Sandy’s Garden ... The Judas Tree

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

The Christian religion nominates this coming Friday, April 3, as ‘Good Friday’.

The day on which Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus, whose philosophy they follow. Jesus was executed on the orders of the Roman authorities whose mighty state had annexed the countries of the eastern Mediterranean to bring them within the control of the Roman Empire. Like many leaders of empire before and since, the Roman governors were suspicious of any person who might be gaining any sort of popular following and might, as a result, become a threat to their power. According to some accounts, Jesus was betrayed by one of his own disciples, his whereabouts disclosed for thirty pieces of silver; and, also according to some accounts, his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, hanged himself soon afterwards.

Now a tree commonly called the ‘Redbud’, which is known botanically by the genetic name Cercis and by the specific name siliquastrum, is also known as the ‘Judas tree.’ It was, allegedly, given this name because Judas Iscariot is said to have hanged himself from its branches. The tree’s shame at being chosen for his suicide is supposed to have caused the formerly white flowers of its entire species to turn blood-red … a rather unlikely supposition of a plant having knowledge of Judas’s reported treachery, transmitting this knowledge to every member of its species and of the entire species being deeply affected by the shame of being linked with the name of Judas.

The more likely explanation of how the tree came to be called the Judas tree is to be found in the tree’s common name in France, where it is usually called the Arbre de Judée, meaning ‘tree of Judea’ … not the tree of Judas … because is used to be common in the hilly regions of that country. The Arbre de Judée is a protected species in modern Israel, where the former Judea is known as ‘the West Bank’; the tree is not alone in needing protection there!

Cercis siliquastrum takes its generic name … Cercis … from the Greek ‘Kerkis’, a weaver’s shuttle’ and its specific name … siliquastrum … from the Latin word silique, referring to the prominent seedpods. It is a pretty little tree, which can grow to a maximum of 12 metres high … say, 40 feet in old money … with a spread of 10 metres, although the vast majority will not grow beyond one-half of that height or reach one-half of that spread. A native of southern Europe and western Asia, it is deciduous …it sheds its heart-shaped leaves at the onset of winter … and carries a prolific display of deep pink flowers in late spring. Unlike most trees, the flowers appear before the leaves; and some of the flowers are actually carried on the trunk of the tree, a very uncommon occurrence. These flowers are said to be edible, with a sweetish taste; and the long, flat seed pods which appear in the late summer hang vertically from the branches and are supposed to be reminiscent of a weaver’s shuttle.

The Judas tree has attracted interest for many centuries and has been cultivated in many parts of the world, although it seldom becomes naturalised. It tolerates a range of soil conditions, but prefers deep, well-drained soils in partial shade or in full sun provided the roots are kept moist. It was introduced into the British Isles before 1600; and, since it can withstand temperatures as low as -15°C … say 5°F in old money … it could, theoretically, thrive here in Scotland, though it seldom does, despite having gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. Kenneth Cox and Raoul Curtis-Machen say it all in their splendid book ‘Garden Plants for Scotland’: “If only Scotland were hotter, these wonderful, slow-growing small trees or large bushes could be more widely grown.” How true!