Monday, April 21, 2014

Eastern Redbud and the Legend of the Judas Tree

Eastern Redbud rescued from construction and now decorating my yard.

Judas Tree flowers.

     Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), a small native tree currently in bloom, is sometimes also called the Judas Tree or Flowering Judas. Part of the legend behind this name and this lovely native goes back to Christian folklore. The mythology surrounding all Redbuds originally dealt with a species in the same Genus found in Judea and various other parts of the Middle East that is also called the Judas Tree, Cercis siliquastrum.
     The legend says that originally all Redbuds were tall, strong and stately trees that bore beautiful white flowers. However, when Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and committed suicide by hanging himself, the tree he chose to use was the Redbud. The tree was so ashamed of the role it played that forever more it would not grow big or strong enough to be used for hanging. The wood from then on would be brittle and the flowers, no longer pure, lost their white color and blushed instead. Thus we get the alternate name for Redbuds: the Judas Tree, the tree he chose for his death. Probably closer to the truth was that this tree grew throughout Judea and thus was called "Judea's Tree" which was changed somewhere along the line to just being referred to as Judas Tree.
     Regardless, this native is commonly used in landscaping and is in peak bloom right about now. The flowers are unusual in that they may often grow straight from the trunk of the tree, a trait more common in tropical tree species called "cauliflory." 

Cauliflory: flowering from the trunk or main branches of a tree.
Redbud seed pods and heart shaped leaves.

Leafcutter bee holes in the heart-shaped leaves.

     These flowers (and the young pods they turn into) are edible and have been added to salads to add color and some slight sweetness. I know my son likes to nibble on them, as do I. Leafcutter bees also seem to prefer them, leaving neat little cuts in the heart-shaped leaves. In fact, 19 species of caterpillars have been documented feeding on Redbuds, including the Henry's Elfin Butterfly. At least 13 leafhoppers and 6 beetles also find them good to eat.    

Redbud with lots of hanging seed pods in winter. 

     The seed pods are the typical bean-like ones of legumes. They may hang on the tree well into winter, but are not a favored food by too many creatures, though birds will consume them. The foliage turns yellow in the Fall. The tree is rather short-lived, reaching 75 years or so and produces flowers often by their 4th or 5th year.

Judas Tree changing into its yellow Fall color. 

     People found more uses for them than the animals it seems. The indigenous people in particular found medicinal functions for this small tree. The Alabama used a cold infusion of the roots to treat both fevers and congestion. The Cherokee used it to treat coughs. Both the Delaware and Oklahoma used its roots to treat fever, but also as a purgative to induce vomiting. Many tribes of course also found the flowers and young pods tasty. Others derived a red dye from the roots. Now Redbuds are standards in landscapes due to their beauty. Fittingly, it is the state tree of Oklahoma.
     My wife and I rescued an Eastern Redbud from construction years ago and are now rewarded with a beautiful tree in our yard. Not only does it provide a gorgeous site when in full bloom, but it is covered with pollinators. If you take an even closer look, each individual flower looks like a miniature hummingbird. Such great rewards for a crooked little tree that was originally doomed by construction, until my wife and I took pity on it. Whether others call it Redbud, Judas Tree, or Judea's Tree, we just call it ours, although all the animals and people who enjoy it might think otherwise.

Eastern Redbud Hummingbird-shaped Flower.


  1. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing this, Alonso!

  2. My tree literally buzzes with hundreds of bees when in bloom which I love.

  3. Thank you for taking time to write the blog!

  4. Thanks Alonzo!! I never heard that story before!! I have 3 Redbuds in my front yard. One older and well established one with lots of flowers, one that's only about 3 years old with some flowers and one volunteer with no flowers this year. It's good to know that it takes a few years for the flowers to form.

  5. I love this story...The humming bird buds arte my favorite.
    Thank you for share.

  6. When we moved to NC, we noticed a tiny pine tree growing up through the gravel and clay on an abandoned train track. We said, "Poor brave little tree. We should take it home and replant it in our yard". We said that every time we went by, but never took it. One day it was just gone. Not dead, just gone. I can only hope it is growing in someone's yard somewhere. Moral: rescue a tree when you have the chance, as you might not get a second chance.