The eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is in full bloom right now. You can see them in wooded areas, adding a pop of color to the green and brown landscape. They’re also in many neighborhood yards. This small tree seems to be a favorite for homeowners given its size and the display it puts on in the spring.
In doing some research on this tree, I was surprised to learn that it’s sometimes called the Judas tree. The name “Judas tree” is specifically paired with another Cercis species, Cercis siliquastrum, a similar looking tree that’s native to Southern Europe and Western Asia. As is often the case with common names, they can be applied freely to plants of the same genus or those with similar characteristics.
There are lots of stories about how the name Judas tree became associated with the redbud. Some state that Judas hung himself on this tree. Others point to the dangling seed pods that hang from the tree, saying that they’re reminiscent of Judas’ hanging body. Longer tales say that the redbud was once a larger tree, but after Judas hung himself on it, the tree asked God to prevent this from happening again so God made the redbud smaller with weak branches that couldn’t support the weight of a hanging body. Ah, the tales of medieval Europe!
Whether God granted the tree its wish or it’s just evolution’s path for the redbud, one thing is true – you couldn’t hang yourself from this tree! The branches are pretty low to the ground and they aren’t very sturdy. A few years ago we had a surprise snow in late October and a lot of redbuds lost branches. The weight of the snow on the leafy branches was more than they could support.
In most landscapes the redbud is grown for its flowers. The small flowers emerge in clusters in early spring and look just like pea or bean flowers. The redbud is a member of the Fabaceae family, the legume family, which includes peas and beans so the similarity isn’t surprising. The seed pods that are produced from these flowers also look like pea pods.
I’m always amazed by how the flowers of the redbud emerge from the trunk and large branches of the tree. In most flowering tree, the flowers develop at the ends of branches or from spurs along the branches. While very different, the redbud make me think of the cocoa tree where the cocoa pods grow from the trunk and large branches.
Growing a redbud is pretty easy – the tree doesn’t have a lot of disease or pest problems. They don’t like to be transplanted (like their relatives the pea and bean!) so it’s recommended that small balled and burlapped or container grown trees be used for planting. The trees don’t need a lot of fertility, in part because they can produce their own nitrogen from the air like other legumes. Once redbuds are established, they’re very drought tolerant. The only downside to the redbud is that it’s not a long-lived tree – they seldom live past 40 years. But for most homeowners, 40 years is long enough!
I doubt I’ll ever call a redbud the Judas tree but if I ever hear that name, I’ll know what people are talking about. I’ve included some pictures of the redbud flowers to this post. After all, they’re the reason for growing this native tree! Up close, they’re fascinating.