Plant 180

Cercis siliquastrum L. (Fabaceae)


Judas tree

The spring blossom of the Mediterranean is a botanical celebration of new life. Amidst the mass of pink and white blossom of the myriad almond trees that line the roads and fill the orchards, you will often spot the darker, mauve-coloured blossom of Cercis siliquastrum. This deciduous tree, a member of the pea family, is native to southern Europe and western Asia, and is a much loved ornamental planted in gardens and along urban roads throughout warmer parts of Europe and around the world.

First described by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in 1753, the scientific name is derived from the Greek kerkis, meaning 'shuttle', because of the resemblance of its long, flat seed pods to a weaver's shuttle, and the Latin siliqua, meaning 'pod'. The common name too draws inspiration from this distinctive dark 'shuttle pod', clusters of which hang morbidly from branches or directly from the trunk, invoking the suicide of Judas Iscariot following his betrayal of Christ.

Folklore would also have us believe that Judas hanged himself from a Judas tree. However, this legend likely arises from confusion around an alternative name, Arbor Judae, meaning tree of Judea, on account of the wide cultivation of Cercis siliquastrum around Jerusalem. An alternative candidate for the tree Judas hanged himself from is elder (Sambucus nigra), which is also sometimes referred to as the Judas tree. This myth is 'supported' by the presence of the Jew's ear fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae) growing on its woody parts.

Ghoulish names aside, Cercis siliquastrum is a beautiful tree synonymous with the Mediterranean spring and, like many of the blossoms, its flowers appear before its leaves as a spectacular adornment to its dark, bare stems and trunk. These typical 'pea-flowers' are intricately adapted to pollination by bees which benefit from a rich supply of nectar. The flowers and flower buds are edible and used in salads to give a slightly acid flavour. As the flowers begin to fade the light-green, orbicular, kidney-shaped, leaves appear and remain throughout the summer. The wood of mature trees is very hard with a beautiful grain making it ideal for use as a veneer.

In Britain, the Judas tree is widely cultivated as an ornamental and here, unlike in the Mediterranean, the leaves usually appear before the flowers. The leaves turn an attractive yellow in autumn giving colour towards the end of the year as well as at the beginning.

Further reading

Voliotis D 1984. A phenological study of flowering period and flower colours of aromatic plants in Greece. Vegetatio 56: 129-137.

Simon Hiscock