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Coming to terms with botanical splendour

There are some wonderful terms to be found in the botanical lexicon.

One of my favourites is “cauliflory”. Although at first sight [and sound] it looks as though it pertains to a certain member of the brassica family, it usually applies to traits exhibited by certain trees.

It is used to describe plants that flower and fruit from their main stems rather than from branches. The feature is more common among tropical trees than elsewhere and does not apply to cauliflowers. However, in a wonderful twist, it does apply to Brussels Sprouts which do indeed form on the stem of the plants.

Cauliflory on a mature Judas tree. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

What has induced me to think about this is the sight of cauliflorous flowers growing out of the stem of a Cercis tree in Chapel Street. Near ground level, clusters of bright pink flowers were showing, along with a smattering in the branches above.

The most common Cercis used to be the tree commonly known as the Judas tree – C. siliquastrum. This is a deciduous tree that will eventually grow into a forest-sized specimen, so it’s probably a little too big for the modern garden. It looks great of left with enough room to grow, with masses of pink flowers at this time of the year. These are quickly followed by bright green, heart-shaped leaves which will be retained until autumn.

There are white-flowered forms – they look especially pretty when in flower. The story goes that the tree was always white until Judas Iscariot hanged himself in one after betraying Jesus, and the tree became so ashamed that it blushed and the flowers have remained pink ever since.

The Judas tree is native to southern Europe and the Middle East. It is sometimes known as “redbud’, a name that also applies to other members of the Cercis genus found in other parts of the world. The Chinese species C. chinensis can be found in pink-flowered and white-blossomed forms. The white ‘Spring Snow’ is especially pretty, with open growth and masses of white pea-shaped flowers at this time of the year. There is also a pink flowered form called ‘Avondale’.

There are also some redbud species from North America, the best known being Cercis canadensis, which [despite its Latin name] is mainly found in the United States, although it does also stretch into southern Canada and parts of Mexico.

There is a pretty white form called ‘Texas White’, which has a nice, tiered branching habit. The white flowers are followed by bright green leaves which turn yellow in the autumn, before falling. However, the species is best known in New Zealand through its deeply coloured forms, especially ‘Forest Pansy’. This is a nicely structural deciduous tree, with hot pink flowers at this time of the year, followed by deep purple heart-shaped leaves. In the autumn those eaves colour up as well, giving a long-term value to the garden.

Cercis Ruby Falls. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

A more recent introduction occurred when the two previous trees were growing side-by-side in an American garden. The resulting hybrid was noticed to have a dense cup-shaped growth and dark wine-red leaves, so it was accordingly named ‘Merlot’. This one had very dark bark, so it has a presence even in winter when the branches are bare. The flowers are pink.

Another variant with pink flowers is the variegated cultivar ‘Silver Lining.’ This has an interesting growth habit, with interesting flowers that commence as deep pink and then lighten, but it is the foliage that really changes. It starts out with pale pink buds, then changes to white, then green but with broad irregular white sploshes. Probably not one that everyone would enjoy, but it makes an interesting highlight against a dark background.

Another with unusual tones is ‘Hearts of Gold’ where the leaves start out red then turn golden yellow, with those more exposed to the sunlight having deeper colour.

If you are looking for something even more different, you should keep an eye out for ‘Ruby Falls’. As the name suggests this is a deeper coloured form with a weeping habit. It has the usual pink, pea-like flowers in spring, followed by bright red foliage, which gradually darkens to burgundy and then slowly matures to deep green by the end of the growing season. It then changes gear again, the foliage reverting to red and orange before finally dropping.

All the above are deciduous trees, and will perform best if planted in humus-rich soil with good moisture retention. They prefer a little water over summer, if possible, but they are very hardy plants. In the wild, the American forms constitute part of the understorey, but they cope just fine will full sun.

Apparently, the flowers are edible, either fresh or fried, and the seeds were roasted by Native Americans. Personally, I think I’ll just enjoy their flowering, whether it is cauliflorous or not!

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