This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Cercis Canadensis, or the Eastern Redbud. Technically a legume, and one of the prettiest trees in the Eastern Woodlands, Redbud is also a versatile edible and medicinal tree. If you’ve grown up in the South (or really anywhere in the East), I can guarantee you’ve seen this tree, even if you didn’t know what it was. They are sprinkled throughout the forest and often planted as ornamentals as well.
The Cercis genus is spread throughout North America, the Middle East, and North Africa. Our species, the Eastern Redbud, ranges from Canada to Florida and from the Atlantic coast west to sporadic patches on the Great Plains. It is the state tree of Oklahoma. Redbud is an understory tree – it rarely grows more than 30’ tall, and it’s almost always found under the shade of larger hardwoods like tulip poplars, oaks, and hickories. It’s a little picky about habitat… it doesn’t like wet creek bottoms or dry ridgelines, instead preferring moist, rich coves and draws. It has a distinctive flat, spreading crown so as to better arrange its leaves to soak up the scant sunlight that filters down to it through the branches of the bigger trees. Redbud has gray-brown bark that is smooth when the tree is young, transitions to slightly fissured as the tree grows, and finally peels off in flakes when the tree is mature. The leaves are very distinctive – they’re heart-shaped, smooth-edged, and usually about the size of your hand. But what really makes redbud stand out are its namesake flowers. They can cover the whole tree, even sprouting from the main branches and trunk in some cases. Their delicate, multi-petal shape belies the redbud’s heritage as a member of the pea family – if you’ve ever grown sweet peas as an ornamental or English peas to eat, the flowers will look familiar. They range from a pale pink to nearly purple… and the coolest part is, you can eat them.
Redbud flowers have some of the highest concentrations of vitamin C of any plant in the Eastern Woodlands, and that’s saying something. They have a slightly sweet, slightly tart flavor that’s very refreshing and easy to eat. When still budding, they can be picked, pickled, and used in place of capers. In full bloom, they can be eaten by the handful, or make a unique addition to a salad. But redbud’s edibility doesn’t end there.
In early spring, the leaves are good eating as well. They have a mild, somewhat grassy flavor and aren’t bad as a salad green in their own right. They’re best eaten when they’re small, that is, from first sprouting until they’re about two inches across. You can eat them when they’re fully grown, but the high fiber content may cause some unintended and unwanted digestive consequences.
However, where redbud’s value as a survival food and wild edible truly lies is in its seed pods. Just like the peas and beans it’s close kin to, redbud pods are 2”-3” long, an inch across, and dangle in clusters from the branches beginning in late spring and early summer. They look almost exactly like sugar snap peas (although unfortunately they don’t taste like them). Just like beans or peas, they can be eaten whole when young and tender. Steam them, boil them, or stir fry them. Strong flavors like vinegar and salt help hide their astringent flavor, and as such, they lend themselves well to pickling. When the pods dry out or get tough, that’s when it’s time to go for the seeds. The seeds can be cooked in several different ways. Several native tribes would bury the intact pods in hot coals and let them roast. After a while, they’d dig them out, shell the cooked seeds, and eat them whole. They excel as a survival food. The dry seeds contain between 22% and 27% protein, and 7%-8% fat. For a wild plant-based food source in our area, this is about as good as it gets, even rivaling nuts like hickories and walnuts for nutritional value. The best part is that the seed pods hang on the tree for a good part of the year – depending on conditions, they’re viable from late summer all through the winter, and can even be found amongst spring’s new flowers.
Redbud is also a medicinal tree. The inner bark has high concentrations of tannins, which have a wide range of medicinal uses. An infusion of the bark has been used as a febrifuge and cough suppressant, helping to treat colds, fevers, and influenza. It also is useful for calming the digestive tract and treating diarrhea and vomiting.
Redbud seems to have taken root in the culture of whatever area it grows in. For most native tribes, the charcoal from redbud wood was the color of choice for their black war paint, which symbolized power and aggression. Apparently redbud burns down to the purest black carbon of any tree. Many tribes also had a tradition of decorating their dwellings with redbud wreaths and twigs, to help “drive out the spirit of winter” and bring on planting time. In some areas of the country, redbud goes by its old-world name, the Judas tree. Legend has it that when Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus into the hands of the Romans, he realized in horror what he had done, and in his shame hanged himself from a Mediterranean Redbud tree (Cercis siliquastrum). The tree’s blossoms had once been white, but bloomed reddish-pink from then on as a symbol of the blood that had been spilled.
Redbuds are in bloom right now – although in Cherokee County, they’ll be at their peak next week, if the frost doesn’t get them. It’s not that often that you get to walk through the woods and eat handfuls of flowers, so take advantage of the opportunity! Are there any other uses of redbud that we missed? Tell us in the comments!