Friday, April 20, 2018

How to identify and forage redbud: early spring flowers, mid spring veggies


Identification difficulty: Beginner 

If you live in the Southern, Mid-Atlantic, or Western states of the US, there's a good chance you know redbud, even if you don't think you know it.

Redbuds are the earliest splash of color seen among the trees, even before most leaves are starting to bud. It looks like a fairy passed though and completely encircled the branches in vivid pink. Everything about redbud is charming: beautiful pink flowers, heart shaped leaves, and delicate branches.


They are lovely. . . and edible! In the early - mid spring, redbud flowers add unique flavor and stunning color to a variety of dishes. Young leaves can be cooked, or used sparingly in salads. Late in the spring, you can enjoy the most robust edible from this spectacular tree: the soft green seed pods.

Redbud trees are in the genus Cercis, and the most commonly encountered is Cercis canadensis, the Eastern redbud. Despite the name "canadensis",  it's more thoroughly distributed in the United States than in Canada.

Redbuds are great for urban and suburban foraging, as they are often planted in neighborhoods along sidewalks, and I see them a lot on corporate campuses, in parking lots, and along park/bike trails.


Up close, the flower-shape reminds me of old-style slippers 


Flower identification and season

Redbud flowers have no poisonous look-a-likes. If you see these bright pink, pea-flower shaped blossoms on a tree in early spring, you have redbud. The shape reminds me of old-style slippers, at least in profile.

The only flower that is somewhat similar in terms of color and time of year would be the cherry blossom, but they have a very different shape -- much more like a classic flower-shape. Cherry blossoms are also edible, so if you confuse the two, you are still safe.

In late spring, you might encounter clammy locust and honey locust blossoms, which look similar.  But always remember your time of year. Redbud should be late winter or early spring.


The seed pods from the previous year are often found on the tree,
they look like dried out pea-pods, and can help with identification.

If you find a pure-white version of redbud, that is blooming at the right time of year, and has some of last-year's seedpods on it to confirm ID, then you may have found a  "whitebud".  This subspecies of the genus is rarely encountered in nature, but has been propagated by humans for variety. As for edibility, I assume it is edible, but when I tried it it was very unpleasant to the taste and I spit it out. I would avoid the "whitebud" until more is known about it.

The "whitebud" a pure-white subspecies of the genus. Edibility is uncertain, and I found the flavor to be off-putting.
I would avoid eating this flower.

Eating redbud flowers

Redbud blossoms have a delightful flavor, and incredible floral aroma. At first, it's a bright sweetness, with a touch of young vegetable flavor (like sweet peas or new corn).  Then secondary notes of sourness/tartness come in. The flowers are excellent sprinkled into salads, added to baked goods and as a key ingredient in smoothies.

Special note:

Even though harvesting flowers doesn't hurt the tree, the nectar is important food for bees to get a jump-start on honey making early in the season, when little else is blooming. It's important not to over-harvest. Take no more than 20% from where you can reach on each tree, even if there are many blooms out of reach. This is because the bees get tired too, and the less high 


they have to fly, the better for them. 


Leaf identification and season

Once the leaves are this mature, they are too old to eat.
Redbud leaves unfurl shortly after the flowers start, think mid-spring, but you will generally still find blossoms with the young leaves. Leaves should be eaten while the blossoms are still on the tree, after that, they are generally too tough, and harder to identify, because the flowers are so distinctive.

Redbud has the most heart-shaped leaves I've ever seen on a tree. They are also "palmately veined", which means there are 5 large veins that start where the leaf stem is, and spread out like outstretched fingers from the palm of a hand toward the leaf edges.

Basswood/Linden (Tilia Genus) also has a heart-shaped leaf, but they have "pinnate" veins. That means there is one large central vein, and smaller veins come off of it. Also, the leaves of basswood/linden are serrated and the edges of redbud leaves are smooth. Young linden leaves are also edible, (when very young), should you accidentally mix them up.

Basswood/Linden leaves.


Eating redbud leaves


I find the leaves are only chewable when super young, but I also find the flavor off-putting.

Foragers list redbud leaves as "edible" but I would probably have to disagree. Non-poisonous would be a better word. Eating redbud leaves won't hurt you, but it's not an enjoyable experience either.

At best, redbud leaves have a ghost of the green apple flavor you get from the pods, but they mostly just taste vile. They are also incredibly chewy, and heard to break up with your molars. For me, the leaves tend to just sit in my mouth, a nasty-tasting mass that I simply can't get small enough to swallow, until I give up and spit out.

If you must try redbud leaves, go for them when they are super young and small, like the one shown above. The flavor won't be any better, but it's a bit easier to chew.

Mostly I just consider this a non-edible part of the tree.




Pod identification and season

Don't pick all the flowers if you want to come back and get the pods! The pods hold the fruit, (a seed) of the redbud tree. Try to remember where the trees were, and come back in mid-spring. Find the heart-shaped leaves, and look for the pods where the flowers were.

You want the pods when they are VERY immature. The earliest pods will be dark reddish-purplish-brown, tube-shaped, and about a half an inch wide at the widest. This is probably the best time to grab them.

Later on they will look start to look snow pea-pods, flat and green, and they still MIGHT be edible, if they are still very bendable, like paper. Once the green pods start to become stiff, even the slightest bit, they will be too fibrous to enjoy.

The flexible green pods might still have a long, very tough, fiber that runs down the outer edge of the pod. This is nearly impossible to chew. Trim off the outer edge of the pod to avoid running into this.



Redbud will be the only tree that has spring pods and heart-shaped leaves. Later in the year, locusts, will also form pods, and some of their pods can be toxic, so always look for season and leaf shape.

The sheer abundance of pods on a healthy tree can be staggering


Eating redbud pod

Redbud pods have a sharply tart or sour flavor, very much like underripe green apples. On some trees, the taste is so intense it puckers my mouth.

Their texture is not ideal, even young and red/brown they are prone to being fibrous and difficult to chew, with almost a gummy-like element. The best way to avoid this is to slice them very thinly, about 1/8 of an inch or to mince them. Once cut super small, they become a nice tart element in salads, dressings, dips, or sauces, like tzatziki.

You can also grind them up in a food processor, again as part of dressings or marinades, or mix them with sugar and use them as  a sweet-tart dessert topping. They remind me very much of the NERDS candy I enjoyed as a child.

If you have a child who is fond of sour gummy-style sweets, you could consider candying the pods whole. They have the same flavor, and the chewy-gummy consistency is similar.

Cooked, the pods improve quite a bit in texture, becoming easier to chew, though they loose some of their tart flavor.  My favorite way to prepare them is as a cooked vegetable, where I use them in stir-fries, and mixed veggie sides. They still remain a bit chewy, so don't cook them whole, but you don't have to slice them super thin either, think 1/4-1/3 of an inch.

Preserving redbud pods

I have yet to find a really environmentally-friendly way to preserve redbud. Dehydrated pods loose a ton of flavor, and become even more fibrous when reconstituted, to the point of inedibility. Dried, the redbud pod sugar also looses it's flavor.

You can cook and freeze the pods, but perhaps this is just one of those wild plants which is best enjoyed only in season.

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