Identifying & Using Redbud Flowers

Learn how to identify and use Eastern redbud – a beautiful spring flowering tree that produces edible flowers!

redbud branches with flowers growing on them
Not just an ornamental tree – you can eat redbud flowers and use them to make jelly, lemonade, and more!

Where Redbud Grows

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is native to the eastern part of North America – from the top part of Florida, all the way up to southern New England, and westward towards the Great Plains.

You will find it growing outside of its native range though, since redbud has naturalized to other areas. It’s also a popular ornamental tree that you can buy from nurseries, hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9.

Redbud likes to grow along forest and field edges and is pretty tolerant when it comes to growing conditions. We find random redbud trees scattered throughout thinner spots in the forest, and even a few mixed in with spicebush closer to our creek, but also have some thriving in dry sunny spots alongside our driveway.

Note: There’s also a western redbud, Cercis occidentalis, and one that grows in Europe, Cercis siliquastrum. Both have edible flowers as well.

redbud flowers on a wooden board
In early spring, clusters of pea-like flowers grow along the branches.

When to Collect Redbud Flowers

Redbud is a small deciduous tree in the Fabaceae (or pea) family, whose pretty pink flowers appear in early spring to brighten up the landscape. Around here in USDA Zone 7a, it blooms in March – about a week after forsythia starts blooming, and about two weeks after the peach trees start blossoming out.

When you see redbuds trees in flower, it’s also a good time to scout for bloodroot, round lobed hepatica, and other spring ephemerals in undisturbed forested and stream-side areas. (Unlike redbud however, those lovely and fleeting forest flowers should be admired, photographed, then left alone to continue their life cycle.) Redbud blooms are also an indicator to start scouting for early morel mushrooms!

Identification: What Eastern Redbud Flowers Look Like

Redbud flowers appear on the tree in early spring, before the leaves show up.

Often there will be some overlap with the very latest flowers and the newest leaves, but in general the tree will be leafless when it starts to bloom. Redbud leaves are heart shaped and alternately arranged. The young leaves can also be nibbled on, though they aren’t that tasty.

heart shaped Eastern redbud tree leaves
Eastern redbud tree leaves are heart shaped and appear soon after, or when the tree is almost finished blooming.

Even though redbud has “red” in its name, the flowers aren’t really red! The pea-like blossoms are pink, or pink with a tinge of purple, or fuchsia-toned. The unopened buds look darker and more magenta than the opened flowers, which are more pink.

The flowers are about a half-inch long and grow clustered on the branches, directly against the wood.

Each flower is made up of five petals total. On top, there’s a middle petal (the “banner” petal) surrounded by two “wing” petals. The bottom two petals are “keel” petals and contain the stamens.

closeup view of redbud flowers
Redbud flowers have five petals: A top middle “banner” petal, surrounded by two “wing” petals, plus two bottom petals that contain the stamens.

There aren’t any toxic lookalikes to redbud: just make sure it’s early spring when blooming, and that the pea like flower has five petals as shown in the photos, and you should be looking at a redbud tree!

It’s always good to double check your identification with foraging guides local to your area, and ask someone local who is knowledgeable about plants. (Check with your local extension agency and/or plant nursery.)

Tips for Collecting Redbud Flowers

Redbud flowers only hang around for a few weeks – usually blooming in March or April, depending on where you live. When you spot a tree in full flower, don’t wait too long to collect!

It attracts pollinators – redbud is a main host for Henry’s Elfin (a North American butterfly), and is a food source for hummingbirds and many species of bees. We often see a few of our honeybees buzzing around our redbuds. For this reason, we never want to pick a redbud tree clean!

Even if it means you’re only able to make a small batch of redbud jelly, or just one redbud project per spring, try to leave behind most of the flowers.

container of redbud flowers
A container of flowers collected from several redbud trees in the same area. It’s good to leave most of the flowers behind on the tree, for pollinators to enjoy!

Collect the flowers in a small container, leaving behind any bits of twig or branches. Try to use your flowers the same day you collect them, but if you can’t, put them in the refrigerator, covered with a damp paper towel and use the next day.

You can freeze redbud flowers in a single flat layer in freezer bags, for a few months. Once frozen, they’re only good for things such as jelly making; they won’t have the same quality when thawed to be used for salad or cake toppings.

How to Use and Eat Redbud Flowers

Redbud flowers are high in vitamin C (source) – both the buds and opened flowers can be eaten raw. Buds are often pickled and used like capers, while the opened flowers can be turned into delicious foods, such as those listed below.

You can sprinkle redbud flowers on a salad (or other foods, such as cookies, tarts, or cakes),

bowl of spring salad topped with fresh violet and redbud flowers
Top spring salads with edible flowers such as redbuds and violets.

turn them into jelly,

hand holding a jar of ruby colored redbud jelly
Redbud jelly is a beautiful jewel-toned color and tastes lightly floral with a bitty hint of strawberry-grape.

naturally pink lemonade,

Image of a glass of faintly pink lemonade with ice floating near the top. Inside the glass, a few pink flowers can be seen. At the base of the glass, there are some scattered redbud flowers.
Use redbud flowers to make a naturally pink lemonade!

or infuse them into vinegar for making vinaigrette and other culinary uses.

jar of redbud infused vinegar with chickweed, clover, and fresh redbud flowers
Redbud infused vinegar has a pleasingly tart and tangy taste. Use it to make vinaigrettes, marinades, or in place of balsamic vinegar in recipes.

To make redbud infused vinegar:

Fill a small half-pint jar with around 1/3 cup redbud flowers. Pour vinegar (about 2/3 cup) into the jar until it’s almost filled.

White wine vinegar or champagne wine vinegar are excellent choices for culinary use.

At first, it will look like the vinegar isn’t doing anything, but after several days, you’ll see the vinegar start turning an increasing pink color. (You could also first gently heat the vinegar and pour over the redbuds while it’s still hot, to jump start the infusion.)

Let the vinegar infuse for around 1 week, or until it’s a bright pretty color.

Strain and refrigerate your vinegar for 4 to 6 months.

Redbud vinegar has a pleasing tangy and tart taste, thanks to the high vitamin C content in redbud flowers. Use it in your favorite vinaigrette or marinade recipes similar to using balsamic or fruit infused vinegars.

Our articles are for information and idea-sharing only. While we aim for 100% accuracy, it is solely up to the reader to provide proper identification. Be sure to seek out local foraging classes and plant walks, and invest in mushroom and foraging guides suitable for the area you live in, since some wild foods are poisonous, or may have adverse effect.

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  1. I have a redbud tree in my backyard. How do I make it bloom? I have had it for 4 years…no blooms!

    1. Hi Gwen, I’m so sorry to hear that! What type of environment is it growing in? (Full shade, full sun, dry clay, sandy beach soil, etc)
      That info might give us some clues.
      Or did you plant it as a teeny tiny start? Could it have possibly had a run-in with a weed eater or a hungry animal at some point that set its growth back?
      If so, it might just need another year or two to get mature enough for blooms.

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