Each spring, we have a wealth of wildflowers to enjoy along roadsides, in fields, and in meadows. Some call them ‘nature’s smiles.’ The redbud never fails to astonish us with its vibrant splendor. Along with its beauty, the redbud tree takes the prize for Indigenous peoples’ basketry plants. This tree is enjoyed each spring season as it stands out with striking magenta blooms amongst spring’s greenery. The western, or California redbud, or Cercis orbiculata is in the legume family and reaches a height of about 20 feet where it grows in pine forests, riparian and oak woodlands, and in poor soils. Since it is a drought-tolerant plant, it is well adapted for California. The redbud has been, and still is, a key plant for Indigenous culture for centuries. It has been utilized by dozens of Native groups, or tribes as a plant of significance in basket weaving. Tribal elders speak of redbud’s use over its lifespan when the trees are maintained, cared for, and pruned regularly in order that they produce long, fresh sprouts for switches in basket making. This practice also assures that the plants grow and thrive with fewer scars.
When the plants are harvested in the fall or winter to be used for creating unique patterns in the baskets, the switches were split, then coiled and set aside in a safe, dry area to cure for up to a year. Then, the coils needed to be soaked for a few hours before they were ready for weaving. Some basket weavers like to keep the dark peel of the redbud intact to integrate designs into their baskets. Baskets had uses in many areas of daily life: as cradles, fish traps, storage, gathering, cooking, ceremonial events, and more. Redbud plants harvested in the spring or summer months could be separated into lengths for sewing twine when the bark was removed.
Scholars have found that the redbud plant played a large part in the lives of people who lived in the Sierra Nevada mountains. When storms brought lightning fires there, the redbud was found to be hardy as it regenerated and adapted to the woodland ecosystems. Archaeologists who have studied the Sierra Miwok Indian sites believe that human activity there has aided the plant’s prolific presence there. Since the trees were pruned and maintained, the wine-colored switches were readily available for basketry use throughout time there. Elders have given accounts that describe just how well the plants were coppiced, or cut back, in order to establish the plant’s growth for future use. The new sprouts grew in lengthier as well as straighter, and were less scarred, making them ideal for basket making.
The prized plant was used for both structure and foundation in basketry, and today elders in various tribes are keeping the art of basket weaving alive by giving classes and teaching their children and grandchildren the important skills needed in basket making. The Middletown Art Center has been featuring talks and classes by tribal members from Lake and Mendocino Counties recently. Also, it’s always a treat to visit our local museums to view, first-hand, the strong, functional hand-made baskets of the past, some of which were woven so expertly that they can hold water.