Learn how to identify and use Eastern redbud – a beautiful spring flowering tree that produces edible flowers!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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),
turn them into jelly,
naturally pink lemonade,
or infuse them into vinegar for making vinaigrette and other culinary uses.
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.