Black Locust

© 2003 Forager's Harvest

It is that time between spring and summer, when the lawn is growing so fast that you can't believe that it was cut only last week. Lamb's quarters is sprouting in the garden where there was nothing but dirt just days ago. The forest has gone from the sunlit joy of spring to the shadowy gloom of summer. The beaches are crowded with laughing children, the parks with cheeping ducklings. The days are again pleasant enough that you can rest your forearm on the sill of your open window as you drive leisurely down the backroads. And as you do . . . there is that smell.

It doesn't creep into your window like that of apple blossoms, or rise with heat waves under the relentless sun like that of pine and sweet fern; it hits you with a burst and fills your passages like an olfactory flood. How does one describe such airborne ambrosia? The human tongue has proven no match for our nose when it comes to articulating the nuances of Nature's perfumes. But if there were a superlative for scents, this one deserves it. When you're sure that you have caught a whiff of The Flower of all Flowers, the Queen of Blossoming Sweetness, pull over. Chances are that you are on the trail of a blossoming black locust.

You'll know when you've found her. Drooping clusters of white blossoms will adorn her every twig, from her crown to the lowest limb, putting the most lavishly overdone Christmas tree to shame. At any other time of year the black locust is little more than a misshapen weed tree to most who see it, but when she shows the world her colors for a week and a half each year in early summer, few can fail to appreciate her efforts. And some of us have learned how to deepen that appreciation even further - by partaking of the black locust's ephemeral gift with not only our eyes and noses, but also our watering mouths.

I'm not kidding. Black locust flowers are actually that good. In fact, I'd call them perfect. They're beautiful and heavenly smelling, besides delicious. What more could one ask for? Well, they have that too; they come in large clusters, and there are lots of them. I'd guess that an average full-sized tree produces a few hundred pounds of flowers. Black locust is most certainly a tree worth learning.

Robinia pseudoacacia, as this tree is known to botanists, actually has a rather limited native range, mostly in the Ozark and the central and southern Appalachian regions. However, it has been planted widely outside of this area and has reproduced successfully. It is now one of the most widespread trees in the world. It is common on roadsides, in old fields, and in urban areas and disturbed forests over most of the eastern half of North America, and at scattered sites in the West. In the Midwest it is so abundant that most people who are familiar with the tree in that region assume that it is native.

Johnny Blacklocustseed has yet to receive the hero's recognition that has glorified his brethren the pomologist, but perhaps only due to stifled international communication. We have evidence that this Johnny kept himself a little busier, for his pet tree, the black locust, has spread around the world in only a fraction of the time that it took the apple to do so. John Robin, along with his wife Vespasian, brought the tree to Europe in the 1500's and cultivated it, and the Latin name of the tree's genus was given in his honor. Black locust has become a major timber tree in Hungary and other parts of Europe, where the wood is generally of superior quality to that grown in North America due to the absence of the locust stem borer, which ravages most domestic stands. In Hungary the copious flowers are extremely important for honey production. In Bulgaria, India, Nepal, and Korea, where the tree is naturalized, its high-protein leaves are fed to livestock and its wood is important as fuel.

The primary use of black locust wood in North America has been for fenceposts, as its wood is exceptionally resistant to rot. It was probably for this purpose that the tree was brought to farmsteads across the continent and planted. The wood is among the heaviest and hardest in North America, yet it grows exceptionally fast - even in poor soil - making it a superb candidate for firewood plantings.

Black locust has also been grown as a hay crop, the young shoots being mowed at ground level with conventional haying equipment. Put to this use, black locust is similar to alfalfa, consisting of 23% - 24% protein. Since it is a nitrogen-fixing legume and is easily propagated, black locust has been used for erosion control and rehabilitation of degraded sites as well.

A medium-sized tree, Robinia pseudoacacia rarely exceeds twenty inches in diameter or eighty feet in height. The trees are typically found in dense clones and the trunks tend to be crooked. At a glance, the naked trunks in winter resemble sassafras, and both speciesare most common in open, dry sites with poor sandy or gravelly soil. Black locust, however, has thinner twigs and branches. Upon close inspection, small thorns (far more prevalent on saplings) can be seen near the ends of the twigs. Black locust bark is thick, furrowed, corky, and brown. The leaves are alternate and pinnately compound, 8 - 14 inches long, with numerous smooth-margined, delicate, oval leaflets about 1 inches long.

The genus Robinia contains several other tree species in North America. Among these, the New Mexican locust is reported to have edible flowers like those of black locust (Brill, 1994). This tree grows along mountain streams in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, southern Nevada, western Texas, and Mexico. I could find no specific references to the edibility of clammy locust R. viscosa, found in the Appalachians, or Kelsey locust R. kelseyi, confined to the Smoky Mountain Region, but Brill states that "there are no similar trees in North America with poisonous flowers." Blanche Derby tells of eating the rosy-colored blossoms of bristly locust R. hispida, so I suspect that the flowers of this genus are probably safe.

Black locust flowers are borne in loose, hanging clusters of more than a dozen individual blossoms. Clusters may be up to eight inches long. The flowers are pea-like and creamy with a yellow spot on the upper petal. This yellow spot is important, for it indicates whether or not the flowers are good for eating. If this spot is bright yellow, the flowers are good to eat; if it is dull or faded, they are too old.

These delicious flowers are available for only a brief period in the early part of each summer - little more than a week. Pick them as soon as you see them, for if you wait at all you'll probably have to wait until next year. You want to catch them either before they've fully opened, or within a couple of days after they've done so. After that they will lose both their fragrance and their flavor. The blossoms that you should seek are succulent and healthy in appearance; slight wrinkles or dried and shriveled edges indicate flowers that have passed their prime. I am telling you these things because some people have tasted over-ripe black locust flowers and given up on this delicacy before giving it a fair shot. If the petals have reddish freckles, dried edges, or are littering the ground beneath the tree they will be bitter and unpleasant. In this case you will have to wait until next year unless you can find a tree that isn't so far along.

So, what do you do with an edible flower? That's a good question, since there really are no flowers of wide culinary use in our traditional cuisine. (And if there were, it is doubtful that they would taste like locust flowers anyways.) Black locust blossoms taste something like sweet peas with a hint of vanilla, and their wonderful aroma and subtle flavor lend themselves magnificently in a variety of dishes. Last year I made fettucine alfredo with a heap of locust flowers cooked into the cream sauce, and it was out of this world. I used the blossoms in chicken soup and, while they certainly did not detract from it, little of their essence was detectable when it was served. I don't consider that a waste, however; during the short-lived season for locust flowers they are so abundant and so delightful that I eat them in every reasonable fashion that comes to mind. They are swell in salads: green salad, fruit salad, and potato salad. These golden blossoms will go well on a grilled chicken sandwich or in a stir-fry. My favorite way to eat them, however, is straight from the tree. I just grab a cluster, shake it to make sure it is free of ants and bees, and then stuff it in my mouth.

For those taditionalists among us, there are of course the good ol' fritters, which you can make out of just about anything. After making, eating, and enjoying five batches of black locust flower fritters last summer, I thought to myself, "Didn't I quit eating doughnuts because I didn't think they were good for me?" So I quit eating locust flower fritters, too, since they are mostly flour, oil, and sugar. But if you are looking for an excuse to indulge in homemade junk food, black locust is a good one. On the other hand, Steve Brill has a recipe for locust flower ice cream, which deviates about as far from junk food as ice cream can get.

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