This is the story of a Forest Pansy redbud tree. Or, maybe it is a parable of a redbud tree. The Forest Pansy redbud, Cercis canadensis – ‘Forest Pansy,’ also known as the Eastern Redbud is a magnificent tree. Zig-zagging, arching branches of silver grey, rich purple flowers that bloom early and right off the leafless branches, and heart-shaped leaves that go from red in spring to green in summer to a golden yellow in fall. This is the story of my Forest Pansy redbud that is obviously dying after nine years.
When the tree was first planted in 2008, the yard of my two-year-old garden home was barely in its toddler phase. The tree was straight (even if planted with a slight tilt to the south), the yard was fresh, and my gardening sense was overcome by what I planned rather than by what was probable. Just four years later the tree was coming into its full Forest Pansy glory: interesting branch architecture, full budding along the branches, and rich purple and white color.
Within a few years things grew well, I planted more, and the redbud had a beautiful spring leafing. But the tree was diseased. There could be several reasons for this. It might have come from the nursery with some infection. I know from subsequent investigation that that landscaper did not plant it properly. The root ball was held by a wire cage which was not removed or even bent out at planting. The tilt southward continued its subtle pilgrimage, and something invaded the bark on the north side. Also, it was planted essentially on bedrock. A Google Earth shot of the yard prior to 2004 shows nothing but a wooded ridge, a modest area of which was cleared by a developer to build the small, handsomely situated development I’m in. Bordered on two sides by shallow gorges and backed by a rising forested ridge owned by US Steel, the development will remain small.
But just below the topsoil’s surface lie thick clay and rock. Beautiful rock actually. Rock that when I began working the yard yielded a stratum of fossils dating from the Mississippian, or lower Carboniferous, period roughly 359 to 323 million years ago when this area of Alabama was covered by shallow seas.
In truth, there really isn’t any topsoil, just a weak layer of loam holding the sod in place. There is no subsoil, not even a parent rock, or regolith, layer for roots to snake their way through. The roots of other trees in the yard are now thrusting their way to the surface of the soil. I’ve learned my lesson about planting the wrong tree in the wrong place—except in the case of planting a weeping crabapple. That was simply the wrong tree.
Years ago, when I first noticed the damage to the redbud, I might have taken the tree out. But it celebrated the next spring with blooms and maroon red leaves to its east, west, and south. Only the side of the tree to the north looked sparse and sickly. For several years the tree fought to heal itself. And I worked diligently to keep it pruned to minimize uneven growth and weight. However, last year’s drought, recent rains, and winds, turned a slight lean to the south into a 50-degree angle. There is no prospect of pulling it upright again. I doubt that there is any root structure on one side of the tree now to anchor it even if roots could mine their way through the granite and clay.
The question now, is whether to take it down. If there were more room, I’d give it over to Nature, but it is blocking light and inhibiting air circulation to a Japanese maple and a double-file viburnum behind it. For the sake of the garden, it should be removed. That will be harder now, though, than it would have been four years ago.
When I said that this might be the parable of a redbud, Jesus’s story of the sower whose seeds fell on stony ground, among thorns, and on good ground might have come to mind. The first seeds had no good roots, sprang up quickly, and then died out. The second group of seeds grew, but were choked by thorns and produced no fruit. The third, of course, grew, increased, and produced much fruit. But that is not the point here. The lesson in this parable—or the suggested lesson, for like biblical parables, the story is not straight forward; it begs engagement of its reader—has more to do with human desire to make of nature what we will and human inability to turn away from beauty we want even when we know it will not prosper.
I had a dogwood tree at the lake that until this summer lived 23 years half up-rooted, exposed roots standing upright like sentinels guarding those still underground. Its dying was gradual. It continued to bloom for 23 years.