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A scrawny tree’s spring surprise

The little pink flowers resembled decorations on a wedding cake.

By Amy Hildreth DuncanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 9, 2009

Small tree, big show: An Eastern redbud tree is covered with purplish-pink blooms in early spring before its heart-shaped leaves appear. The popular tree is native to North America.

Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune/AP/File

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I rented the apartment sight unseen, through an ad on Craigslist. It had a deck – what else did I need to know?

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One of the things I didn’t know, though, was that the scraggly tree I’d seen hanging over the deck in the online photos was to provide me with endless fascination during the six months I ended up living in that apartment.

When I arrived, the tree was bare and not very impressive looking. It had scrawny branches that reminded me of elbows. But, I thought, in summer there would be leaves, and that would be ... well ... green. And nice.

What I didn’t know then was that in early spring the tree would sprout small dark-red buds that would suddenly burst into a symphony of tiny pinkish-magenta flowers, dazzling the eye and turning my deck into a splash of madcap cotton candy.

Too bad it was still too chilly to actually sit out there and bask in its royal rosiness. But I would open the window every day instead, stick my head out, and as the temperature gradually warmed up I took pictures of it – lots and lots of pictures.

I knew it wasn’t a cherry tree or a magnolia or a dogwood – my scanty knowledge of dendrology (the study of trees) told me that much. But what was it?

Just as my pink tree was at its fullest and most magnificent, it wowed me with yet another miracle.

Suddenly, it sprouted little bunches of pink flowers all over its trunk and biggest branches! They looked like decorations on a wedding cake.

I had never – even after living in Brazil for nearly a decade and seeing some really exotic flora  – seen flowers growing out of a tree trunk, and I was flabbergasted. Out came the camera again, and I shot the amazing and freaky phenomenon from every angle.

Now I had some ammo for my Google search for its identity. I typed in “pink tree flowers trunk” and up came the name of the tree: redbud.

Wikipedia told me that the Eastern redbud is Oklahoma’s state tree and can be found on the East Coast from Canada to northern Florida. (Mine was a Bostonian.)

It said that not all redbuds have flower clusters growing from the trunk, which I decided made mine special.

I also learned that the green twigs from the tree were once used in southern Appalachia for seasoning wild game, and this is why it was known as the spicewood tree – and sometimes still is.

Not being much of a wild game eater, I never tried the twigs.

Eventually the pink flowers dropped off, making a sticky mess on my deck. The trunk clusters were the last to go, but by that time, little green leaves had started to appear at the tips of the branches, and, by June, the tree was completely covered with dark-green, heart-shaped leaves that provided welcome shade for the humid summer.

As it turned out, I didn’t live in that apartment long enough to see the leaves turn color and drop off and then the amazing cycle start again, but I’m glad I captured the whole thing with my digital camera. Now I carry my special redbud with me wherever I go ... in my laptop.

(Editor's note: We invite you to visit the main page of the Monitor’s gardening site , where you can find many articles, essays, and blog posts on various garden topics.)

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