Sunday, April 25, 2010

Black Locust Honey Flow

It has been sunny and warm all weekend. Out in the backyard I noticed a low, steady hum that puzzled me at first. I knew it was the bees. But I couldn't see them. Where were they in numbers sufficient to sound like an electric power plant? The plum and pear blossoms are gone, and they didn't seem to be swarming the roses.

Then I realized that, high overhead, the locust trees are covered with their distinctive white flowers and the bees were taking advantage of what beekeepers call a "honey flow": lots of blossoms all in one place and long warm days to facilitate nectar-gathering. A good description of this weekend.

I did some internet sleuthing to find out more about these tall, elegant trees. There are two of them in our yard and more nearby.

First off, I've been wrong about calling them white locusts. Silly me, I was distracted by the flowers. They are called black locust because of the dark-colored bark, although I must say it looks like normal old bark, more grey than black. Maybe it's dark compared to other types of locust trees.

The black locust has unusual properties, most of which I was glad to learn about, but not all.

It is a member of the legume family, which explains why the blossoms look like pea and bean flowers. And, like other legumes, the roots have nitrogen-fixing nodules -- so it is self-fertilizing and enriches the soil it stands in.

It is a hardwood that doesn't rot and was traditionally used for long-lasting fence posts and rails. It was said that the posts would last 100 years in the soil. Abe Lincoln, rail-splitter, applied his famous ax to logs of black locust.

Black locust honey is one of the most highly prized. We are not honey eaters or else I would be wondering where that hive might be.

Now for the downside. Every part of the tree except for the flowers is toxic. Blossoms are in fact edible, but everything else, bark, pods, leaves, wood, and new sprouts alike, contains a chemical agent that has caused sickness and even death in livestock that ingest them. Farmers are warned not to pasture animals nearby.

This was a sobering piece of information since the trees tower over the backyard and, in the fall, rain down leaves and pods everywhere. I couldn't find any warnings that vegetables grown in soil containing the composted debris of these trees would be harmful. If they were, our family would have keeled over long ago.

I used to love the golden rain of tiny leaves in the fall. Now, only the spring showering of white flowers, which has just begun, will retain its poetic appeal.

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