Eastern Redbud is a native spring bloomer that really stands out


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.

New redbus foiagle beginning to emerge through disappearing bloosoms

New redbud foliage beginning to emerge through disappearing blossoms

Close-up of redbud blossoms

Close-up of redbud blossoms

New redbud leaves emerging on zigzag stems

New redbud leaves emerging on zigzag stems

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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