Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Flowering Understory Trees

Posted in Gardening Tips on May 20 2014, by Sonia Uyterhoeven

Sonia Uyterhoeven is the NYBG’s Gardener for Public Education.

Redbud blossoms
Redbud blossoms

Spring gallops at such a steady pace, I barely have a chance to pause and soak in the sights before the vernal onslaught has passed me by. I often like to capture these colorful, ephemeral moments in writing.

This year, one of my favorite fleeting moments was the eastern redbud ‘Pauline Lily’. The redbuds stay in bloom for several weeks from April into May, lighting up the woodland understory with their cheerful color.

While the majority of the eastern redbuds produce an abundance of pea-like flowers that are either the characteristic purple-pink color or the occasional pure white variety, ‘Pauline Lily’ has demure ballerina-pink blooms. The buds start off as salmon-pink and open to a divine pale cream. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the flowers are edible and they can be plucked off of the tree (your own tree, of course) and tossed into a salad or frozen in an ice cube tray to add a festive touch to your drinks.

There’s even more good news for gardeners: this lovely native understory tree thrives in both full sun and part shade, and is deer resistant. All you have to do is avoid hot and dry locations and otherwise the eastern redbud is a fairly carefree addition to any landscape. It maxes out at around 20 feet tall and has a nice round or broad-shaped canopy. The branches become contorted as it matures and it ages fabulously. The heart-shaped foliage turns a lovely bright yellow in the fall.

Carolina silverbell
Carolina silverbell

Another beautiful springtime flowering tree that I have been admiring in the Garden this year is Carolina silverbell ‘Jersey Belle’ (Halesia carolina ‘Jersey Belle’). Carolina silverbell, or Halesia, is another stunning native understory tree that produces wonderful blooms in spring. In May, it is covered with clusters of pendulous, bell-shaped white flowers that are sure to put a smile on your face. They look like hundreds of miniature white petticoats hanging out to dry.

A four-winged fruit follows the flowers. The form of the seed capsules reminds me of pint-sized star fruit minus one wing. The seed capsules change from green to brown and persist into the winter, remaining on the tree after the leaves have dropped and adding a decorative element later in the season. As well as thriving in full to part sun, Carolina silverbell can tolerate full shade. ‘Jersey Belle’ is an outstanding variety that comes from Princeton Nurseries. It has large white flowers that densely cover the branches. Spring flowering understory trees will brighten up any corner of your garden.