Redbud Trees

Common Name: Redbud, Eastern redbud, Judas tree, Forest pansy, Spicewood tree – The emergence of bright pink and magenta buds in advance of foliation illuminates woodlands to announce the emergence of spring; seemingly a tree comprised only of red buds.

Scientific Name: Cercis canadensis - The generic name is from the Greek kirkis which means ‘weaver’s shuttle.’ The predominant etymology is that the elongated bean-like podded fruits are reminiscent of the device used to pass filling yarn through the warp yarn in a weaving loom. A slight modification to the root word yields kerkos, the Greek word for ‘tail’ to which the fruit may also be compared. The species name is a toponym for Canada, although the tree is predominantly more southern in range.

Potpourri: In the phenology that unfurls after the vernal equinox in the annual race to angiosperm fertility, the redbud excels. The copious blossoms lining nearly every branch and even parts of the supporting trunk offer a banquet in their deep nectaries that the long-tongued bees adapted to exploit, an epitome of the mutualism of pollinator and pollinated. The name is a misnomer as the buds are not red but and admixture of red and blue, a reddish purple shade that may be called magenta or fuchsia. As a matter of etymology, the two colors are essentially synonymous. Fuchsine was the name given the aniline dye color when patented by the French chemist Verguin from the color of the flowers of the genus Fuchsia; he patriotically renamed it magenta for a town in northern Italy which was the site of an 1859 victory of the Second French Empire over the Austrians in the Second Italian War of Independence. As a matter of practicality, magenta-bud or even fuchsia-bud would never pass for a common name.

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Papilionaceous redbud flowers
Papilionaceous (butterfly-like) ‘red buds’ are notable not only for their plentitude and flamboyant color but also for their unusual shape (papilio is the Latin word for butterfly). The butterfly shape of the flowers is a characteristic of the Fabaceae or pea family. The third largest terrestrial plant family after orchids and asters with about 19,000 species, the pea family is notable for its nutritionally important beans and peas and for the nitrogen fixing bacteria rhizobia that are hosted in the roots of some species like clovers (but not redbuds). Like many orchids, pea flowers are marvels of convergent evolution with their pollinators. The corolla consists of five petals of three types whose names suggest a consolidation of ground, air, and sea forces: the banner, the wings, and the keels. The upper banner petal provides the approaching bee with lines that guide it to its nectar repository through a channel indicated by the wing petals on either side. The two keel petals form a landing platform which, when depressed by the weight of the bee, causes the ten stamens to snap upward for a thorough pollen-dusting of the burrowing insect. The assurance of pollination is even more complete than the elaborate bee dance would suggest, as the redbud has perfect flowers and can therefore self-pollinate.

The result of the bouquets of red bud blossoms that are frequently if not completely fertilized is a harvest of myriad bean-like seeded fruits.
Redbud seed-pods and heart-shaped leaves
The pea family is also known as the legume family (the French word for vegetable – the Latin legumen meansanything that can be gathered) in consequence of its characteristic podded progeny. Redbud pods are prodigious, dangling in clusters from each branch with a cargo of ten to twelve individual seeds; each redbud produces thousands. The pods are shielded from the summer sun by the distinctive heart-shaped leaves that provide the photosynthetic nutrients for vegetative sustenance; the cordate shape is the result of fusion of two leaflets that are pinnately compound across the midrib vein. The magenta/fuchsia color that highlights the edges of each pod comes from the same chemical from which the redbud gains its hue – anthocyanin.

Anthocyanin is what makes flowers red or blue or any combination in between in according to PH (relative acidity). It was named by the German botanist Ludwig Marquart in 1835 in combining the Greek roots anthos meaning flower and kyanos meaning dark blue. It is also the chemical that is produced by trees to create the red of autumn leaves as antioxidant protection against bright sunlight. In the redbud, as in other colored flowers, it attracts pollinators; it also attracts animals, including humans. In the hunter-gatherer and later crop growing cultures of the Native Americans, foraging for wild food was a necessary and sustaining activity. Inexorably drawn to the vinous redbud blooms and without doubt noting apian activity, the buds were eventually sampled and found satisfying, becoming a springtime staple of several tribes, notably the Cherokee who went so far as to pickle and therefore preserve them for longer term sustenance. That the fertile flowers produced seed pods certainly did not go without notice, and these too were added to the seasonal Indian cornucopia. The roasted seeds provided a salubrious dietary supplement in the form of proanthocyanidins, flavonoids created by the plant to ward off predators. These are the same compounds found in red wine (and apples, cocoa and many pine trees) that are reputed to reduce the risk of heart disease through antioxidant interdiction. Over countless generations of sequential medicine men and women, redbud flowers, pods and bark entered the native pharmacopoeia for a variety of ailments including fever, whooping cough, and as an astringent. Unlike many other Indian medicines, however, redbud was not generally adopted by the infiltrating European colonists except in the esoteric case of treating infantile diarrhea due to its mild gastrointestinal impact. Early settlers did eat the blossoms as a salad additive; Peter Kalm, the American agent of Linnaeus, called redbud the ‘sallad tree.”

The European variant of the redbud is Cercis siliquastrum, accentuating the importance of the podded fruits (the Latin word for pod is siliqua). A native of Southern Europe and the Middle East, it was noted by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus and Aristotle’s successor in his seminal Historia Plantarum written in the 4th century BCE. As renaissance-revived science penetrated Europe after the medieval period, the redbud became algarrobo loco in Spanish which translates to something like ‘wild or foolish pod,’ and Arbre de Judée or ‘tree of Judea’ in France. In English, it became the Judas tree, either as a mistranslated French calque word, or as a remnant of the religious fabulousness of the reliquary era. The bible (Matthew 27:5) says of Judas that “Then he went away and hanged himself” without reference to ways and means. With some creative syllogism, various trees have been suggested as gibbet: the elder tree because it supposedly grew there, the aspen tree because it quakes in shame, and a fig tree that ceased bearing fruit in repentance. It may have been John Gerard, the noted English herbalist who first called out the redbud in a 16th Century screed “this is ye tree whereon Judas did hang himself, and not upon ye elder, as it is said.” With the sobriquet established those inclined to apophenia would assert that hanging redbud bods commemorated the event like homunculi and that the red buds were once white but became sanguineous in shame. As it was called Judas tree in England, it became the American Judas tree in the colonies as a thoughtless act of calumny.