When someone says a plant is in the pea family, do your thoughts immediately go to sugar snap peas? Some people might envision the distinctive butterfly-like flowers associated with so many pea family (Fabaceae) plants (including sugar snap peas). In fact, Fabaceae family members with this type of flower are said to be in the Papilionoideae sub-family, a fitting name for those butterfly-like flowers. Our spring-blooming eastern redbud tree (Cercis canadensis) is one of those and those flowers are popping out now.
My first glimpse of the redbud was when I was driving along the highway in the spring of 1989; it was my first spring in Georgia. The highway generally has a thick row of pine trees along each side. Occasionally I would see glimpses of purple; I eventually realized they were thin branches enveloped in a tight arrangement of tiny purple flowers. Someone told me the name of the tree was redbud; I was confused – these were not red! I still haven’t figured that out.
The eastern redbud is a small tree, growing 20-30 feet tall. The shape is wide and open, often being as wide as it is tall. Heart-shaped leaves emerge just as the flowers are finishing; it is unusual that the redbud has single leaves while most pea family plants have compound leaves. Pea pods form after the flowers, each holding about 4-10 bean-like seeds which are eaten by birds and squirrels. Seed production can be heavy on some plants and heart-shaped babies often sprout up.
|Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)|
|Redbud habit (Cercis canadensis)|
|Popular with bees|
The flowers are made up of five petals: a ‘banner’ petal, two wing petals, and two petals that are partially fused together to form a boat-shaped ‘keel.’ Bees go inside that keel to get to the pollen and nectar.
|Close up flower and arrangement on branch|