of the twenty four varieties in the garden a few could turn out to be something of interest. But, other than a few seedlings I’ve given away to friends and family, the others get pulled out and discarded. What am I going to do with a few hundred seedlings each year? The same fate is likely for my little red leafed redbud.