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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Lowly Locust

Black Locust Tree on Blue Ridge Parkway, image by L. Shelor

Throughout the mountains there is a small tree that grows along the edges of fields, sometimes out in the open, in the woods and along the streams. It attracts little attention, except in the spring, when it puts forth lacy white blooms. Often these blooms are modest; green tinged and lost in the rich greens and silvers of spring's sudden new growth. But sometimes the trees are covered with lacy white blossoms, and a sweet scent hangs over the mountains, from the bloom of the locust tree.

Some years the locust bloom rivals the dogwood and serviceberry in abundance. The unsung beauty of the locust bloom supplies nectar for honeybees and hummingbirds. There are several varieties of locust in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis) has large thorns and lacy foliage. Named for the sweetness of their foot long seed pods, the honey locust is a short-lived tree that grows quickly, reaching heights of 66 to 100 feet. Native Americans used the sweet pulp of this legume as a food, and it can be made into beer. Wealthy English landowners commissioned colonial plant hunters to find exotic species for their estates, and the honey locust was a favorite find. The long, hard thorns were used by early settlers as nails, and the wood from this tree is of high quality, durable and will polish well, although the tree is not common enough to sustain a large timber industry.

The clammy locust, discovered in South Carolina in 1776 by botantist William Bertram, also grows in some parts of the Blue Ridge. A small tree or shrub, the clammy locust can be recognized by a sticky or clammy secretion of the gland hairs. It also often has thorns, and showy pink flowers.

Black Locust Bloom, image by L. Shelor

The variety of locust in the middle part of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). A common tree in this part of the country, growing from seed and often sending up new sprouts from roots and stumps, the locust grows to 80 feet and is relatively short-lived, rarely making it to 100 years. It has compound leaves, with paired leaflets that are rounded and also has short thorns on the twigs near the leaves. Seed pods in the fall provide food for deer, squirrels and other animals. The seeds are toxic and children have reportedly been poisoned by chewing on the leaves or bark.

The black locust is considered invasive by some people, and it will send up hundreds of spreading shoots after being cut down. But it was a valuable tree to the early settlers. Locust wood provided wood heat for mountain cabins, and has long been the preferred wood for fence posts, especially since the loss of the American chestnut. A durable wood, it has been used for everything from mining timbers to railroad ties commercially, and provided the settlers of the Blue Ridge Mountains with lumber for wheels, wagon bottoms and gates, and was probably used anywhere that required a strong wood that would resist rot and decay. Although black locust has an attractive straight grain, it is far more valued as a utilitarian wood rather than as a decorative one. It has a greenish-yellow tint when first cut but deepens into a golden color.

Black locust in the Blue Ridge mountains is often infected with the locust borer. Depending on conditions, trees are either stunted or killed, and often large stands of locust will show signs of the infection, especially during drought and heat. The browned leaves of the locust attacked by the borer stand out in late summer against the green of other trees across the mountains.

Valued by some and regarded as a nuisance by others, attacked by pest and axe, the locust tree survives and often thrives under conditions that would discourage many dainty cultivars. Like the early settlers that used the wood, the locust tree is a symbol of tenacity under adversity.


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