Sunday, April 9, 2017

Plant Story--the Striking Eastern Redbud

I look forward to eastern redbud flowers every spring.

eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis

Eastern redbuds grow across the eastern U.S. (USDA plants map). The map shows them in Nebraska, but that must be selected areas, because I lived for years in Lincoln and always enjoyed a spring drive south into northern Kansas. As soon as you left behind the deep soils of Nebraska and entered the rocky hills of Kansas (the northern part of the Flint Hills, in particular), redbuds appeared, in full bloom if the time was right. They grew fine in Lincoln, they just weren't part of the wild roadside scenery.

Eastern redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are members of the pea family, Fabaceae. I suspect that is why they are called redbuds: the small pea-like flowers seem always to be buds, never open flowers. Mostly people on the eastern half of North America just say "redbuds" but there is a second species, the California redbud (Cercis orbiculata) in the far west.

eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis

The flowers are odd because they come right off the stem, which is not obviously strange on small stems, but looks peculiar on big trunks.

eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis

The color is a wonderful magenta, though there are white-flowered varieties available from nurseries.

I planted a redbud at the house I lived in in Lincoln, Nebraska. They are generally small trees--smaller tha apple trees for example. In 20 years the redbud grew a stout trunk but never overtopped my one-story house.

When I moved to Colorado I put a seedling from my Nebraska tree into a pot. It was tiny, less than 5" tall. I planted it in the back yard in Colorado. Knowing that Loveland Colorado's rainfall (15") is half of Lincoln Nebraska's (28"), I carefully watered the little tree...for the next five years. It grew steadily. Three years ago, at age eight, it tried a few flowers; last spring it flowered wonderfully.

redbud, Cercis canadensis
My redbud at about knee high October 2008:
heart-shaped leaves on the left
Cercis canadensis, redbud
The same redbud in spring 2016
The leaves are large and heartshaped.

I think the tree is shapely even leafless.

redbud, Cercis canadensis
Leafless redbud,
with Colorado blue spruce for a backdrop

An old name for eastern redbud is Judas tree. I haven't seen that in recent literature. The name comes from the fact that there's a redbud (Cercis siliquastrum photos) native to southern Europe and the Middle East. That tree is widely called the Judas tree because of the legend that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on the tree and consequently its pale flowers turned bright magenta, in shame or from the blood, depending on your version of the story. The two trees look pretty similar, so the European name transferred easily. But the American tree has been called redbud since at least 1700, and that was the name that caught on.

This is an American tree that was new to settlers. Early colonial gardeners were enthusiastic about it, including both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Over his life, Washington went from growing conventional European plants to embracing the American shrubs and trees he found along the East Coast. Redbud was one of them. He transplanted many redbuds to Mount Vernon, writing that he thought the color made a lovely spring display. I never thought about the settling of the Atlantic Coast as being a period of plant discovery, but of course it had to have been.

The flowers and pods are edible. Recipes recommend them in salads or fried or pickled (see Eat the Weeds link). I have never had enough flowers that I felt I could spare some to eat. My attitude is more like that of the Kiowa: they brought flowering branches into their homes to "drive winter out."

Comments and corrections welcome.

Deane, G. No date visible. Cercis canadensis: In the bud of time. link
Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
Peattie, D. C. 1967. A natural history of trees of eastern and central North America. 2nd ed. Bonanza Books, New York.
Wulf, A. 2011. Founding gardeners. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist


  1. My mother always brought redbud and forsythia blooms in around Easter, both in Michigan and Kansas. She would add lilac if they were all blooming at the same time.

    -- Logan --

  2. This is an American tree that was new to settlers. Early colonial gardeners were enthusiastic about it, including both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

    botany studies