Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sandra's Garden: non-Canadian Canada Redbud

Species name: Cercis canadensis

Common name: Canada redbud

Location: Sandra's garden

Canada redbud is, contrary to the Latin name and the common name, not really all that native to Canada. As an aside, neither is Canada thistle...

The native range of Canada redbud extends from a negligible amount in Southern Ontario south to Florida and Mexico, west to Texas and Oklahoma, and east all the way to the coastline and up to New England. The native range map of this species barely registers a blip in Canada, and yet we plant it here in large numbers as an ornamental species. It will never do as well here as what it does in Kentucky and Tennessee (do they call it American redbud there, I wonder?), but it does well enough to still be spectacular in the spring. The flowers form directly off the largest stems and branches of the tree (sometimes only being big enough to qualify as a shrub) in huge numbers, and almost all of them will develop into pods of seeds that look a bit like brown snow peas. The leaves are a bright green and a heart-shaped.

This was surprising to me, but Canada redbud seeds and pods are actually edible, and have been eaten by native North Americans for centuries. The unripe immature green pods can be eaten raw, and the ripe seeds of brown pods can be roasted and turned into a coffee-like beverage (without the caffeine, and probably without the tasty flavour) or eaten. The flowers were also eaten either raw or boiled. I can't imagine either of these being all that tasty, but I guess when you have nothing else to eat you'll eat anything that won't make you sick! The toxicity of raw Canada redbud plant organs has never been tested, so I don't recommend anyone tries eating the pods or flowers raw. But give some roasted seeds a try if you're feeling adventurous and let me know what you think. The twigs themselves have also been used as a flavouring; the young green twigs would be rubbed against and skewered into venison or buffalo steaks before cooking to give them a somewhat spicy flavour (and hence the other common name for this plant, spicebush; use this name with caution since it is applied more commonly to another species).

Other than the obvious ornamental use, this plant isn't really used for much else. The trees never really grow large enough to produce lumber, and the overall shape of the plant (the main stem is rather short and it forks very early in growth; the best lumber trees are very tall, very straight unbranching trees) makes it impractical for anything other than making veneer; even at that, the grain isn't all that attractive so other species are more preferred. The tree can tolerate everything from full sun to full shade (but does best in full sun to partial shade). They also provide a great nectar source for native bees, butterflies, and some birds!