In the early spring, before any of the deciduous leaves have come about, a flash of wild magenta hits the scene. For those who live amongst the forests of the East Coast, especially, it’s a familiar sight, one that tells us spring has arrived and one that, each and every time, leaves us bewitched by the beauty of nature.
Relatively small, at about 20 to 30 feet tall and wide, the redbud tree is largely overlooked for the rest of the year. It is an understory tree, content to reside in the shadows of those larger oaks and tulip poplars, willing to take a backseat to the later bloomers like mountain laurel and rhododendron.
But, to overlook the redbud, to only notice it at its most pronounced — in bloom in early spring, is a mistake. These trees are wonderful additions to gardens, including edible gardens, as well as versatile players able to adapt to most regions of the United States and the temperate climate.
Put simply, it’s time to get to know the redbud.
Redbud trees are part of the pea family. More often than not, when folks do envision them, it’s the eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis, that comes to mind. It has a natural range that presses into New Jersey, across to Ohio, down into Texas and even northern Mexico, and back over to the Florida Panhandle. However, there are also western redbuds, Cercis occidentalis, that are willing to grow in drier environs.
Either way, these are leguminous trees that set out lovely flowers in spring and carry pea pods into the autumn. In between, they have lovely heart-shaped foliage that, whatever the strain, puts on its own distinctive color display. Redbuds are beloved landscaping trees, particularly for hedges, because they play so well with other trees and can grow up to two feet a year. Mulberry trees are another beautiful and useful option to learn about.
For those of us trying to landscape with plants that provide more than just beauty, redbuds have some offering in the way of food as well.
In the spring, before there is much in the way of vegetables or berries coming, the redbud puts out its magenta flowers, which are both edible and delicious. (It’s not always the case that things we can eat are something we’d necessarily want to eat.) The flowers are mildly sour, good raw in salads, and provide a notable amount of Vitamin C. The unopened buds are also good pickled and used like capers.
In the early autumn, the pea pods also provide something to eat. They can be consumed either raw or cooked. The mature seeds are about a quarter protein and provide a little healthy fat as well as antioxidants. Even the young leaves of the redbud are safe to eat. Locals in the southern Appalachians were also known to use the young branches as seasoning when cooking, garnering it the name of “spicewood tree”. Check out these seven trees that take less than three years to bear fruit.
The Natural Redbud
While wonderful to cultivate and enjoy at home, undoubtedly the most stunning way to see the redbud tree is in its natural setting in full bloom. The brightly colored blossoms seem to cover every inch of its horizontal branches, and the vividness stands out starkly against largely naked deciduous forests or the steadfast greenness of accompanying conifer stands.
There are many places to appreciate this gift of nature. Denton is deemed as the “Redbud Capital of Texas” and holds an annual Arbor Day festival in honor of the tree. Honaker, Virginia, also celebrates with a festival that includes live music, a canoe race, and other activities. The northern run of Highway 101 up the Pacific Coast of California has a flower show in mid-March every year. Colombus in Wisconsin has a mid-May festival.
Your Very Own Redbud
The redbud clan of trees has a number of strains that fall mostly within the Cercis canadensis denomination. Some have flowers that are lighter or darker, others have leaves that go into deep reds rather than greens. Those are preferences each person can work out for themselves. It’s very easy to find these trees at nurseries or order them online. They are a great option for those putting together a productive lawnscape or even just beautifying a piece of property.
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