#55 Judas Tree

Judas Tree


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).[1]

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). I 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.

See Works Cited for full documentation

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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...