National Geographic : 1957 Oct
Eastern Redbud Heralds Spring with a Blush (State Tree of Oklahoma) THE flaming springtime blossoms of the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) make it one of the most strikingly beautiful members of the vast legume, or pea, family. The redbud can also boast of being among the first trees botanically "discovered" in the New World. In 1570 King Philip II of Spain sent his physician, Dr. Francisco Hernandez, to Mex ico to investigate the region's natural history, antiquities, and political conditions. Her nandez's report gave the first published ac count of this colorful flowering tree. Blossoms Turned Red with Shame The tree has also gained a more dubious measure of fame. According to time-honored legend, Judas Iscariot-after betraying Jesus -hanged himself on a Near East cousin of the redbud called Cercis siliquastrum. The white flowers blushed red with shame and have remained so ever since. In popular usage, this Old World species has long borne the name "Judas tree." The ancient tradition crossed the Atlantic with early settlers, who transferred the leg end as well as the name to the inoffensive redbud. However, the tree has never lacked for defenders of its reputation. Among the most eloquent is the Georgia poet Alfred T. Hind, who wrote: No more call it Judas Tree, Redbud, rather, let it be. Tarnish not its springtime glow With a crime of long ago. Undeserved its hateful fame: Let its beauty give it name.* George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were admirers of the redbud, and Washington planted the trees in profusion on the grounds at Mount Vernon. Eastern redbud ranges from lower Connect 4 Eastern Redbud's Vivid Blossoms Dress an Oklahoma Stream Bank Pealike, rosy-pink flowers grow in clusters of 4 to 8. Preceding the leaves, they frequently emerge directly from trunk and branches. Glossy, heart-shaped leaves are 3t to 5 inches wide, slightly hairy, and with veins like the fingers of the hand. They turn yellow in fall. Brown or reddish bark is scaly and often fissured or ridged. Thin, flattened pods, 2 2 to 3% inches long, bear shiny dark-brown seeds. © National Geographic Society Paintings by National Geographic Artist Walter A. Weber icut and New York to north-central Florida, west to eastern Texas, and north to Michigan. Across the United States border it penetrates southwestern Ontario; in the south it extends from Coahuila to San Luis Potosi in Mexico. Although ordinarily a small tree up to 30 feet high, eastern redbud occasionally attains a height of 50 feet. The American Forestry Association's champion, near North Kingsville in Ohio's Ashtabula County, has a 40-foot spread and, 2 feet above the ground, meas ures 8 feet in circumference. Eastern redbud is a frequent associate of flowering dogwood as an understory in hard wood forests and is characteristic of stream banks and bottomlands; the two trees often bloom together and become the showiest spring ornaments of many of our eastern woodlands. In Oklahoma, where it is the State tree, and in other western reaches of its zone, the blossoming redbud announces the annual ar rival of spring by transforming thousands of ravines and creek bottoms into winding rib bons of vivid pink. Flower-bud Salad and Fried Fritters The redbud is neither large enough nor sufficiently abundant for its wood to be of any economic importance. However, it is used in some localities for turnery and small cab inetwork. Though it is hard and durable, at best red bud wood is only moderately strong. Heart wood is yellowish or brown, often with darker streaks; its somewhat golden luster deepens to russet with age. The sapwood is distinctly paler and often white. The tree's chief value is as an ornamental, and it has been cultivated as such since the 1600's. The redbud produces large numbers of very light seeds, but germination is poor without pretreatment to soften the hard seed coats. The seeds are a favorite food of bob whites and some other birds. In rural districts the flower buds and blos soms are sometimes eaten in salads or pickled; buds, flowers, and young pods go into fried fritters. Fried redbud flowers are also a Mexican delicacy. In addition, Mexicans use the red bud's astringent bark for medicinal purposes. * From Poems of Trees. A Sidney Lanier Memo rial, Vol. VI. Compiled and edited by Wightman F. Melton. Curtiss Printing Co., Inc., Atlanta, Ga., 1937.