One of my all time favorite trees is the magnificent redbud tree. Each spring the borders of the woods burst into a riot of color as the nearly luminescent fuchsia colored blossoms unfold,
often interspersed with the white blossoms of shadblow and dogwood. Many people are unaware that Redbud trees are in the legume family; their blossoms are edible and taste similar to a mild sweet garden pea. Every spring we have great fun picking radiant green fresh lettuce for a salad and sprinkling redbud blossoms on top along with a few handfuls of wild purple violets, making a stunning presentation and a special celebration of the bounty of spring.
After spending most of my adult life in the Blue Ridge of Virginia, where redbuds were an inherent part of the mountains, we moved out west for two years. When we returned home to the mountains of North Carolina and saw these ancient mountains and redbud trees blooming, we knew we had come back to the place we belong. Trees and flowers not only have deep roots, but they become part of the fabric of our souls, and sometimes we don’t know how deeply these roots grow until we don’t have these ‘familiars” close by in our lives.
Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are easy to identify. Their vibrant pinkish purple flowers appear before any leaves in the spring, often growing up and down the trunk and inner branches. It is so unusual to see a tree with flowers seeming to cover every inch of the tree form itself, transforming the branches and trunk into a living canvas of beauty and grace. The foliage is easy to recognize, as each leaf has a distinct heart shape. One more characteristic is the hanging seedpods characteristic of the bean family or Leguminaceae, to which redbud belongs. The tender young pods are also edible and can be steamed like peapods, but they become tough quickly. Here in Western NC, many of the redbuds now planted are called “forest pansy;” the main difference is that their leaves are a stunning bronze-purple hue all summer. There is also a far less common cultivar/variant of the pink blooming redbud with pure white flowers called “Whitebud.” The maximum height for a redbud tree is about 40 feet but most range between 15-25 feet in height.
Bees and other pollinators love the nectar-laden flowers of the redbud, and many bird species such as cardinals feast on the seedpods, as do squirrels. Deer however seem to love the foliage. Redbud flowers have a slightly nutty, pea-like flavor and can be eaten raw or frittered; they also make a stunning garnish! Historical records indicate that settlers added redbud flowers to their salads as they learned quickly how to utilize every food source from the wild to supplement their diets. Redbud bark has a history of medicinal usage for dysentery and diarrhea; it was once used to treat leukemia. In California, many native tribes used redbud wood for making their bows.
Another name for the redbud tree is “the Judas tree” since the redbud is a relative of the type of tree on which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. Redbuds are native to North America but have cousins in Europe and Asia. In 1571, the Spaniards made extensive notations about the redbud trees native to our New World and the distinctions between them and their cousins in the Mediterranean regions of their origin. George Washington reported in his diaries on many occasions on the beauty of the tree and reportedly spent many hours in his garden transplanting seedlings obtained from a nearby forest.
The Redbud is one of the trees nominated to be our national tree by the National Arbor Day Foundation.
In my opinion, the redbud is one of the most beautiful native trees in Eastern North America. This year, driving and hiking along the Blue Ridge, I was in awe to see entire stretches of the forest edge exploding with cascading purple-pink redbud blossoms. One of my favorite stands of redbud is in an area where there are several large white dogwood trees. In some years we are fortunate enough to have the two native trees bloom together and create quite a show! One of my favorite folk sayings about redbud blossoms is that the “flowers of a redbud are a breath of fresh air after a long, hard winter.” We may have had a mild winter but seeing these blossoms in full bloom is always a breath of fresh air in my life!