Redbud's bright pink blossoms are one of the glories of spring, but they're not just eye candy. Those blossoms have a delicious flavor that is like a green bean with a lemony aftertaste.
Different species of redbud grow in different parts of the world, each with edible blossoms. In eastern North America, look for Cercis canadensis; in California and other western states, look for C. occidentalis; and around the Mediterranean and some parts of Asia you'll find C. siliquastrum.
Redbud is a favorite with landscapers, who have spread it as far as Australia and South Africa. It is also because of landscapers that you'll often find it growing in urban and suburban areas. Left to its own devices, redbud likes to grow on sunny slopes but can survive as an understory tree or shrub.
Redbuds are small trees with branches that often grow in a quirky zigzag pattern. The bark of young redbuds is smooth but becomes craggy as the trees mature. The clusters of pink or magenta blossoms appear before the leaves and seem to be growing directly out of the bark. The individual blossoms have an irregular shape like pea flowers, and indeed redbud is in the same legume plant family (Fabaceae) as peas.
The heart-shaped leaves have smooth edges, stalks with slightly swollen bases, and grow in an alternate pattern on the branches.
In late spring and early summer the flowers become pods that look like small snow peas. Once brown and mature, these seed pods often persist on the branches long after the trees have dropped their leaves in the autumn.
Collecting the blossoms doesn't damage the trees, but it's a good idea not to strip the branches bare. Leave plenty of flowers on each branch both so that others can enjoy their beauty and so that some can mature and go to seed.
Besides adding gorgeous color to food, redbud blossoms have an interesting flavor that starts out with a green bean-like taste and then develops a pleasantly sour aftertaste. They are fantastic raw on salads, but can also be pickled, added to sorbets, and are even good in muffins and baked goods.
Use these piquant and colorful pickles instead of capers in any recipe that calls for the latter. The texture of these pickled redbud blossoms is best if you collect the flower buds before they have fully opened.
1. Rinse the flower clusters under cold water. Pinch off and discard the stems.
2. Combine equal parts white vinegar and water. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt per cup of brine and stir to dissolve. Plan on an equal amount of brine by volume for the quantity of redbud buds that you have gathered. In other words, one cup of brine per cup of flowers.
3. Fill a clean jar with the redbud blossoms, then cover them with the brine. Make sure the jar is completely full, then simply screw on the lid to keep the blossoms submerged under the brine. Some brine will leak out when you do so: that's okay. Place the jar on a small plate and leave at room temperature for three days, away from direct sunlight which could discolor the flowers. Be sure to unscrew the lid to release pressure a few times a day.
4. Transfer the jar to the refrigerator. Don't expose pickled redbud blossoms to heat or their texture and color will diminish (no boiling water bath canning for these).
Leda Meredith is the author of Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and follow her food adventures at Leda's Urban Homestead. Her latest book is Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke...and More.