From central Canada to Florida and Texas, this pea and bean relative is hard to miss. Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) packs copious amounts of hot pink to lavender flowers. Sometimes stands of these small trees are so dense that it appears the whole forest edge is pink.
Redbud is a vase-shaped understory tree that can attain heights of 30 feet with nearly similar spread, but specimens rarely get that large. Flowering is much more prolific when the trees receive adequate sunlight, so densest blooming borders open areas.
Redbud is one of the first trees to bloom in spring. Flowers emerge before the leaves and that makes the color even more dramatic. Often the bright color is the only visible sign of life in a brown mass of branches and dead leaves.
Heart-shaped leaves about three inches across emerge singly on dark brown zigzagging twigs. Flat pods resembling snow peas develop from the pink flowers. Some ornamental cultivars have striking purple pods. Each pod contains five to ten dark colored seeds.
Trees are more vigorous at higher soil pH ranges, but they tolerate acid soils if they are well drained. They are often planted as ornamental specimen trees and they are easy to grow. However, transplanting them from the wild is often unsuccessful. The reason for this is they possess a strong central root called a taproot. This taproot is difficult to extract without severely damaging it, so best transplanting results will mean digging smaller trees and always when they’re dormant.
Another name for redbud is Judas tree. According to legend, after betraying Christ Judas Iscariot hanged himself from a branch of a redbud species that grew in southern Europe and around the Mediterranean Sea. It’s interesting that the tree is often in bloom at Easter throughout much of its range.
Redbud flowers are not only beautiful, they are also edible. Some people eat them in salads or steep them in hot water for tea. Some use them to decorate wedding cakes. They are a striking contrast against white icing. I even saw some recipes using unopened flower buds as substitutes for capers.
Young tender pods can be consumed as well, but they should be cooked. If eaten raw, pods are so astringent they will dry out your mouth almost immediately. Native Americans ate the seeds raw and cooked, but I bet they didn’t eat very many at a time if they consumed them raw.
A tea made from the inner bark is a strong astringent too. It’s also quite bitter. Herbalists use it to treat fever, lung congestion and diarrhea.
Extracts from Redbud bark, pods and roots contain chemicals called saponins. Native Americans once used Redbud and other saponin rich plants to kill fish. Although toxic, saponins are poorly absorbed by our digestive system, so most travel though us without incident. Cooking breaks them down too, which helps explain why using them as a snow pea substitute rarely makes anyone sick. Saponins are found in many foods, particularly in the bean family.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.