A collection of essays on flowers in the work of Virginia Woolf: fiction, essays, and life-writing.
[If the black background and difficulty with colors of endnotes and links bother you, you can copy-all into Word and you should have a readable black-on-white version.]
Although folklore designates a
variety of different trees as being the one in which Judas hanged himself in
shame and regret -- Folkard lists the fig tree, the tamarisk and the trembling
aspen (206) -- the name most commonly refers to Cercis siliquastrum, a kind of redbud native to the Mediterranean
(Hogan 360).This flowering ornamental
has bright pea-shaped blossoms of a vivid “rosy purple” which bloom in early
spring on the bare branches and trunk before the heart-shaped leaves appear
(Hogan 360). In late summer the tree becomes festooned with long purple seedpods.Both Watts and the article on Wikipedia
assert that the proper derivation of the name is from the French Arbre de Judée or
Judea tree, due to its origins in the hills of Judea (Watts 25).
Woolf only mentions the Judas tree
five times: once in a letter to her sister, twice in Orlando, once in Flush,
and once in a short sketch about Vernon Lee.None of these references seem particularly freighted with meaning; Woolf
does seem to have a clear sense of the tree’s native habitat, and, as is her
typical wont, avoids any of the over-determined Christian implications
as well as the associated Victorian significance
of “Unbelief. Betrayal” (Greenaway24).
decided to include it in the herbarium primarily because I had no idea what it
was and suspected many other readers would be at a similar loss.
Woolf’s first recorded encounter
with the flowering tree appears to have been in Rome on April 21, 1927, when
she wrote to Vanessa about a perfect day in the gardens: “all the flowers are
just out, there are great bushes of azalea set in the paths; Judas trees,
cypresses, lawns, statues, among which go wandering the Italian nurses in their
primrose and pink silks with their veils and laces” (L3 365). Metaphorically merging the
flowers and the nurses, Woolf is unable to concentrate on reading Proust and
finds herself “undulating like a fish in and out of leaves and flowers” in what
seems to have been one of her semi-ecstatic moments of being.
The next encounter with the Judas
tree is in Istanbul, another Mediterranean capitol, but this time the tree provides a comic setting. Settled into Constantinople as Ambassador, Orlando celebrates
receiving their Dukedom with a lavish public festival including a fireworks
display observed by a British naval officer, one John Fenner Brigge, who climbs
into a Judas tree to escape the crowds and see the pyrotechnics (O 93). Even
though he is worried about defending the honor of the “English ladies” in the
crowd below, he becomes so fascinated by the discreditable behavior of a lady he sights in the palace
that he leans out too far, a branch of the tree breaks, and he falls to the
ground, suffering no permanent ill-effects despite the fact that, according to
Watts, there was a superstition that “it would be death to fall from a Judas
Tree” (O 94; Watts 215).Judas trees are apparently quite common in Istanbul. Wikipedia notes that a
British journalist, Francis
McCullagh “reported seeing"innumerable" flowering specimens of this
tree in Yildiz Park in Istanbul in April 1909, just three years after Woolf's first visit there.
A few years later, Judas trees return to Italy in Flush, where they are part of a general
spring inflorescence that signals a period of freedom and autonomy:“Flush was independent now. The wistarias and
the laburnum were flowering over walls; the Judas trees were burning bright in
the gardens; the wild tulips were sprinkled in the fields” (118).When the bright spring trees appear for the
last time, again in Italy, they grace the Florentine villa of the empathetic
art critic Vernon Lee. In the short sketch “Portrait 7,” probably written in
1937 (CSF 307), Woolf creates a character with a spiritual love of beauty that
makes her feel displaced in England: “I knew Vernon Lee. She had a villa. We
had a villa. One of those villas hung with wistaria—something like our lilac,
but better—and Judas trees. Oh why does one live in Kensington? (CSF 245)Once again the Judas tree is associated with
vernal moments of exquisite beauty.