Cercis chinensis 'Kay's Early Hope'

Chinese redbud

A JC Raulston Arboretum Introduction

Few plant brighten the early spring garden quite like redbuds. Our own woodlands come alive with the lavender flowers of Cercis canadensis before almost any other blooming native tree and the same can be said for the West Coast, Mexico, and southern Europe all of whom have their own native species of redbud. Asia is blessed with quite a few different species but the most commonly found is C. chinensis.

The Chinese redbud is a small tree or large shrub, almost invariably either multi-stemmed or branching low to the ground and growing to about 12'–15' tall. In cultivation it is sometimes grown as a single trunked tree which will still typically only grow to around 15' or so tall with a distinct vase-like, upright branching structure. In the wilds of central China, there are reports of trees growing to 50' tall but will never be that tall in cultivation.

In 1996, the JCRA received seed from the University of Nebraska that had been wild-collected in Hubei province in China. By 1997, it had grown to 1' tall and was soon planted out on the grounds. Staff thought highly enough of this plant to transplant it in 2000 to make way for the construction of the Ruby C. McSwain Education Center. In its new location, it continued to shine and was given the name 'Kay's Early Hope' in early 2009.

This lovely small tree is distinguished by its exceptionally long bloom period. It is generally among the first of the JCRA's redbuds to flower and continuing until well after the leaves emerge for a display from March until the end of April. The sheer volume of flowers from near the tips of the branches down to the oldest trunks makes an exceptional display of pink-lavender over an extended period. Following the flowers are lovely, heart-shaped leaves which hold up well under the high heat and humidity of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic.

'Kay's Early Hope' grows exceptionally well from full sun to part shade in average garden soil. It rarely needs pruning except to help shape young plants or to remove the occasional crossing branch. Pruning, when necessary, can be performed shortly after flowering. It is hardy to zone 6.

This redbud which is always in flower in plenty of time for the March basketball tournament was named for NC State's incomparable women's basketball coach, Kay Yow. Kay's grace under pressure, elegance, and tough constitution are well represented by this tree and the pinkish-lavender flowers remind us of her determination not to give up in her fight with cancer. 'Kay's Early Hope' redbud is the perfect garden reminder that spring is just around the corner and winter is soon over.

Additional Resources

Mark Weathington, director, discussed Cercis chinensis 'Kay's Early Hope' in his
"Bullet Proof Trees and Shrubs for the South" Gardening in the South presentation (February 1, 2020) and his "Small Trees for Urban Landscapes" Midweek with Mark presentation (September 2, 2020).

Additional photographs of Cercis chinensis 'Kay's Early Hope' can be found in the JCRA's Photograph Collection.