White Redbud Has History at the Garden

Missouri’s native trees put on quite a show in spring, led by the fuchsia flush of the Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis). This understory tree can be found in parks, home landscapes, and along roadsides throughout the state. The dense clusters of tiny pink blooms are a reminder that warmer weather and longer days have finally arrived.

The white redbud (Cercis canadensis f. alba) is far less common in the natural landscape, but quite popular in parks and backyards. And this beautiful tree traces its rise to horticultural prominence right here, to the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis f. alba ‘Royal White’ Photo by Tom Incrocci.

An Origin Story

The story of the white redbud begins more than a century ago, when nursery owner John Teas came across a strange tree in the woods near Carthage, Missouri. Teas himself explained his encounter years later to Garden superintendent George Pring, “So I made my way over towards it and as I got closer I saw a most gorgeous white, the purest white you’ve ever seen on a plant! It was a form of redbud. Immediately I knew it must be saved for posterity!”

The Garden purchased a white redbud from Teas in 1903, planting it just south of the main gate at Flora Avenue. Then in 1920, the Garden purchased the rest of his stock—seven plants in all.

A white redbud in the Garden’s North American Tract in 1968.

The Garden tried growing more white redbuds from the seeds of its new acquisitions, but about half the seedlings bore bright red flowers, and the others were not the pure white of their parents.

Garden propagator Martin Bagby unlocked the secret. By grafting the white variety onto the root-stock of a normal redbud, it allowed the tree to maintain it’s white color.

After this breakthrough a number of the trees were planted on Garden grounds and distributed to other botanical gardens and arboretums across the country.

In 1938, a local 4th grader made his own stunning discovery. Edward Alt Junior found another naturally-occuring white redbud growing on his family’s farm in Pacific, Missouri. Aside from the original discovery by John Teas, this was only the second white redbud known to be found outside cultivation. A pressed specimen from this tree is housed in the Garden Herbarium.

The herbarium specimen of white redbud discovered by Ed Alt Jr. in 1938.

In the Garden Today

None of the original plantings from the Teas nursery survive at the Garden today, but there are more than a dozen showy specimens on grounds. The most prominent is a group of white redbuds just past the Doris I. Schnuck Children’s Garden. A flock of famous sheep has a great view of their blooms each spring!

Moutons (Sheep) with Eastern redbud, Cersis canadensis ‘Royal White’ in bloom in the background. Photo by Cassidy Moody

The grafting technique used nearly a century earlier by Bagby can even be seen here by those with a keen eye. Although full of brilliant white blooms on its main branches, one of these white redbuds sports a distinctive kiss of pink just a few inches off the ground. It’s just a small reminder of the Garden’s important role in sharing these trees with the world.

The grafting technique is apparent on this redbud tree, with pink blooms below the graft line, and white above. Photo by James Faupel.

Cassidy Moody — Senior Digital Media Specialist

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