Garden Club of America singles out redbuds, cedars

Redbud-Native to the Southeast, Redbud adds color to February landscapes. Plant this deciduous tree in front of an evergreen plant or structure so its flowers will stand out and contrast with the background.
Redbud-Native to the Southeast, Redbud adds color to February landscapes. Plant this deciduous tree in front of an evergreen plant or structure so its flowers will stand out and contrast with the background.

One of the most appealing aspects of our climate is the fact that we can garden year-round (as long as you don’t mind perspiring a little over the summer months).

But just because our gardens aren’t now dormant or, worse, buried under a foot of snow, doesn’t mean that we don’t have garden interests in common with our northern neighbors. A quick look at the Garden Club of America’s 2013 awards reveals trees and plants that can thrive here in Zone 9 as well as in cooler climates.

A good example is the Eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis), which was awarded the Freeman Horticulture Medal for 2013. The award is the only one made by the Garden Club to a plant (although other medals are award to people) and is named in memory of Montine “Tina” McDaniel Freeman, a longtime New Orleanian and member of the New Orleans Town Gardeners.

The award recognizes native plants which are “under-utilized but which possess superior ornamental and ecological attributes.”

The Eastern Redbud possesses both. From March through May, blossoms of deep pink and purple appear on its bare branches in shades of pale to deep pink and purple, creating a dramatic display against its dark, smooth bark. Characterized by the club as a “harbinger of spring,” the Eastern redbud leafs out after blossoming, with leaves eventually turning dark green, then yellow in the fall before dropping.

Native Americans boiled redbud bark to make tea to treat whooping cough and derived an astringent from the bark to treat dysentery, according to the USDA. Flowers were fried and eaten. Bees harvest pollen from the flowers, butterflies and hummingbirds feed on the nectar. Seeds provide food for Bobwhite quail and songbirds. The tree is even somewhat fire tolerant — it will regenerate after a fire, sprouting from its roots (thanks to a deep taproot system).

In a home landscape, the Eastern redbud can be grown as a multi-trunked shrub or a small tree, but be sure to wait until blooms have faded to prune, as blooms appear on the previous year’s growth.

The honorable mention award made by the Garden Club in 2013 is also a good choice for our climate. The Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) earned honorable mention for its “spectacular fall color” and the fact that it is “a beacon for hungry migrating birds.”

Attracted by the sour, dark blue fruit are robins, several thrushes, the Northern mockingbird, red-bellied woodpecker, scarlet tanager, the cedar waxwing, and many more. Cavities in the trunk form nesting sites and the Black Gum is also a good honey tree, according to the USDA.

Although it is not a tree that can be cultivated in a home landscape, the Stinking Cedar (Torreya taxifolia) was awarded special recognition by the Garden Club due largely to its critically endangered status.

The evergreen derives its inelegant common name from the strong, resinous odor released when its cones or leaves are bruised.

According to the United States Botanic Garden, the Torreya is “one of the oldest tree species on earth with fossil records over 165 million years old.” It was one of the Southeast’s most abundant trees in the early 1900s, but over-harvesting (for Christmas trees, if you can believe it), pollutants, and fungal disease reduced the population to the point that there are now only about 200 trees remaining, making the species critically endangered.

In May, the Garden Club of America holds its annual meeting here in New Orleans and will announce the 2014 winner of the Freeman Medal, as well as honorable mention and special recognition awardees. Stay tuned!

R. Stephanie Bruno is a contributing writer. Contact her at rstephaniebruno@gmail.com.