An integrative approach to healing ourselves and our world: honoring people, plants, planet

Cercis canadensis

Redbud blooms, native to Eastern US, are edible, and taste light and sweet.

When a plant vibrantly attracts our attention during a particular time every year, people come to know it as a seasonal indicator. To many people it’s the dogwood blooms that are awaited and welcomed, signaling winter has passed. According to Paul Vestal and Richard Evans Schultes, 20th century ethnobotanists from Harvard, the Kiowa Indians saw the purplish-magenta blooms of the native Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) as a sign that spring had come.

Before the heart-shaped leaves emerge – which are a beautiful coppery iridescence when young – the flowers bloom from smooth, dark gray, naked branches. Often last summer’s dried seedpods still hang from the branches while the tree is in bloom. The irregular shape of the flowers and the seedpods, which resemble peapods when fresh, indicate the redbud is a member of the Pea Family (Fabaceae).

The Eastern redbud also is called the Judas-tree due to stories that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from a redbud species (Cercis siliquastrum) native to Western Asia and Southern Europe.

Although the Eastern redbud is rarely included in popular herbal texts, it provides medicinal, edible and economic uses in addition to its beauty.

Many botanical accounts report that Native American and European American children enjoyed eating the fresh flowers of the Eastern redbud. They are soft and slightly sweet, and add instant color to salads or on cupcakes.

The deep hue of the petals indicates the presence of healthful flavonoids, such as quercetin. Redbud flowers also are popular among bees and aid their honey production.

Fresh seedpods are edible, as well, though they must be cooked and flavored with olive oil and a splash of vinegar. Seedpods quickly turn too astringent to eat if left on the tree too long. Sample one, and you’ll experience all of your saliva drying up in your mouth.

Amplify the seedpod experience, and you’ll have an idea what the inner-bark can do. Tannins present in the inner-bark and root, which account for its astringency, have been used to heal lung congestion and to tonify excessively damp conditions, including diarrhea and dysentery. The Cherokee used an infusion of the bark for whooping cough.

The California redbud (Cercis orbiculata), native to California, Arizona and Utah, is valued by many Native American tribes for basket weaving, as its young branches have a decorative reddish-wine color. A technique of pruning to encourage abundant young, red shoot growth, which is pre-bark development, is called coppicing, and only recommended on trees a least a decade old.

For textile weavers and natural dyers, redbud roots make a red dye.

Redbuds tolerate shade, drought and occasional flooding, but prefer moist, well-drained, sunny spots. Due to their deep taproot, redbuds can be good soil stabilizers.

Although most leguminous plants are nitrogen-fixers, converting nitrogen in the air for the soil to use, redbuds don’t appear to have the root nodules to fix nitrogen.

Easy to propagate from seed, but not long-lived, the redbud is one of our most ornamental, native trees, which gracefully glows along woodland areas during this time of year.

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