Sunday, March 20, 2016

Redbud – Peas on a Tree

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.

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)
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.

Redbud habit (Cercis canadensis)
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.

Popular with bees
Of course, we can thank the bees for all those seeds. Bees absolutely love redbud flowers. I can stand next to the tree and see both native bees and honeybees happily foraging in those flowers.

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
An interesting aspect of redbud is that flowers can emerge not only on the branches but also directly from the trunk. They are usually arranged in small clusters on short pedicels. The flowers are considered edible and are high in Vitamin C. The pea pods can be eaten too (maybe that’s a way to control the volume of seedlings).

If you’re looking for an early-blooming spring tree, give redbud a try. It appreciates part-shade in Georgia but can probably take more sun if it has good moisture. If you're interested in learning about other pea family plants in Georgia, check out my earlier blog post: More Peas, Please!


  1. I love these trees. We just rescued one from Japanese honeysuckle on our new property. I hope we find more!

  2. I love these too I saved some seeds from one!