A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Our Harvest: Black Locust

The black locust tree is one of North America’s treasures. Native to the southeast, few trees can rival it for its usefulness yet in modern decades it appears to have fallen into obscurity. Our colonial predecessors grew black locust trees for both ornamental and utilitarian purposes. At one time the United States government distributed the trees across the nation. Native Americans purposely spread seeds of the tree because of the superior qualities of the wood. 

Why was this tree so important? First of all, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) will grow in poor soil and actually improve the soil. Black locust is a member of the pea family and is a nitrogen fixer. This means it takes nitrogen from the atmosphere and puts it back into the soil through its roots where surrounding plants can use it. Ideally they should be planted on the edge of crop fields as a means of fertilizing naturally. The tree is also excellent for erosion control. Its roots spread out to hold the soil from washing away.

Black locust trees are natural lightning rods. Because of the amount of water the trees hold, they draw lightning to them, yet survive being struck. Many old homes and barns can be seen with locust trees planted around them. There are many examples of these old beauties growing in front of stone homes from the 18th and 19th century. You can see thick trees with the deeply grooved bark often planted as close as 20 feet from the structure. The leaflets on the tree have a pinnately compound structure. They are small and rounded like that of a pea plant and have a habit of folding together when in wet weather and at night. They have short prickles at the base of each leaf with some of the sharp prickles found on the branches of young saplings. The fruit is classified as a legume and forms pods three to four inches in length which ripen in the fall. Come spring, the seeds that are not eaten by squirrels or birds drop to the ground and quickly germinate. Black locust trees are considered an invasive species in many areas. Similar to a Hydra, if you chop off a locust tree at ground level, there is a good chance it will send up lots of saplings. Regular mowing keeps this growth in control.

The showy, white pea flowers bloom in May and provide much needed nectar to emerging honey bees. The blooms fill the air with a heady, orange blossom smell attracting all manor of pollinators. The sweet, almost clear honey is very popular with consumers and the edible flowers add a delicious floral, sweet pea addition to many dishes. But beware! Everything else on this tree is poisonous including the leaves and seed pods. The flowers come and go very quickly so the window to gather is only about one week in late Spring.

Black locust trees grow straight, tall, and thick. They grow faster than many softwoods, yet the lumbar is super hard and very durable. The wood is used for fence posts, rails, beams, and corner posts of houses and barns. It is the most durable wood for ground contact and is used in erosion prone slopes and mine shafts. There is an old saying, “When you set a black locust fence post, set a rock on top. When the rock rots, it’s time to change the post.” Native Americans used its wood for making bows because it is strong and flexible.

One cord of seasoned black locust has the same British thermal unit as a ton of anthracite coal. It makes terrific firewood and because of its rapid growth, it is a true renewable resource. When burned, it produces a lot of heat, nice coals, and very little ash.

And finally, black locust trees helped the United States win the war of 1812. The battle was fought on Lake Champlain between the British Navy and the US. The British ships were defeated because they were built with oak nails, which could not withstand being struck by cannon balls. The US Navy ships were built stronger with black locust nails. 

From fast growing, nitrogen fixing, to prolific blooms, and outstanding firewood, black locust  can’t be beat. This amazing tree needs to be grown with full intention and attention. The dropped pods must be raked up and disposed of, and any volunteer seedlings mowed over or dug up. At one time this unique tree was as common as a sugar maple. Pay attention when passing by old homesteads, you will see these old friends proudly standing at attention often with missing limbs and burnt out centers. They are living history of colonial times in the Hudson Valley. 

Recipes

Blossom Fritters

1 Cup black locust blossoms with all the stems removed

1 Egg

1 Egg white only

2 Tbsp. flour

Pinch of salt

3 Tbsp. olive oil

In a medium bowl, beat the egg and egg white together until they are well blended and frothy. Add locust blossoms to the eggs and toss gently to coat each blossom evenly. Sift the flour and salt into the egg mixture and stir gently until well combined. 

In a large frying pan, on medium high heat, add the olive oil. When hot, add the batter in one tablespoon amounts, being sure to stir after each spoonful to keep the fritters from sticking to the pan. When golden brown, remove fritters to a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the extra oil.

These can be sprinkled with powdered sugar and eaten like a sweet, or with black pepper and enjoyed savory.

Serve immediately.

Black Locust Blossom Vodka

2 Cups fresh black locust blossoms

8 to 10 Ounces of vodka (the brand does not matter, just plain vodka)

1 Pint jar and lid

Stuff blossoms into the clean pint jar. Pour vodka over top making sure to completely cover all the blossoms, cover tightly and place in a cool, dark location.

After one week, taste your floral vodka and if it is to your liking, strain into a separate jar, but don’t throw those blossoms away!* If you want it stronger, you can let it sit up to one month. If that’s the case, do not keep the blossoms after straining. 

In a cocktail glass, add a few cubes of ice, a healthy shot of the flavored vodka, top off with seltzer water and a few frozen blueberries or raspberries. Enjoy!

*The vodka soaked blossoms can be pureed with a few tablespoons of sugar and added to plain seltzer or drizzled over ice cream. They retain the floral essence along with the vodka.

Rhinoceros Salad

This is a foraged salad named by my daughter who loved picking greens and wild edibles with me in the spring. There are no measurements since you never know how much of any ingredient you will find.

Choosing the smallest, most tender leaves, collect in a colander in order to give the bugs a chance to escape.

Garlic mustard leaves, black locust blossoms, dandelion leaves, wild sorrel leaves, violet blossoms and leaves, wild onion grass, lambs quarters, chickweed, and plantain. For a more significant salad, you can also add home grown lettuce or spinach. 

Wash and dry your foraged treasures using a salad spinner. Toss into a deep salad bowl and lightly drizzle olive oil and fresh lemon juice over the top. Salt and pepper to taste. 

Enjoy.