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March 2009 cover image of Pedernales Falls State Park

Flora Fact : Texas Redbud

Besides offering a springtime explosion of color, redbuds ­provide a place for caterpillars to hang.

By Sheryl Smith-Rogers

For more than a decade, Judy Ratzlaff drove past the state’s champion Texas redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis) on her way home. Every March, the huge tree — whose 39-foot crown spread shaded most of a fenced yard in Willow Park west of Fort Worth — burst into a lavender work of art.

“It was breathtaking,” Ratzlaff recalls. “It looked like a weeping willow because the limbs touched the ground. And the flowers stayed on forever.” Sadly, though, high winds in 2007 caused the tree to split, and the owners cut the champ down.

No matter their size, nearly all Texas redbuds turn spectacular come spring. On nature’s cue, their winter bare branches transform into pastels of pink, rose, purple or white flowers. Developing leaf buds soon open into glossy, heart-shaped foliage. While the Central Texas variety prefers dry limestone hills, its relative — the eastern redbud — thrives in rich soils near streams.

Numerous bird species eat redbud legumes, which appear in the late spring but may last till fall. Henry’s elfin (Callophrys henrici) — a gossamer-wing butterfly — selects redbuds as caterpillar host plants. Humans have found uses for the tree, too. Some pickle the acidic flowers for salads; in Mexico, they’re fried. Fluid extracted from redbud bark has been used as an astringent as well as a treatment for dysentery.

Cercis siliquastrum — a redbud that’s native to southern Europe — is also called the Judas tree. According to ancient lore, the tree’s white flowers turned red with blood or shame after Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ and hung himself from its branches.

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