Valentines in bloom: an 18th century Swedish botanist, a 19th century minister and a “trip” to Istanbul, Palestine and Israel.

Cercis siliquastrum

On today’s walk, I photographed this beautiful tree. With its eye on the North East Wing of the mansion, this is a cercis siliquastrum, otherwise known in English as a Judas Tree, donated in 2010 to the Valentines Park by the Rotary Club.

And it’s in bloom at the moment!

Dedication Plaque for the Rotary Club 2010

This spurred me on to a bit of research, which I’d like to share. Diana Smith

This is a deciduous tree of the Mediterranean Maquis, that blooms before the leaves sprout. It has deep pink flowers which are edible (though we DON’T have permission to pick them!) and purportedly have a sweet-acid taste.

Another striking feature of this tree is its pods.  After pollination the ovary elongates and turns into a legumen. This is green and gradually changes to brown upon ripening, 7-15 cm long. It does not open and remains on the tree for a long time. Only strong winds cause the pods to fall from the tree. The numerous seeds they contain are approximately 3 mm long. They are flat, rounded and brown. When the legumens split open, the seeds disperse and germinate with great ease.

The Judas Tree and the Mulberry Tree

Carl Linnaeus

Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician, Carl Linnaeus, (1707-1778) known as the “father of modern taxonomy” or “Princeps botanicorum” (Prince of Botanists) amongst other names, was responsible for formalising the modern system of naming organisms. Born in southern Sweden, after becoming professor of medicine and botany at Uppsala University, he travelled widely to find and classify plants, animals and minerals, publishing several volumes and becoming one of the most acclaimed scientists in Europe.

The Judas Tree was first described by Linnaeus in 1753 and he gave it the specific epithet of siliquastrum which is derived from the Latin word siliqua, meaning “pod”. The generic name comes from the Greek kerkis, a “shuttle”, which refers to the resemblance shown to this weaver’s tool by the flat, woody seedpods.

Why is it called a Judas tree? 

It is most commonly known in English as the Judas tree because it is believed Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples who took a bribe of 30 pieces of silver to betray his master, hanged himself from the tree. According to the story, until he did so the flowers had been white, but since the hanging the tree became ashamed and the flowers blushed a deep pink.  Another possible source for the vernacular name is the fact that the flowers and seedpods can dangle direct from the trunk in a way reminiscent of Judas’s possible method of suicide. 

Theodore Ledyard Cuyler (1822 – 1909) was a Presbyterian minister and religious writer in the United States, he perpetuated the myth of the association of this tree with death when he gave a sermon about the deadly effects of succumbing to temptation. He used the analogy of a Judas tree, stating falsely that the tree killed bees drawn to it to perform the act of pollination, claiming that every bee which alighted upon the flaming beauty of the blossom, “imbibes a fatal opiate, and drops dead from among the crimson flowers to the earth.”

Tree of Judea

The name “Judas tree”  in English is most probably though simply a corrupted derivation from the French common name, Arbre de Judée, meaning tree of Judea, referring to the hilly regions of that land where the tree is and used to be common.  

Israel and Palestine

The seeds easily propagate and take root, which is most likely the reason why in this area of the world the tree often seems to grow next to the road, perhaps in earth that has been disturbed by roadworks.

Healing properties?

Here the tree is used in traditional medicine and there has been a recent study at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine into the potential of using it to create a drug to treat breast cancer. The data of the study revealed the tree’s significant “antimicrobial and antioxidant effects that contributed significantly to the cytotoxicity of cancer cells meriting further detailed studies.”

The Arabic name is zamziriq ‘uthibiun, زمزريق أثيبي and in Hebrew, the Judas tree is called: חליל החורש כליל החורש, Clil Hahoresh, which means something like “lightness of the forest”. Lightness as in the opposite of heavy, which would seem a beautiful name worthy of the tree’s wonderful bright colour and possible healing properties.

Early 20th century “blogger” Francis McCullagh

As long ago as April 1909, at the time ownership of Valentines Mansion was only just about to transfer to the people of Ilford, British war correspondent, journalist and author Francis McCullagh (1874-1956) was in Istanbul writing about the fall of Abdul Hamid.

He reported seeing “innumerable” Judas trees in Yildiz Park, Istanbul.

More can be read about this N. Irish-born Catholic writer at https://whitesmokeahoy.blogspot.com/2015/09/francis-mccullagh-catholic-journalist.html

The Turks know the tree as erguvan, redbud or love tree. And if we travel to Turkey today to Yildiz Park in Istanbul via the wonders of the internet, we will still be able to see a veritable bloom of amethyst magic.

https://www.theguideistanbul.com/judas-trees/

We will post pictures of the tree again as its pods develop.

30 May 2020. A month later and here they are!

26 July 2020 update

FACT: The name Cercis comes from the Greek kerkis “shuttle” because of the seed pods resemblance to a weavers tool; siliquatstrum comes from Latin siliqua “pod”.

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