A Quandary of Mercy

I have a redbud problem; or, more accurately, a problem redbud. It was already here when I bought the Money Pit in 2013, although – thanks to a late-winter snowstorm – I had no idea what it was.

What it turned out to be was a weeping redbud, about three feet tall and with a trunk diameter suggesting that it had been there for at least three years. The sellers had bought the house in 2009, which seemed about right. The only weeping redbud at that time was Cercis canadensis ‘Covey’, a/k/a ‘Lavender Twist’®. Although the registered name is snazzier, I prefer ‘Covey’ because it recognizes the source of the original plant which was growing at the home of Connie Covey, a New York gardener.

‘Covey’ can get quite tall, but only if it is staked. If not, it tops out at about five feet if it’s lucky; three to four feet is about as high as it can struggle up on its own. The former owners of my house either didn’t know this or didn’t bother to stake it, which is why it ended up leaning at a 55-degree angle (and toward the north, which is odd and makes me wonder if there was a stake that just didn’t do its job very well.)

This was taken in May 2015. In the background is a row of yellow threadleaf Chamaecyparis, and there is also an azalea of almost the identical color as the Cercis.

Two months later, the redbud looked like this; put a bowler hat on the top and it could easily pass for a horticultural version of Cousin Itt. And those long weeping branches just keep on growing and growing, well after they touch the ground. Green blob + green carpet. Weird.

Various exterior renovations in 2018 occasioned the removal of everything in that front-walkway bed except for Coniferus Rex and the redbud, which are near the south and north ends of the bed.

Wanting to bring some order to the giant green blob/carpet that the redbud always became by early summer, I hacked it back severely as this April 2021 photo shows. The resulting shape reminded me of some types of Japanese stone lanterns in which the lower section is curved rather than being vertical or squat. At least that’s what I told myself, anyhow.


But by summertime, Cousin Itt was back. Big green blob, minus the surrounding carpet. This was taken in early October.

Three days later I broke out the pruners again. O-kay, so now we have a tilted beach umbrella. Or a leafy green Japanese lantern. Whatever.


Lather, rinse, repeat! This was taken the following April (2022.) I should also mention that the trunk was not very sturdy; it didn’t take much pressure at all, even from just one hand, to move it either downward or sideways. A really heavy load of ice could conceivably snap the crown section off outright. To be honest, I began to hope that would happen because no matter what I’d done or not done to this thing, I never truly liked the result. And so, when these flowers were over, I applied my trusty branch saw to the trunk. Unfortunately, it ended up as an angled cut (thanks to my wonky back and shoulder) but I duly painted it with stump killer and thought “Well, that’s that. Rubicon crossed. Bye-bye, weird redbud.”

The redbud had other ideas.

Less than three weeks after the cut-down, I saw a single new growth emerge from the base of the stump. It was growing straight up. Hmm, I thought, perhaps if I stake this properly, it will become what it should have been originally! So, I encouraged it with a small stake (most of you will undoubtedly see where this is going). This photo was taken on June 24th (please ignore the weeds.)


Look how tall it was by July 3rd; my gosh, it reminded me of that 1950s movie I Want to Live! starring Susan Hayward. I regarded the plant with new respect for its tenacity and indomitable spirit, and gave it a taller support.


Exactly three weeks later there were now several horizontal branches, helped along by a freak storm that snapped off the leader, no doubt. However, I didn’t want it to get taller than about five feet anyhow, so that was fine. I would be thinning out the weeping branches anyway, because I didn’t want to end up with Cousin Itt again, albeit taller and skinnier (Basketball-Player Itt??) Notice the ‘real’ plant stake that it’s graduated to.

I kept waiting for the weeping to start. It didn’t. That’s when the word ‘grafted’ popped into my heat-and-drought-addled brain. Fired up Google, searched cercis covey grafted, and sure enough the first result was

This is a patented plant that is vegetatively propagated by grafting.

Which meant that my ‘resurrected’ growth was not ‘Covey’ and thus would never weep. It was just an ordinary Cercis canadensis rootstock sucker. Duh.

I would like to say that I am not a plant snob, but that wouldn’t be exactly true. Throw a new and unusual cultivar at me, and I will always look and sometimes – okay, too often – buy. (Don’t even ask me what I paid for Epimedium x ‘Totnes Turbo’ early this year, not only because of its touted super-performance but because only ONE nursery in the USA is currently selling it and I wanted to grab a few before they sold out. Never mind that a half dozen or more nurseries will probably be selling it two years from now.) So, this redbud sucker presented me with a quandary on two fronts:

  1. It’s something that I would never have deliberately chosen to plant. If I wanted a pink-flowered redbud, I’d have searched until I found Cercis yunnanensis ‘Celestial Plum’; I had one of those in my previous garden and loved it.
  2. My front-walkway beds are planned to have only white flowers. The only reason why ‘Covey’ was spared from the 2018 rip-out was because I wanted something structural at that end to balance the weeping spruce. I dithered for weeks either way. But if I had specifically wanted a Cercis there, I’d have opted for a ‘Vanilla Twist’ (properly staked) instead.

So, there is no logical reason why I should grant the sucker mercy; I definitely do not want a large tree of any type in that spot, which is within about five feet of the cesspool. I should take the saw and stump killer to it again, even though I also learned that Cercis forms a large tap root, thus explaining why my initial effort failed and why I will probably be battling new suckers for the rest of my life.

On the other hand, a tap-rooted plant is the only safe woodie to be anywhere near the cesspool (and which is why the other stuff had to come out in favor of perennials, annuals, and bulbs.) And the soil at that end of the bed is really, really poor, meaning that a redbud is probably one of the few flowering shrubs or trees that would survive there.

It occurred to me that the redbud could serve as a living trellis for a white-flowered summer climber, such as the Japanese morning glory ‘Snow of the Heian Era’, or a moonflower, or perhaps even one of the very restrained cultivars of white clematis. Then I learned that Cercis branches are notoriously brittle, which doesn’t sound like it would be a good support for any climber.

Thus, I am in a quandary. Do I shovel-(or in this case, saw-and-spray)prune this, or do I show mercy and let it do its thing – albeit with continual, multiple-times-each-year pruning to keep the size and shape to something much, much smaller than it will always strive to attain?

It’s a difficult decision. What would you do?

In the meanwhile, with sincere apologies to Shakespeare’s Portia, my musings produced this:

A quandary of mercy is a pain;
It hangeth like a cloud of indecision
Above the gardener’s head. She is twice vexed:
Should I chop, or should I spare?
Or roughly take my pruners to its crown
And somehow try to shape it into usefulness,
Remembering that tap roots hath such power
That laughs to scorn our vain attempted murders.
So let the winter come and pass away
Whilst our attention turns to other things;
Procrastination may then produce a floral show
That lets mercy be the victor.

  2 comments for “A Quandary of Mercy

  1. Betty McCullough
    October 24, 2022 at 8:58 pm

    I would leave it, especially since the main trunk is nice and straight.. It certainly has the will to live so please let it.

  2. October 25, 2022 at 11:21 am

    Wow. You certainly have been through a lot with that tree. I am not sure that I could have that much patience–but since you have, I think I agree with Betsy, above. It may, perhaps yet, turn into a lovely tree.

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