26 years ago, I was in a rather bad place. I was stuck in a dead-end groundskeeping job at a now-long-dead Texas Instruments site, where I had the option of paying rent or buying food but not both at the same time. In an attempt to get into a better situation, I moved at the end of February 1987 to a much more amenable apartment, without considering that moving, in the short term, can cost even more than staying put. Hence, I was beyond broke, forcing myself to go to work with levels of willpower that should qualify me for a Green Lantern ring one of these days. In fact, the only thing that kept me going for the first month of spring was that the new apartment’s porch overlooked Carrollton’s Greenbelt Park, and that park was full of huge redbud trees.
Although ranging through most of North America (hence the Latin name Cercis canadensis), redbuds are as much of a part of Texas as armadillos and mesquite. When I first moved here, the common advice given to new gardeners was to wait until the redbuds bloomed before planting anything freeze-sensitive, because they only exploded when we were reasonably safe from killer frosts. (That wisdom may be challenged this weekend, by the way, but seeing as how we last saw a late killer frost in 1997, we’re overdue.) For about two weeks, their blooms brighten otherwise stark woods and parks, to be replaced with pear, peach, and crabapple blooms as they sprout leaves. For the rest of the year, they’re curious ornamental trees, bearing big heart-shaped leaves and seed pods that resemble nothing so much as snow peas. They don’t get overly big, they don’t choke out other trees, they offer sporadic but reasonable shade, and they thrive on the poor soils that are practically a North Texas trademark.
Those seed pods, by the way, not only give away their heritage, as redbuds are woody members of the pea family. They also give a hint on edibility. Specifically, while the seed pods are tough and stringy, the flowers are not only edible but tasty if you like snow peas. Pluck them after they open, preferably after a rainstorm so they’ve been washed of dust (instead of washed in dust, the way this spring has been going), and eat them raw. The Czarina is particularly fond of garnishing salads with them, and as soon as she can figure out how to preserve them without their turning to mush, I expect to come home one evening and find the freezer stockpiled with fresh-frozen redbud blooms.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning that if you plan to get a redbud tree, do so NOW. Various cultivars exist, mostly ranging in bloom intensity between light pink and a deep pomegranate, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between them when they’re not blooming. Likewise, when they stop blooming, they tend to blend in with other trees, so unless your powers of botanical identification are fully operational, you’ll walk by even fully mature trees in scrub woodlands. The trick is to get them now, so that they’re fully established for next spring’s fireworks, and let them grow a bit into a decent shape.
As for bonsai possibilities, don’t ask me. Yet. One of these days, though…