Redbud Blooms: A Sign of Spring to Come
I did a hopeful thing today; as the outside temperature registered just above freezing I collected a small basket-full of redbud flowers. Redbud (Cercis spp.) promises the inevitable arrival of spring for those of faltering faith in late winter. The deep magenta buds, born precociously on bare branches before any leaves form, waste no time attracting the first eager pollinators of the season. Redbuds are among the first to bloom in late winter and as their blossoms open, magenta softens to rosy pink and the banner and keel petals of this lovely legume unfurl. The redbuds have a cosmopolitan spread, occurring on three continents as a dozen or so species.
Redbuds Around the World
Redbuds are a storied group of trees, long admired and long utilized by humans. The “Judas Tree” (Cercis siliquastrum) is native to the Mediterranean and Asia Minor and is fabled to be the tree from which Judas hung himself after betraying the Christ (Swenson, Allan A. Plants of the Bible: And How to Grow Them. New York: Citadel Press Books, 1995.). The blooms were said to have been white, but flushed red with shame after Judas’s crime (Duke, James A. Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2008.).
The handful of East Asian species have histories of medicinal and culinary use and are ever revered as harbingers of spring. In the New World, redbuds occur as an eastern species and a western species, with two varieties of the eastern species present in Texas. The stature of the redbud is relatively short and broad. It is an under-story tree and can tolerate sunny to moderately shaded locations as well as a variety of soil types and moisture levels. In my experience, the Texas varieties (C. canadensis var. texensis and C. canadensis var. mexicana) are quite hardy.
Many Uses for Redbud Trees and Flowers
In Daniel E. Moerman’s encompassing text Native American Ethnobotany, there are multiple documented instances of Cercis species’ inner bark and roots being used to heal cold and flu symptoms. There are also instances of bark and flexible young branches being used as fiber and cordage for basketry (Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press, 1998.). Coincidentally, the genus name Cercis is Latin, derived from the Greek “kerkis” which translates as a “weavers shuttle” (Gledhill, D. The Names of Plants. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.). Moerman also documents the Havasupai tribe, inhabitants of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, as having used the wood of the California Redbud in bow-making and as wood for fence posts and other tools.
The flowers of the redbud yield a bright yellow dye (Tull, Delena. Edible and Useful Plants of the Southwest. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). I particularly liked the Kiowa tradition of bringing flowering cut branches into dwellings “to drive winter out.” But, as ever, what I am most interested in on this cold February morning is its edibility! I came across references in Moermann’s book to various tribes eating the flowers and seed pods. The Navajo would roast the pods in the coals of a fire and eat the broiled seeds.
Eating Redbud Flowers
In a study published in Economic Botany, redbud flowers were found to have a significantly higher vitamin C content than most common domesticated fruits and vegetables, including oranges (Zennie, Thomas M. and Ogzewalla, C. Dwayne. “Ascorbic Acid and Vitamin A Content of Edible Wild Plants of Ohio and Kentucky.” Economic Botany 3 Jan.-Mar. 1977: 76-79. Print.). It is this very concentration of ascorbic acid that gives the fresh buds a not unpleasant sour bite. It is subtle and took me a couple of buds to identify, but the initial fresh “sweet-pea” flavor does give way to an understated acidic brightness.
There is something I can no better describe than “wild,” or wholly untamed, about foraged foods. Their flavors are complex in a way that my civilized palate finds both exhilarating and disconcerting. When I googled redbud recipes I was overwhelmed by the amount and variety of the results; raw and pickled; leaves, buds, and new pods; jellies and relishes; muffins and pound cake; and my favorite, for novelty’s sake, redbud vegan cornbread! There are neither leaves nor fresh pods available yet on the trees in my neighborhood. Having already experienced the raw buds, I tried my hand at pickling them.
Pickling Redbud Flowers
It is key to pickle redbud blossoms before they open into flowers. The blossoms will hold up in the pickling brine better before they open, and I would also surmise that their nutritive content is more concentrated. I chose to use apple cider vinegar because I like it and I had it on hand, but I can imagine many a delicious combination using different vinegars! Salt is a common additive in pickling because it aids the accumulation of lactic acid bacteria (the desired bacteria) and hinders undesired bacteria growth. Non-iodized salt is ideal for pickles, because iodine can discolor the pickles.
Learn More About Lacto-fermentation Here: Make the Perfect Home Fermented Sauerkraut – It’s All in the Temperature
The color of the vinegar after I drained it off the buds was a beautiful rosy red and the buds themselves had blanched just slightly. I regretted spoiling those hues, but it gave me a brief moment of great enjoyment! I mixed equal parts rinsed redbud blossom and vinegar in a sealed glass jar and let it sit for a few days, out of direct light at room temperature. The pickled blooms added a surprising jolt of acerbity to a spring greens salad, and the remaining rosy red vinegar mixed nicely with olive oil to store for future salad dressing.
Learning to Love the Redbud Tree
As a young person, not long out of college and desperate for a job, I worked as a personal assistant to a wealthy woman whose mansion had a grand entrance which was flanked by meticulously trained redbuds. This created in my mind an idea of the redbud as a hoity plant, useful only as an ornamental of the rich. The magenta blooms seemed to me to flout excess. I understand now what a grave misinterpretation this was of a scrappy and enterprising botanical specimen.
To produce precocious flowers is an extraordinary evolutionary advantage, born, I’m sure, of harsh environs. Truly, the redbud had me at “you can eat it”! And to learn that it is quite healthful too!
I had been hopeful that redbuds would have the same relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria on their roots as other legumes, but according to the US forest service they do not fix nitrogen in the soil. No worry, it is still a beautiful, edible and hardy native specimen utterly deserving of our praise!
If you’re interested in learning about more edible plants that are probably popping up right in your front yard, check out my article Eat Your Weeds – Don’t Mow Them!