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

Posts tagged ‘edible flowers’

Redbuds both beautiful, edible

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.

Eat your rose of Sharon, hibiscus and hollyhocks

The edible beauty: Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), Athens, GA

Dinner plates typically are covered with the usual vegetable suspects, mostly coming from corn, squash and the nightshade family: potatoes, sweet and spicy peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. Occasionally, the West African okra, from the mallow family (Malvaceae), makes an appearance. If you look around in your garden, you may discover other mallow beauties to add some creativity to supper.

A naturalized mallow common in the South is the rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus, also known by Althaea frutex), a deciduous, shrubby tree, which produces flowers of pale purple with dark pink centers, or white with reddish centers. Though the Hibiscus species is likely native to Asia, the name comes from a Palestinian valley named Sharon, which is referenced by the bride in the Old Testament, Song of Songs, 2:1, “I am the rose of Sharon.”

Culinary uses of rose of Sharon make one wonder why we don’t see them more on the plate. Besides the obvious use as a garnish, the flowers of rose of Sharon can be chopped and added to dishes, or left whole for salads. They make colorful, edible, presentation cups for dips. The leaves are edible when cooked, and can be added to quiche or greens. The leaves and flowers can also be brewed as an antioxidant tea.

Medicinally, rose of Sharon’s flower buds contain mucilage, a gooey medicinal compound made of polysaccharides which is found in most species of the mallow family; think of okra’s sliminess. Mucilage is healing to burns, wounds, gastric ulcers, and internal and external inflammation and irritation, such as sore throats or urinary tract infections.

Current studies on the root bark have found promising results for inhibiting the proliferation of lung cancer. The Chinese use the root bark as an antifungal remedy.

Due to rose of Sharon’s long life, prolific seed production and ease of propagation, harvesting the plant is very sustainable. There is nothing harmful known about rose of Sharon, either. Actually, rose of Sharon leaves can be used to indicate harm by serving as an ozone bioindicator, they burn where ozone exposure is harmfully high.

A swamp hibiscus unfurling in Crawford, GA.

Additionally, two North American native Hibiscus plants share the culinary uses of rose of Sharon’s flower. Swamp-rose (Hibiscus moscheutos) and swamp hibiscus (H. coccineus), which both display stunning, hummingbird-attracting blooms of red, pink, cream or white, and are commercially available, add a vivid splash of color to teas and salads. The flowers contain antioxidants and can have a soothing effect on the nerves. Though the leaves are edible, they aren’t quite as palatable as the rose of Sharon.

Another edible and medicinal plant of the mallow family is the hollyhock (Alcea rosea, or Althaea rosea), the iconic flowering towers of the English cottage-garden. Hollyhock leaves can be cooked like spinach, and its flowers can be added to salads. The demulcent root, high in mucilage, makes a wonderful cough syrup.

If you’re starting to get bored with dinners, add a rose of Sharon flower to everyone’s plate, and let the creativity begin.

This article originally appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald July 25th.

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