Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis
Plant for the fast growth and coppiced biomass, for the sweet beans in silvopastures, for the gorgeous wood in the climates of corn and cotton, and a cultivation legacy of mutual aid!
Hardy from Zones 4-9. 60-90 feet tall, 30 feet wide.
Aw, honey-shucks, we sure do like Honey Locust! Also known as Sweet Locust, Sweet-bean, Thorn Tree, Thorny Locust, and Three-Thorned Acacia. As you might guess, they usually have thorns, and really big ones, all over the dark gray bark! People sell them as decoration on Etsy, but once upon a time they were used as nails and might’ve evolved to protect the tree from large browsing animals like mammoths, so Honey Locust has been around a little while. Thorny thickets provide safe habitat for critters, but lots of industrial farmers consider it a painful weed tree because its thorny root suckers that can pop tractor tires or fence livestock away from water.
But don’t rule Honey Locust out just yet! There’s a thornless variety, which is what we’re growing in our nursery, though some seedlings will sprout red thorns. Honey Locust is very commonly planted as an ornamental tree in parking lots and sidewalks. The wood is dense, shock-resistant, straight, and easily split for fence posts and firewood. It also coppices well to produce loads of biomass from its pea-like leaves that turn golden yellow in the fall. Honey Locust is in the Bean Family, but it’s supposedly not a nitrogen-fixer, though lots of people claim it aids the growth of companion plants. Either way, we’re excited about Honey Locust because of its beans, or more accurately, its pods that can grow over a foot long! Those pods, not the strong-smelling flowers, are what gives Honey Locust its name. The pods are filled with sweet green gooey pulp and nutrition comparable to oats and barley after they’ve dried and dripped down maroon-red and brown in Autumn. Deer, squirrel, rabbits, racoons, and hogs all love eating those pods, thereby propagating the tree through scarification, or breaking the seed coat, in their digestive tracts. A little manure fertilizer also helps speed up germination. Sheep, cows, and goats also enjoy munching on the pods, making Honey Locust a wonderful healthy candidate for silvopasture! It provides dappled shade and nutritious feed in pasture, and its thick deep roots build soil. In his classic 1929 Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, J. Russell Smith reported on the potential of Honey Locust as a stock-food tree “in the climates of corn and cotton,” a cousin to Carob. Rural kids even ate the pulp!
Smith wasn’t the first to imagine Honey Locust as people food. Honey Locust is native to salty soils of rocky uplands, but strangely it often grows in green river valleys and streambanks of the South. That adaptation recently caught the attention of an ecologist named Robert Warren, living in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. He said that “every time I saw a honey locust, I could throw a rock and hit an archaeological site.” Maybe, he thought, species are just as dependent on mutual aid than specific habitats. That led to a hypothesis: Honey Locust grows most commonly near historic Cherokee communities rather than in its ecological niche. Warren got permission from the Eastern Band of Cherokee to survey their land, as well as national forests and private land. Warren found that, rather than streams and the stomachs of animals, Honey Locust is largely a cultivation legacy of the Cherokee, who grew this sacred tree for medicine and culinary sugar. Excavations of enslaved quarters in North Carolina found abundant Honey Locust seeds, more than any other plant remnants, most likely used as sweetener in a survival strategy of mixed foraging and horticulture.
We propagate our Honey Locust from seed we collect from beautiful trees in parks and lawns. We scarify the seeds by boiling water, turning off the heat, and steeping the seeds for a day or two until they plump up and are ready to plant!