Love for a Legume
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
Certain trees have quite visible value such as the towering redwood or picturesque live oak. Some trees prove their value in food production for wildlife such as the white oak or pawpaw. Many trees are valued for their precious wood qualities such as mahogany or black walnut. Every once in a while you run into the tree that encompasses a wide variety of qualities. The Swiss army knife of trees at Wintergreen is the black locust.
This nondescript tree is a member of the pea family that fills the important niche of a pioneer species. This short lived woody plant grows primarily in full sun environments but is widely adaptive to a variety of elevations, microclimates or soils. Black locust has a shallow aggressive root system that leads to the tree being seen as a noxious invader of desired vegetation. They flower from late April to early June and produce a legume type seed pod 2-4 inches long filled with seeds. They are a short lived species that rarely lives longer than 80-90 years.
The beauty of black locust is often lost in facts as well as its relatively plain appearance. Let me start with the historical view of this tree. Our colonial predecessors considered it among the most significant tree in the landscape. Botanists believe it was one of the few examples of a tree exported by Native Americans from the mountains to the coastal plain. According to William Starchey, the first arriving colonists found it planted by the native dwellings in the coastal plain of Virginia. It was used primarily to form their bows due to its fascinating toughness. The tree exhibits remarkable resistance to rot and was thus foundational to the building of Jamestown as well as having been used for fence posts and in garden beds. Black locust has also been a mainstay for wood heat in the home due to its very high BTU value. It has also been called “the tree that won a war” in reference to its role in helping the United States win the War of 1812. The British ships were fastened together by oak nails. The American ships used locust nails. When introduced to cannonball attack, British ships came apart while the American fleet held together.
Black locust is a very valuable tree to the environment. Being in the pea family means it takes nitrogen out of the air and deposits it into the soil for other plants such as grains and trees. The leaves have tremendous nutritional value to wildlife and the flower is an important source of food for honeybees. These flowers are also a tasty treat for humans. Head to your favorite search engine and type in “black locust blossom fritters” and you will not regret the small effort for a lovely treat. It also fills the pioneer niche well. Old abandoned fields are often bastions of invasive plants. Black locust is key to transition these fields to forest natively.
The tree also acts as a bit of living history. Due to its short lifespan and need for extensive amounts of sunlight to germinate and grow, when you are walking through the woods and see a black locust amongst the towering oaks and poplars, you know the forest looked very different 80-90 years prior. As you walk through trails such as the Old Appalachian Trail or Upper Shamokin Falls you can find patches of black locust throughout the canopy. This is a good “signpost” in the woods of what happened in the Wintergreen landscape in the 1920s and 30s. The chestnut blight had reached Virginia by 1914. The chestnut Wintergreen forests began dying and logging commenced to extract the valuable timber. Large gaps in the forest were created enabling the establishment of the black locust we still see lingering in our forest.
Every plant in our ecosystem has a niche to fill but few are more dynamic in their role than black locust. Whether providing for the honey bee or helping America win a war, the black locust proves to be an invaluable part of our landscape. Be sure to make note of this indispensable tree the next time you are out hiking.