Throughout my neighboring woodlands, native Cercis candensis trees are lighting up the landscape with their bright reddish-purple blooms. As a gardener, I have always known this tree as a “redbud” but my husband grew up knowing it as “Judas tree.” I researched the origin of the Judas common name, and ran across several versions. You can pick your favorite.
- After Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, he was so ashamed of his actions that he hanged himself on a tree with white flowers. The tree was so sad that its white flowers turned to red with shame. The tree was originally tall and strong, so the story goes, but after Iscariot’s suicide, its wood was weak and the tree was short so that it could never again be used as a vehicle for hanging.
- Corollary to the above version, the blossoms hang from the branches like a man hanging from a noose. It takes a lot of imagination to follow this imagery.
- The French common name is Arbre de Judee, meaning Tree of Judea. Judea is a hilly area where the Cercis thrives in the wild. Tree of Judea may have been misunderstood as Tree of Judas.
The redbud is in the legume family. The flattened seed pods resemble snow peas. The blossoms are edible and can be used to add a little color pop to spring salads. I think they don’t have much taste.
Here are a few of the most common cultivars. ‘Avondale’ is a prolific bloomer; alas, it produces a zillion seed pods too, so can be messy. ‘Don Egolf’ is a good bloomer, and does not produce seeds. ‘Covey’ or ‘Lavender Twist’ are weepers. ‘Oklahoma’ has a much deeper bloom than the others, almost purple. ‘Forest Pansy’ has beautiful burgundy leaves in spring, but it deepens to green when temperatures rise in the summer. There are several white cultivars, but all I can say about them is “meh – not for me.”
There is a newer cultivar in the Mary Snoddy garden that I really like. ‘The Rising Sun’™ has the same pink/purple blooms as its cousins, but its foliage emerges peachy-color then turns chartreuse before it becomes lime green. New leaves that unfold during the year are the apricot color. The combination of several colors of leaves held at the same time is a real eye-grabber. I’m itching to try ‘Whitewater,’ a weeping variety with white variegated leaves. Weeping AND variegated -- Wowzer!
Redbuds are best used as understory trees. Their small stature makes them perfect in partial shade cast by taller deciduous trees. Their zigzag trunks are interesting, but they usually lean one way or the other rather than standing up straight. Give them a little extra water during hot dry periods and they will thank you for it. They should be moved when small to reduce transplant shock.