Dear Readers, I do hope that you’ll forgive the preponderance of tree-based posts over the past few weeks. It’s difficult to find more herbaceous species in the winter, plus I am intrigued by the variety of street trees around my office in the City of London. They are a solace when I’m overcome by the busyness and the sheer number of people, and I have come to see some of them as individuals: the swamp cypress in the Cleary Garden and the Indian bean tree in St Olave’s Court come to mind immediately. They have a lot to teach us about resilience and stoicism, about bending to circumstance and about making the most of resources. Plus, they are extremely good company, quiet, dignified and unlikely to want you to explain your spreadsheet in minute detail.
So, this week I am turning my attention to the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum). It comes from Southern Europe and Western Asia, and is a protected tree in Israel. The Cercis family is a genus in the pea family, Fabaceae, and this should come as no surprise if one looks closely at the flowers. The name ‘Cercis‘ comes from the Greek for ‘weaver’s shuttle’, which refers to the shape of the seedpods (see the photo below).
The one in the photo above cascades out of its bed at the back of the Guildhall, opposite the gardens of St Mary Aldmanbury. The church here was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, rebuilt and then bombed flat in the Blitz in 1940. The remains were taken and reconstructed in the grounds of Westminster College, Missouri as a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill.
But I digress, as usual. The only other Judas tree that I know of is also related to a ruined church, on Marylebone High Street – it is in the Garden of Rest next to the Marylebone Elm, one of the Great Trees of London. The name ‘Judas tree’ comes from the legend that Judas Iscariot, full of shame after his betrayal of Jesus, hanged himself from a branch of the tree, so I wonder if its appearance in churchyards is a result of its Biblical connotations. The tree is supposed to have turned its flowers from white to red as a mark of its disgrace, although Paul Wood points out in ‘London’s Street Trees’ that many of the cultivars to be found in the Capital have white flowers.
What flowers, though! They burst straight out of the bark, and I look forward to revisiting ‘my’ tree in the spring.
Sometimes the flowers dangle from the tree, however, and the seedpods certainly do, giving the appearance of little people hanging from the branches if you have a macabre turn of mind. I think that you would have to squint very hard to find that idea plausible. It is also said that if you tell a lie under a Judas tree you will drop dead, which makes a change, as regular readers will know, from dropping dead if you bring the flowers into the house. Yet another source mentions that the tree is a favourite haunt of witches, and that it is dangerous to go near it at night. The tree bears such a lot of negative connotations that it’s no wonder that the one that I saw is bowed over.
Other scholars, however, say that the name ‘Judas tree’ is a corruption of the French name for the plant, Arbre de Judée, meaning ‘Tree of Judea’, an area where the tree is commonly found, so all of the Judas myths might be founded on a misapprehension.The flowers are pollinated by bees, but yet another folktale tells that the nectar is poisonous, and kills whoever feeds on the flowers. Not so, but handy as a cautionary tale to beware of temptation. In fact, the flowers are edible and are often pickled or thrown into a salad to add a touch of colour. The young leaves can also be eaten in salads.
In North America, the blossom of the closely related redbud trees (Cercis canadensis in the east of the continent, Cercis occidentalis in the west) is often used in the same way, and in fact the redbud is another London street tree, in particular the Forest Pansy variety, with its orange, red and purple foliage. It would be surprising if a city as diverse as London didn’t reflect this in its trees, and a walk around the City can often feel as interesting as a trip to a botanical garden.
Now, in the search for references to the Judas tree, I came across the sculptor Michael Winstone. Without understanding for a second exactly what he does, I found his work interesting, with an erotic tinge. What I do know is that each sculpture is based on a computer-scan of the bark of a particular tree, in this case a Judas tree (actually an Eastern redbud, but we’ll let him off). The computer then ‘grows’ this pattern organically, to make a form that is part tree, part human body. Sometimes, the tree itself will have disappeared, but its uniqueness is preserved in digital form. The title of each sculpture gives its exact original geographical location, in this case Forest Row, which appears to be midway between Crawley and Royal Tunbridge Wells.
The city of Istanbul is especially rich in Judas trees (known there as erguvan), and their blossoming heralds the beginning of spring. The purple-pink colour of the buds is reminiscent of the royal purple of the Byzantine emperors, and during Ottoman times the buds were gathered for food and the wood turned into walking sticks. Today, the trees are becoming a major tourist attraction, much like the cherry blossom in Tokyo.
And now, a poem. There is a lot of poetry about the tree’s association with Judas, but I wanted to commemorate the tree’s origins in the Middle East, where it is best loved and understood. This work is by the much-loved Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, and was written to commemorate his friend Vartan, an Armenian Iranian who was arrested by the Iranian secret police (SAVAK) because of his affiliation to the illegal Communist party. He was tortured in order to get him to reveal the names of his comrades, and the location of a printing press, but remained silent, and died as a result of his injuries. Shamlou had to replace the name ‘Vartan’ with ‘Nazli’ because of censorship concerns until after the Iranian revolution of 1979. As with much poetry written under authoritarian regimes, there is a lot of symbolism here, especially with regard to the coming of spring and the end of winter, but I think it also works on its own merit. See what you think.
Under the window in our house, the old lilac has blossomed.
Dispel all your doubts!
Don’t wrestle with the ominous Death!
Being is better than not being, especially in spring …”
Vartan didn’t say a word:
He suppressed his anger and then went away …
– “Vartan, say something!
The bird of silence
is waiting for the offspring of a horrible death
to hatch its egg!”
Vartan didn’t say a word:
Just as the sun,
he rose in the dark,
set in the twilight of blood,
and then went away …
Vartan didn’t say a word.
Vartan was a glowing star,
momentarily glistened in the dark,
and then vanished for good and all.
Vartan didn’t say a word.
Vartan was a violet:
He came into blossom
and gave us the good news,
“Winter has fallen apart.”
and then went away.
– “Vartan, spring has arrived and the Judas tree is in flower”.
Photo One by By Rangermike at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7957214
Photo Two by Bouba at French Wikipedia – photo by Bouba, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1658073
Photo Three by By Kurt Stüber  – caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of http://www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8033
Photo Four by Sballal [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Photo Five by Omi4DSculpture: Michael Winstone – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47448719
Photo Six from https://www.theguideistanbul.com/judas-trees/
Photo Seven by Schezar from New York City, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
I had never heard of a Judas Tree before and so this was uttery fascinating. Thank you! Those blossoms bursting from the bark are stunning, and the sculpture! Isn’t it interesting how so many trees have become associated with Judas hanging himself and that they mostly seem to be quite small, and so entirely inappropriate for such an exploit. I had heard that the tree was an Elder, which seems to come from the facts that ‘Judas Ear’ fungi grows mostly on Elder bark. Thank you for this thought-provoking sharing. I’m enjoying reading about the trees.
Thanks Jacqueline, yes it did strike me that the Judas tree was way too low for anyone to hang themselves from….and also that the whole story might have come about because someone misheard the word ‘Judea’. Hey ho. In Turkey it is a sign of approaching spring, which seems a little more joyous.
Cercis canadensis is the state tree of Oklahoma. Of course, it is very different from the Judas tree. Our western Cercis occidentalis is even more different. Ours lives only a few years, which is not a problem if allowed to replace itself with seedlings like it does naturally. The problem is that so-called ‘gardeners’ pull up the seedlings, so that when the original dies, there is nothing to replace it. Anyway, I still do not know if Judas tree was ever imported here. Those that are identified as such seem to be Cercis canadensis. I can not confirm their identity. I have seen only one that looks like the real thing. It was very old. I know nothing of the history, and the garden it lived in is long gone. The site was redeveloped, and it was in the landscape of a newer home.
Whats killing my judus tree
Hi David, I’m not a plant pest expert, but have a look at the RHS page below – it mentions that there are two diseases which might cause problems if you go down to the diseases section. Hope that you save your tree!