The Eastern Redbud tree is one of the first trees you might spot blooming in the year if you live around the eastern side of the United States.
In identification books, the Eastern Redbud tree will be known as the Cercis canadensis. This tree is also known by alternative names, including the American Redbud tree and the American Judas tree.
Native to North America, the Eastern Redbud tree has many varieties, and are all great attractors for creatures, including hummingbirds and pollinators. This hardy tree has sturdy roots that can withstand plenty of environmental damage, including ice, storms, and wind, allowing the tree to remain in place.
As a homesteader of forager, the Eastern redbud is definitely a tree you want to know better. Besides being an absolutely gorgeous tree, with beautiful flowers and handsome foliage, it is edible as well.
With the many varieties that this tree type comes in, it can be easily overwhelming when out foraging. Let’s take a closer look at the Eastern Redbud tree, so you can put it to good use on your homestead.
How to Identify
The Eastern Redbud tree, Cercis canadensis, is a beautiful tree to find in the wild. This tree is part of the Fabaceae family, or the legume family, due to the flowers that look similar to pea blossoms. These flowers are edible, with a light citrus flavor, and cover both of the branches and sometimes the trunk.
The flowers will grow in clusters, covering the tree in small, bright pink or magenta buds. The Eastern Redbud tree blossoms in the early spring, then will remain in bloom for up to three weeks.
When winter settles in, the flowers will produce bean-like pods that contain seeds. As the tree has a short life span of around 20 years, these seeds are important to harvest when thinking about growing one of your own.
The Eastern Redbud tree grows primarily in the eastern side of North America, but can be found from Oklahoma to Texas toward the west, as well as north into sections of Canada.
Whether you are searching for this tree, or want to grow one of your own, the most common zones that the Eastern Redbud can be found is the range between zone four and zone nine.
This tree will grow and reach a matured size of 20 to 30 feet tall with 25-to-35-foot spread. The trunk will be divided into “branches” at the base, that are visible above ground.
The leaves that accompany the many flowers span between two and six inches in length and grow in a heart-like shape. The leaves will grow, in the spring, into a red color, then will turn green in the summer. The leaves will later turn a bright canary yellow in the fall.
The overall growth rate of the Eastern Redbud tree, from sapling to mature plant, ranges between 13 and 24 inches every year.
The Eastern redbud tree has been cultivated for decades and there are many different types available from garden stores and tree farms.
Other varieties you might come across include:
- the Forest Pansy
- Hearts of Gold
- Texas White
- Ruby Falls
- The Rising Sun
- Silver Cloud
- and Ace of Hearts trees.
The Forest Pansy variety has dark purple foliage, with lighter pink blossoms. The Forest pansy retains its deep color through the summer and into the fall.
The Ruby Falls variety is smaller, which is better suited for those working with smaller planting areas. The Ruby Falls also grows and extends into a weeping willow formation, draping reddish-purple flowers past the trunk.
Texas White is a variety that, as mentioned in the name, produces white flowers. The foliage has a unique glossy or leathery look to the leaves. Another white flower variant of these plants, that might be confused with the Texas White variant, is the “Alba” variety.
If you want a combination of white and pink, then the “Silver Cloud” variety would be best suited for you, with its lustrous white-pink foliage that is prominent in the winter and spring.
The Rising Sun variety produces vibrant yellow-orange flowers that transition colors as the tree grows with the seasons.
The new growth will grow in, starting at the yellow-orange stage, then will transform into a bright gold color. In the final stages, the tree will reach the bright green stage in its transition.
Another variety that shares this beautiful gold color is the “Heart of Gold” variant, which transforms from its gold-green foliage to a pale green.
Ace of Hearts is another option to consider, if you are working with a smaller garden area, as this variety is a dwarf variant. This variant typically reaches a mature size of 12 feet, with the benefit of not requiring pruning to maintain a consistent shape.
How to Harvest
The first thing available for harvest on the Eastern Redbud tree are the seed pods. The seed pods are approximately three inches in length and one-half inch in width. The seed pods look similar to dried-up pea pods, that have turned brown and flattened.
These pods hang from the branches, produced in small clusters of a few pods to a cluster. The seed pods are easily pluckable from the tree, but should still be done so carefully, as the seeds might dislodge from their shell from the movement. Pods can carry multiple seeds at a type, typically ranging between five and ten seeds per pod.
How to Grow
If you have been traveling back and forth to a nearby Eastern Redbud, you might consider growing your own for easier access.
If you have a local Eastern Redbud tree near you, that tree is your best option when searching for seeds. While you are able to purchase Redbud tree seeds online, it is best to plant local seeds, as seeds purchased may not be from a location native to the area.
Harvesting local variety seeds is best for the native ecosystem, as locally harvested seeds won’t attract pests and diseases that are native for other varieties, as well as not disturbing the natural system of your area.
If planning to start by seed, whether you have located a local source or have purchased seeds from a local nursery, then there are a few steps that you will need to take.
There are two ways to prep your Eastern Redbud tree seeds, including winter sowing or soaking the seeds in hot water. Both methods require a form of cold treatment, yet only winter sowing is entirely based on planting the seeds during the winter, using a process called cold stratification.
However, another way to germinate the seeds is to soak the seeds in how water for 24 hours, in order to remove the shell around the seed.
Once the shell has been removed, or the 24 hours has past, then give the seed a cold stratification process for one to two months, planting the seeds between 1/8 inch and ¼ inch in a pot, or directly in the ground.
The Eastern Redbud tree grows best in moist, well-drained location and should be planted carefully, as this tree does not handle being transplanted well. Since the location for you tree should be well-planned, keep in mind that the Eastern Redbud works great as an understory tree.
This tree can grow well in most soils and sun exposure levels, as this plant can tolerate both alkaline and acidic soils, including heavy clay soil, and can grow well in full sun and light shade.
It is important to note that, if planted in full sun, you will need to water your tree more regularly. It is helpful in this case to line the growing tree base with mulch, to maintain a moist and cool environment for the roots. Although, it is also worth noting that the Eastern Redbud tree can also handle brief periods of drought.
As the tree begins to truly grow in, reaching its fuller size, it is crucial to prune the tree, to remove the weaker forks in the branches and dead limbs. You might find it necessary to prune to thin out overcrowded branches, as well.
It is best to begin pruning after the flowers have bloomed, when the tree is in its dormant state, during the fall. The branches are also easily broken by strong winds, so when planting or growing, make sure to place in a spot that is protected from direct winds.
Diseases and Pests
The Eastern Redbud tree, as well as the other varieties of the plant, are susceptible to an assortment of pests and diseases, which often contributes to the tree’s short life span.
The diseases this tree can catch most often include fungal infections, such as verticillium wilt, canker or dieback, and leaf spots. The older the tree, the more vulnerable it is to infections such as these.
Verticillium wilt is a common plant infection that the Eastern Redbud tree is vulnerable to. This infection is soil-borne and comes in over 350 varieties.
There are no remedies to treat verticillium wilt, once the disease has begun to consume the plant, so it is important to prevent this infection from happening in the first place.
The symptoms do vary, depending on which plant is infected, so the only way to truly know if the tree has been infected is through a lab test. In trees, verticillium often begins to show during the hotter season. It is best to avoid planting vulnerable plants in areas that are known to carry this fungus.
Dieback is another common infection found in plant life, that starts at the farthest ends of the plant and progressively “dies back”. It is not an absolute guarantee that the tree will die, if it has contracted dieback, but the likelihood is certainly possible.
Dieback is most often due to a combination of factors, often as a result of intense stress dealt to the environment surrounding the plant. Changes in climate and land management are common sources of creating environmental stressors and are not easily changed in time to improve the plant’s health.
Canker is a form of dieback that results in an external symptom of cankers that form on the base of trees, often due to exposed inner bark or other wounds, but can be controlled by removing infected areas during dry weather.
The Eastern Redbud attracts pests including deer, beetles, leafhoppers, rabbits, and treehoppers. Deer are notorious for walking into gardens, whether the garden contains only produce or flowers, and eating entire top sections of the plant.
By eating sections of foliage off of the Eastern Redbud tree, the fresh openings leave the tree suspectable to other pests and infections. Fencing is the most traditional way of deterring deer and rabbits, but reflective surfaces hung from the branches can also deter them.
Beetles, particularly Japanese beetles, are a pest that you will need to stay prepared to address and handle. Japanese beetles tend not to show up every year, nor during a specific time or season, but they often replicate in large numbers.
One of the easiest ways to rid your tree of Japanese beetles is to hand pick them off but using a plant friendly pesticide is another popular option. However, ridding your tree of Japanese beetles depends on the stage of growth that the beetles are in.
Leafhoppers share similarities to grasshoppers, in terms of anatomical structure, but are quite damage to the Eastern Redbud trees, and its other varieties, foliage.
Leafhoppers suck the nutritional fluid from the foliage by piercing the outer layer, which leads to the small, speckled holes that can be found covering sections of the plant.
These openings also make the entire tree suspectable to infections and can appear as small white speckles across the tops of the leaves. With enough exposure and damage dealt from leafhoppers, sections of the tree will begin to die, partly due to excessive openings and the toxic saliva from the pest.
Leafhoppers are one pest that become a good reason to maintain a proper pruning schedule. Treehoppers are pests that are excellent at hiding and have a thorn-like shell. Treehoppers, no matter the variety, will poke holes into the branches of the Eastern Redbud tree and will deplete sap from the wood.
Caterpillars are another common pest associated with Eastern Redbud tree. The red-humped caterpillar and tent caterpillar are two common varieties that target this tree.
The red-humped caterpillar has a red head, with a yellow body and alternating red and white stripes that targets the leaves on the Eastern Redbud tree.
This caterpillar does not necessarily endanger the tree’s overall health, as this variety only arrive when the leaves are ready to fall off. You can often find the red-bumped caterpillar on the underside of the leaves, where they lay their eggs.
The tent caterpillar is fuzzy and is a reddish-brown color, with bursts of color, including blue, white, and orange. Tent caterpillars will eat portions of the tree’s leaves during the day, and crawl around the foliage, spreading web nests at night.
If left unattended, tent caterpillars can quickly get out of hand and cause the tree to defoliate. The best way to control caterpillars is to prune infected areas, whether that be infected leaves or entire branches.
How to Use
The flowers are the first go-to part on this tree, as the flowers can be eaten raw, cooked, or pickled. The Redbud flowers have a sour taste, but are high in vitamin C. They are consumed as edible flowers more for their delicate addition to foods, such as salads. Both the flowers and the seed pods have been shown to contain high antioxidant levels and contain acids, including linoleic, oleic, and palmitic acids.
Here is a great video that shows how to preserve redbud flowers for eating later:
The pods are also edible when harvested young and can be prepared in a similar way to the flowers, either cooked or eaten raw; they can be a great addition to a stir fry.
When left unopened, the pods can also be pickled or used as a caper substitute. The seeds are primarily comprised of protein, which makes up 25% of the seed nutritional composition.
The branches and leaves are not exactly edible but have been shown to have been used in historical basketry. According to folklore, extractions made from the root and inner bark have been used to treat various ailments, including fever, congestion, coughing, nausea, and vomiting.
Besides from adding a light citrusy taste to food, there are not many uses for the Eastern Redbud tree, besides planting one in your yard for a beautiful view in the spring.
The Eastern Redbud tree has been found to contain a type of toxic saponin. Typically, saponins are non-toxic, or are not toxic enough to cause damage, as the toxin level is too low to absorb into the body effectively. Due to the lengthy list of pests and diseases to be aware of, and to be on the watch for, it is recommended to forage and plant before hot and humid weather settles in.
Aside from the lists of pests, diseases, and environmental damage risks, there are no other precautions or specifics about the Eastern Redbud tree that might cause problems.
A Beautiful and Useful Tree
Eastern redbuds are gorgeous trees that deserve a spot in any yard or homestead. They are also simple to identify when growing wild in forests.
While they are easy on the eyes, the flowers and seed pods are also a great addition to your diet and can add variety to your canning and preserving efforts as well. So, give the Eastern redbud a try the next time you find one in bloom or seed!
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.