I started seeing small trees with little pink/purple blossoms appearing in early March.
Just recently, the leaves of these trees have unfurled.
The leaves remind me of the Katsura tree (one of my all-time favorite because of the way it smells in fall – like caramel), but I don’t remember the Katsura tree flowering like this in the spring…. so what are these trees?
They are of the genus Cercis, also known by the names Redbud, as in Eastern Redbud or Western Redbud (among others). Another name they have is the Judas tree.
I was on the right track when I thought they looked like the Katsura tree. Although they are unrelated, the botanical name for Katsura is Cercidiphyllum japonicum – Cercidiphyllum – as in of the Cercis (Redbud) tree.
The specific genus of Cercis I see around Palo Alto and Stanford is probably Cercis occidentalis, or Western Redbud. This tree is hardy in zones 7-9. These trees can be grown as small single-trunk trees, but I see it more commonly as a multitrunk shrub-like tree. They are on the shorter side of trees, only growing 10-20 feet tall at maturity. The name Judas tree comes about become Judas Iscariot supposedly hung himself from one of these trees after betraying Christ. Based on the size of these trees and the caliber of their branches, I find it hard to believe that someone would be able to hang oneself from them. Perhaps there is another species of Cercis that is stronger and more amenable to hangings?
The flowers are edible and their taste is described as “slightly sour.” They are high in vitamin C. Additionally, the seed pods are also edible and can be pickled and used as a caper substitute.