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Monday - October 18, 2010

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Trees
Title: Understory trees for large trees in Austin
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I'm blessed with some beautiful large live oaks, burr oaks, and cedar elms in my front yard in southwest Austin. I'd like to plant some understory trees among them. The trees would get dappled light all day and a little direct sun in the afternoon. I'm trying to decide between redbuds (Texas or Mexican) and Anacacho Orchids. Could you kindly tell me about their suitability for such a situation? I would also like to know which gives the better spring show of bloom.


You must have a pretty big yard to accommodate large Quercus fusiformis (Escarpment live oak), Quercus macrocarpa (Bur oak)  and Ulmus crassifolia (Cedar elm). Don't get too carried away with the idea of creating a "forest" with understory plantings. The trees you already have are valuable, and you need to evaluate what it will take for each of those to have sufficient water, light and root room to thrive. Then, you can follow the links below to our pages on each of the three trees you are seeking to plant in that same space, and decide whether or not any, all or none will be good choices.

 Cercis canadensis var. texensis (Texas redbud) grows to 10 to 20 feet, blooms white, pink, purple from March to April.

Growing Conditions

Water Use: Low , Medium
Light Requirement: Sun , Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry
Soil pH: Alkaline (pH>7.2)
CaCO3 Tolerance: Low
Drought Tolerance: Medium , High
Cold Tolerant: yes
Heat Tolerant: yes
Soil Description: Well-drained, calcareous, rocky, sandy, loamy, or clay soils, usually limestone-based.
Conditions Comments: Drought- and cold-tolerant within its range. Give dappled shade when young. A selection called Sanderson is said to be the most drought-adapted Texas redbud cultivar.

Cercis canadensis var. mexicana (Mexican redbud) - 5 - 12 ft., blooms pink, purple February to April

Growing Conditions

Water Use: Low , Medium
Light Requirement: Sun , Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry
Soil pH: Alkaline (pH>7.2)
Drought Tolerance: High
Cold Tolerant: yes
Heat Tolerant: yes
Soil Description: Calcareous, limestone-based sands, loams, clays, often rocky
Conditions Comments: One of three Cercis canadensis varieties naturally occurring in Texas, the Mexican redbud is shorter and more compact in Texas than the others and is more likely to have multiple trunks. The leaves tend to be darker, smaller, and slightly ruffled along the margins. South into northeastern Mexico it reaches greater heights than it does in Texas. Like other redbuds, Mexican redbud is stunning in bloom.

 Bauhinia lunarioides (Anacacho orchid tree) - 6-12 ft., blooms white, pink March to May

Growing Conditions

Water Use: Low
Light Requirement: Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry
Cold Tolerant: yes
Heat Tolerant: yes
Soil Description: Rocky, limestone soils. Sandy, sandy loam, medium loam, limestone-based
Conditions Comments: Does best when planted on the south side of a building, protected from winter winds.

You will note that all 3 need at least part sun, which we consider to be 2 to 6 hours of sun a day. In blooming plants, generally you will get more blooms with more sun. All 3 require low to medium amounts of water and soils you would expect to find in Central Texas. We would suggest that you wait until late November to do your planting, which is usually recommended for woody plants in Texas. Dig the holes and work in some compost for each tree you are planting, and if there not regular rains, provide deep watering for them for some months.

From our Native Plant Image Gallery:

Cercis canadensis var. texensis

Cercis canadensis var. mexicana

Bauhinia lunarioides




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