Spring Flowers: Eastern Redbud

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Who:

Eastern redbud

Cercis canadensis

Fabaceae (Pea) family, Cercidoideae subfamily, Cercideae subtribe

What:

Common deciduous understory tree with edible pea-like pink-purple flowers; among the first trees to bloom in spring.

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Where:

Often found as an understory tree throughout the woodlands of Eastern North America, especially in younger stands, on edges, and along roadsides and trails.

Commonly used as an ornamental in urban and suburban environments.

When:

Blooms within a two-week window sometime in April through most of its range. You will begin to notice bursts of pink-purple buds among the otherwise mostly bare tree canopy along roads and trails.

Flowers are at their sweetest after the buds are fully developed but before the flowers are fully opened, and quickly diminishes from there; but they can be harvested for as long as they are present on the trees.

Why:

The Eastern redbud signals the arrival of spring across most of its range, blooming not long before the threat of a heavy frost has passed.

The redbud’s distinct pea-like flowers are an ephemeral, precious commodity, almost comparable to dried berries in terms of sweetness.

Flower buds in late winter, very distinct long before they’re ready to open.

Flower buds in late winter, very distinct long before they’re ready to open.

How:

Harvest flowers and buds by pulling off clusters with your hands into a bag or basket. Don’t worry about the stems, at least not while out in the field; removing them is tedious and mostly unnecessary unless you’re trying to get really fancy with your culinary presentation. They won’t hurt you!

Experiment with the flowers as a substitute in sweet baked goods and desserts that call for berries.

Add them to salads for a sweet crunch.

Great for kickstarting wild fermentation and adding sweetness to ferments.

Can be kept in a paper bag and stored in the freezer for a few months.

The young, immature seed pods can also be eaten after they are cooked — do not consume raw. The flavor is described in the literature as bland at best, and the pods quickly become too fibrous to eat as they develop.

Key characteristics:

  • Pretty much the only pink-purple blooms you’re likely to see in the tree canopy in Eastern North America in April

  • Distinct “banner-wings-keel” pea flowers

  • Relatively small deciduous understory tree with reddish-brown-gray bark, usually multi-trunked

  • Simple, alternate, heart-shaped leaves

  • Produces numerous Fabaceae pea pods in the summer

Lookalikes:

None when the flowers are budding and in bloom.

SamComment