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Redbud trees are all heart

By Biff and Susan Andrews

Driving along the highways of Tidewater, you may have noticed large area of bright pink trees blooming in the woods. Most likely, you are seeing redbuds.

We have a little redbud tree outside our kitchen window. It came to us as a pitiful brown stick in a plastic bag from an Arbor Day promotional a few years back. It is the little tree that could. Last year was the first year it bloomed … a little. This year, it is spectacular (all things being in perspective) for a spindly little thing that has suffered with its feet in clay and its head in the shade. It is spectacular because this week it has a profusion of pink blooms along the length of each branch that have been a magnet for little black bees. It has been literally abuzz.

I was pleased to learn in my research about bees and trees that because the redbud is such an early bloomer, it is a beacon (no pun intended) of hope to early spring bees. It’s not much for European honeybees; it seems it’s too early and cold for serious honey producers, and their tongues are too long for the flowers anyway. I want to know which one of you is out there measuring bee tongues.

Eastern redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are an early source of food for a long list of native bees, evidently of the short-tongued sort, that include bumblebees, mason bees, sweat bees, blueberry bees, and our special friend the carpenter bee, who, by the way, does not eat wood. This little tree also provides a place where bees can nest under, within or harvest material to make nests. It’s a “giving tree” if ever there was one. Redbud flowers are also edible for humans, as are their seed pods, which resemble pea pods. This little understory tree is in the pea family.

Redbuds are all heart. The leaves come out after the blooms are finished; each one is perfectly heart-shaped. Several species of moth caterpillars and at least one species of butterfly caterpillar eat redbud leaves. The caterpillar of the redbud leaf-folder moth (Fascista cercerisella) only eats redbud leaves, an interesting example of how one individual tree can make a difference, especially to these important pollinators.

The redbud is sometimes called the “Judas Tree” because it is associated with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot as told in Matthew 26 and 27:1-5. The legend is that Judas, after betraying Jesus, hanged himself on a tree with white blooms and that afterward the blooms turned red. Mediterranean redbud (Cercis siliquastrum) is found widely across the Middle East. Our Eastern redbuds bloom just before the dogwood tree, which is believed to be the wood of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Blooming in the weeks before Easter, the redbud with its pink and sometimes purple blooms serve as a reminder of the 40 days of Lent.

We should all be like the giving little redbud tree … especially now. So when it comes to giving, be all heart. Give blood if you are able. Give a little extra to your church and do what you can to support the local small businesses with drive through, delivery or takeout. And maybe buy a little redbud tree. You’ll be glad you did.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.