It takes a rather persuasive tree to cause a gung-ho angler to detour off the near-imperceptible path between where he’s parked the truck and the stream’s finest bass hole. But a towering black locust — in full spectacular bloom, and filling the morning air with its honey-sweet perfume — stopped me in my tracks.
I was heading for my favorite stretch of the upper Stillwater, where I simply knew on this picture-perfect day the fishing gods intended for me to catch a passel of acrobatic smallmouth.
Then I got bushwhacked.
Or should that be treewhacked?
Waylaid, anyway — assailed, practically accosted by a sensational black locust in full show-stopping bloom. I stood transfixed, fishing monetarily forgotten — and gaped.
For most of the year, the black locust is an unobtrusive Buckeye citizen — just another big green daub comprising our woodsy landscapes. But for a few weeks in mid-spring, when transformed by cascades of showy white blossoms—each and every flower exuding a heady, lush fragrance that fills the surrounding air — there’s not a tree in the forest that can match it for sight or smell.
Mind you, we’re talking about here about black locust. Honey locust, while sharing a similar name, is part of another genus. Both trees, however, are members of the legume family—one of the largest families of flowering plants worldwide.
Trees of the legume family usually fruit via a pea-like or bean-like pod which contains a single or several seeds. Redbuds, Kentucky coffee trees, the rarely encountered yellowwood, honey locust and black locust are all legume species and sport these distinctive seedpods.
Black locust flowers are formed in loose, hanging clusters — racemes — which are astonishingly fragrant. Their unmistakable scent is often detectable from an incredible distance. I can’t begin to tell you the times I’ve been driving along a country road, windows down, when a sudden whiff of a locust in bloom a thousand yards away across an open field filled my senses! And I assure you, my olfactory capabilities no better than mediocre.
Which brings up another way you’ll occasionally discover a nearby locust… sound. No, I’m not kidding! Not the sound of talking trees — but of buzzing bees! An incalculable throng of honeybees, beguiled by the distinctive sweet bouquet, all humming in exhilarated ecstasy as they busily work the masses of snowy blooms.
You’d be amazed at the volume a gazillion enraptured bees can manage! And beekeepers will tell you one of the tastiest wild honeys around is that produced from the floral nectar of black locust.
But black locust isn’t attractive only to honeybees, hummingbirds will also sip at the flowers. Whitetail deer like browse the foliage. While quail and squirrels relish the seeds.
Black locust are now a common species here in Ohio. But historically, they were native only to the Appalachian and Ozark mountains. However, they were admired and wildly cultivated from early-on, so soon adapted and spread. Their naturalized offspring can now be found reproducing on their own throughout the East, South, and Midwest, and even in parts of the far West.
Black locust produces excellent timber — hard, heavy, exceptionally durable. Once avidly sought for ship building, it was used to make the wooden nails which pinned the hull’s planks to the keel and ribs. During the 19th century, a lot of American black locust got exported to England for just that purpose. Nowadays black locust wood is used mainly for railroad ties, craft items, and especially fence posts, where its reputation is legendary since even when set in wet ground, a locust post can last 50 or more years.
Black locust are fast growers. A trees can begins to flower around 6 years of age, although 10 to 12 years is more the norm. Mid-May is locust blooming time locally. Pods mature by early fall. A big black locust can reach 80 feet in height and four feet in diameter.
Black locust “sleep” at night. Like the imported mimosa—also a member of legume family—their leaves fold together like pages in a book or hands in prayer. A few oldtimers in the Southern Highlands still refer to black locust as “praying trees.”
Follow your eyes…follow your nose… follow your ears! Do whatever it takes to find your way to the nearest black locust in glorious full bloom.
This is one terrific triple treasure you absolutely owe it to yourself to locate and enjoy!
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org