Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Foraging: Identifying & Harvesting Black Locust




Identification difficulty: Beginner

When I got formally into "foraging" as an adult, and read about the black locust, it came as a pleasant surprise to learn that this tree and I were already well acquainted. As a very young child, our next-door neighbor had on of these at the side of his house, and I was fixated. I called it the "Tutti Fruity Tree", mainly because its autumn foliage was primarily shades of pink and coral, rather than the more typical red, gold and orange. I loved that tree from late spring (where I would shower myself in the fallen blossoms) through the fall, when it's unusual coloration captivated me. I had even "foraged" as a 5-year old for the fallen bean pods; that is to say, I gathered them up and made mud-pies. I had no idea that the flowers were edible, nor would my parents have allowed me to really eat them, even if I had wanted to.


The black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia, also called the false Acacia) is a somewhat ugly tree, 50 weeks out of the year. It has contorted grey bark, deeply contoured, and it doesn't always grow straight. The canopy is nice enough, but the strange leaves don't provide much shade. But in late-spring, when it blooms it fills the air with an enticing aroma; walking under it is like entering a dryad's cathedral, and the fallen petals cover the ground with white.


The blooms of the black locust tree are only available for a very short while (2 weeks or so), in late spring. In the Northeast, this happens somewhere between mid-May and mid-June, the exact times may vary depending on temperature. I never remember seeing them in CT (though they grow there), but of course I remember them from my early childhood in NY; and in NJ they seem to be everywhere--transforming a drive along rt. 80 west or the parkway into a fairyland.

All 15 of these small "leaflets"
together form one leaf.
Identification
Black locust trees are among the easiest to identify. They have dark grey, convoluted bark, with deep grooves and ridges. From a distance, the bark somewhat resembles that of a shagbark hickory, but up close it isn't actually pealing away. Both the leaves and the flowers look surprisingly exotic for a plant whose origins are in the Appalachian mountains.

The leaves are "oddly pinnately compound", which is to say each leaf is made up of multiple "leaflets" which grow opposite each other, except for the "odd" leaf, who sticks out at the top. Here is a great graphic for explaining compound leaves. If you look at the leaf image I posted to the left, I used to assume that each of those small leaves are the leaves--but in actuality all 15 of them together form the leaf. Each black locust leaf will have 11-21 leaflets.


The branches are slender and become bowed when the tree is blooming
The flowers are just so exotic looking
The flowers resemble pea flowers, but dangle in clusters, like grapes. Each is a creamy white color, with a pinkish base, and a small yellow area inside. The branches are slender, and seem almost incapable of supporting the flowers--they become bowed down with the weight, and whip about in the wind.

Black locust's original range was apparently rather limited, somewhere in the southern Appalachian and thge Ozark mountains, however it has spread to most of the eastern seaboard and throughout the mid-west.

Black locust bark
There are other locust trees, including the Bristly locust, with pink flowers, and the New Mexican locust, whose flowers are pink (but sometimes pale pink, seeming similar). Apparently those flowers are also edible, but I have never tried them. According to Thayer, Steve Brill says that "There are no similar trees in North America with poisonous flowers". Just to be on the safe side, you may want to sample pink flowers (which could belong to the clammy locus (edibility unknown) in small amounts.)

The honey locust (whose flowers look very different) apparently produces edible seed pods. I don't live in an area where they grow, so I cannot attest to this. The honey locust has thorns growing from the bark.

Harvesting & Use
For the black locust, the flowers are the edible portion. Thayer also says the seeds are edible, but I have seen conflicting evidence and haven't tried them. The seed pods are poisonous. The bark and leaves are listed as toxic, so make sure to weed out any leaves that get into your harvest. The flowers strip away easily, right into your bag. The entire flower portion is edible, with the pink base having the sweetest flavor. Once harvested, leave the bag open to allow the spiders you will invariably have captured to escape. Avoid harvesting blossoms from the lowest dangling branches, as they sometimes pick up grit when they blow against the ground.

Black locust flowers taste surprisingly like the sweetest of sweet spring peas, but with a floral element as well. The texture of the bases is somewhat crunchy, like celery, but without any stringiness. They are a great snack to nibble on (after you have inspected them for bugs), and they are wonderful in salads. Check out my black locust pinterest board for recipes from all over the internet.

Sustainablity
We don't usually use the word "invasive" for trees, but apparently black locust is considered to be an invasive weed in Australia. It certainly grows like a weed, seeming to prefer disturbed ground, around highways, rivers, and ponds. When you take a flower, you don't actually hurt a plant, you simply prevent that flower from becoming a seed, and potentially reproducing. Since most of the blossoms will be well out of your reach anyway, I wouldn't be concerned that you could over-harvest black locust blossoms.
Such superabundance, right out of reach

23 comments:

  1. Great post! I haven't seen a black locust that big before.... I have a small one in my garden :-)

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    1. Thank you so so much! I added your blog to my reading list, I have to catch up! You live in Italy?! I didn't even know black locust grew there!

      The trees we have here are huge, which is one of the problems of getting the flowers from them. The other is their fondness for growing by the highways. . .

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    2. Hi, I purchased an old farmhouse in New York State, USA, and the farmhouse is surrounded by black locust trees. Historically, the farm was used to raise Arabian horses. I am now in the process of converting it to an organic fruit and vegetable farm. I have researched the black locust tree and now know it is GREAT for earth-wood contact (and without any harmful chemicals)! So I want to propagate the trees (for the purpose of harvesting the wood).

      My question: There are about a zillion white flowers and each white flower has a small seed attached to it. Can I plant these?...or do I need to wait for the autumn pod and plant the seeds from the pod??

      Thanks! --David

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    3. Hi Dave! I have to be honest, my interest is more in foraging than planting--especially trees. However, Black locust sometimes sends up small shoots radiating from around the parent tree. It's one of the reasons the tree can become invasive. (This is sometimes called spreading by root suckers, and you can do a google search for more info)

      I imagine just not mowing those shoots down will give you young trees quicker than planting from seed. However, they will come up wherever they feel like, so you may have to wait till they are established and then try to transplant them--otherwise they might come up right in your organic farm!

      You could also look into propagation by cuttings. Locust trees are fast-growing, and very hardy. I really don't know much about cutting, but I imagine if any tree can be propagated that way--locusts can.

      Good luck! It sounds as if you have a very exciting plan for your property. I am sure it will be hard, but enviable. Are you going to make a blog or website?

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  2. Could you just bathe the flowers in water to get rid of bugs?

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    1. Oh yes! That's what I do to get rid of the tiny ants and beetles that get in there, but for some reason the spiders get very agitated when the plants are picked. Unlike the others they seem to know and star running around like crazy. If you don't let them out, either they will find their way out (on the car ride home--for example--ugh!) or they will all be lined up at the top of the bag when you get home--and that, for me, is a nightmare. I appreciate what spiders do, but they scare the crap out of me.

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    2. Wash in water with some vinegar, rines of a bit more bugs then just water.
      Lovely site! It took me a while to look up the word for 'acacia' in english, since in my language there aren't a lot of recipes :)

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    3. Hi Sarah! I like your blog, but of course I have to use a computer program to translate it! The Nettle risotto with hazelnuts and saffron sounds really good!

      I don't have a lot of recipes for the black locust / acacia yet on my site, but I have a lot of them gathered from other people's sites, here: http://www.pinterest.com/foragedfoodie/forage-black-locust/

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    4. Thanks 'Hen'!! I'm pretty fermiliar with elderly blossoms, I'll experiment with the same recipes ... Today I got my first black-locust-flowers, I think I will soak them in white wine to get to know the blossoms better ;)

      So cool you took the effort to translate it! :) It was a-mazing!
      Another blogger mixed these ingrediƫnts: Nettle, rice + butter, onion, garlic, white vinegar, oregano, saffron, salt & pepper + roasted hazelnuts. Serve warm, not hot, because if hot you won't taste the saffron.
      She's so gifted in combining flavors so don't skip any ingredient! ;)

      Ah I'll check the pinterest page, thanks!!

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    5. Awesome pinterest-collection! I still have to check which plants also grow here, but I do recognize some!

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  3. You can fix them like you do elderberry blossoms. Mix up some pancake batter of your choice, dip them in it and then onto a hot griddle. With the elderberry ones, leave a stem as a "handle" and trim the stem off after putting them blossoms on the griddle. With the locust, cut the flowers into the batter and go from there.

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  4. I actually find black locusts to be beautiful trees, all times of the year. Their blossoms are definitely divine. Our neighbors across the street have a huge one in their yard, and every spring I look forward to it's blooms. Unfortunately, every time one of it's saplings ends up growing in our yard, it likes to set up camp by one of our fences and has to be removed due to it's location and prickly nature :( I'd love if one of them started growing in the middle of the yard, somewhere where we can actually keep it!

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  5. i found an "exotic-to-me" tree in Istanbul, and the leaf seems to be black locust. i read that they have travelled to Europe, Asia and North Africa. Now, here, i read they are in Australia.

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  6. Any idea about lead content or other metals in the flowers if growing in likely contaminated areas? I live in a boston suburb and I think there is some lead in most soil around here, and probably not many locusts in clean woods (as I think i read these trees were brought to the area to use for their lumber). Thanks for any info. Trees are in bloom here, but also mostly too tall to pick from.

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    1. To be honest Alex, I really don't know. My understanding has always been that flowers and fruit of trees are pretty safe from lead contamination, because it simply doesn't get stored there. (It goes to the roots, if anything). However, this is just word-of-mouth knowledge, but I did find this article which mentions a study which might back it up: http://communityorchard.ca/orchards-101-2/is-urban-grown-fruit-safe/

      But, for years apple orchards were sprayed with lead arsenate (both lead and arsenic!!) and as far as I know, the fruit was safe--however residential communities built on these old orchards are fraught with problems. I know mushrooms and most ground plants should definitely not be consumed from contaminated soil, so it seems like anything in contact with the ground (including you!) is at risk, but fruit is ok.

      And if the fruit is ok, my guess would be the flowers are as well, since the fruit comes from them.

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  7. Thanks for this. I was trying to identify this tree growing in my backyard which is along a river.

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  8. Thank you! My father, born in KY 1921, told stories of his mother coating the locust blooms in a light batter and frying them. (in lard probably) He recalled they were sweeter than honey. Now I must find a locust tree!

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  9. Great little article. I was hoping for a picture of a seed pod but I understand your focus is about eating the flowers. I hope to establish a grove of black locust on my acreage in SE TX in the near future for honeybee and wildlife forage, and a long term timber crop. thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hey, glad you liked it! I didn't really ever shoot the seed pods because they weren't edible.

      But if you're in Texas, you might want to look into the legality of having black locust here. I don't think it's illegal in any part of the US, but I'm not 100% sure. I know some countries consider it an invasive species and have banned import, sale or planting.

      If it is legal, and you have a connection up north, I believe the plant grows better from shoots (which spread through the tree roots) than it does from seed.

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  10. I've read that black locust is poisonous to horses but not other ruminates.
    Someone gave me one 20 years ago, it spreads so fast I gave to keep cutting them from places I don't want them.

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    1. It is definitely poisonous to horses. Even the bark is. I am pretty sure the seeds, bark, and leaves are toxic to all ruminates, I know they are toxic to dogs. Of course the fear with livestock is that they may gather up leaves or seeds in with what they are eating

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    2. We have black locust all over our property and are one of our goats favorite treat. I don't believe they are poisonous to all ruminates.

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  11. Really sharp and nasty thorns on the - I guess, Honey Locust, if the Black does NOT have thorns....rip your shirt and face and arms to shreds when mowing....should be growing as a hedge tree at the property line...."stink pretty" as my gramma used to say....scraggly looking tree good for art renditions....old dead branches constantly falling off when the wind blows in....volunteer saplings pop up all the time in the flatland near damp road areas....

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