Pittsburgh is in its second year of the Pittsburgh Redbud Project. The project aims to “plant 1,200 flowering redbud and other native trees on trails, hillsides and open spaces in downtown Pittsburgh in view of the city’s riverfronts.” The eastern redbud (cercis canadensis) bursts with pink flowers before it leafs out each spring. As a native understory plant (its mature height is only 30 feet), in early spring the redbud is easily visible from a distance within the forest. (Look for flashes of redbud here or there on wooded hillsides this spring). However, once the forest canopy’s leaves arrive, the redbud disappears from notice.
Landscape architect Frank Dawson was brilliant, not only to envision the plan, but to partner with Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Colcom Foundation to bring his vision to reality. As reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dawson believes that people may one day throng to Pittsburgh to see the bloom, just as they currently plan to visit Washington, D.C. for the bloom of the cherries. Since the redbuds are to be planted in view of Pittsburgh’s three rivers, the city will get double the color for its efforts, since from a distance the bloom will be reflected in the water.
To plant the trees, the Conservancy has enlisted the help of hundreds of volunteers. This spring, there are three Saturdays in April for volunteers to join in the planting, April 1, 15 and 29. The planting will not stop there, however, since the Conservancy is giving volunteers redbud saplings to take home with them. So redbuds will take hold in Pittsburgh public and private lands. And, someday — sooner than we imagine — Dawson and his volunteers will be able to enjoy the fruit of their labors.
Far be it from me to throw a wet blanket on the project, but as an arborist, I wonder about the labors of their fruits. In my experience, there are two yellow flags that need to be raised on a redbud planting project.
First, redbuds, while they grow full and fast “produce” a lot of dead wood. I have two customers with ornamental redbud plantings. In each case, I am always amazed at the amount of dead branches I remove from the interior of these trees on a regular basis.
Secondly, redbud trees have poor branch attachment and easily break under snow loads. Because of this, I have had to cable redbuds to preserve their canopies.
Who will do the maintenance on Pittsburgh’s new redbuds? The good news is that if no one does the maintenance on the redbuds, it is not likely that any harm will come to Pittsburghers. Without pruning or cabling, tree symmetry is at risk. But since the trees will remain small, even major branch failures are unlikely to cause damage to anyone but the trees.
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Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business.