One of the most common, durable, rugged, native trees, often used in parking lot islands and along sidewalks is common Honeylocust, Gleditsia triacanthos. A long lived, deciduous tree, Honeylocust is a leguminous plant (Fabaceae family), and capable of growing 100 feet. Gleditsia triacanthos has pinnately or bipinnately compound leaves that are alternate, dark green and, in my opinion, fabulous. Large red thorns are often found on the branches of these trees growing in the wild; however, thornless and fruitless varieties have been developed. Used extensively today, particularly cultivars, this tree is not without its share of problems. Now you may be asking yourself, why am I writing about a tree and disclosing its potential problems? The remarkable thing about trees, I find, is that they can justify their importance in many different ways. Some may appreciate a trees flowers, others its foliage, some admire the bark and still others may see beauty in a trees overall architecture or silhouette. However, how many of us have ever looked thru the eyes of cattle and thought, “oh my, look at those amazing bean pods?”
A tree “hardy” in zones 4-9, common Honeylocust typically has a short trunk and an open-spreading crown. Considered a fast grower, exceeding 2 feet of growth in a year, the bark is something I have always admired. Grayish-brown markings, broken into long, narrow ridges, separated by deep furrows, this bark has always held my attention. Particularly while waiting for my wife and daughter while they are shopping. Anyone who has ever visited a shopping mall and parked their car under a tree in the summer, only to protect it from summers scalding heat, has probably done so under a Honeylocust. Tolerant of drought, high pH, salt, full sun and highly adaptive, this trees versatility seems only outdone by its overuse.
Honeylocust trees, as stated previously, are not without their fair share of problems. Leaf spot, cankers, powdery mildew, rust, Honeylocust borer, gall, webworm, spider mites and root rot will “put the trees in a precarious way.” However, polygamo-dioecious, fragrant flowers in May and June, gorgeous yellow-green fall color and advanced cultivars, with stronger attributes, have helped to recapture this tree’s popularity as a solid choice for difficult sites.
More now on Honeylocust’s irresistible reddish-brown to black, strap-shaped, leathery seed pods that simply cannot be overlooked, especially by cattle! Seed Pods that are as “hard as a bullet”, twisted, flattened and persist well into winter. Cattle apparently have an affinity for such a look and taste? Here, the common name, Honeylocust, refers to sweet, sticky pulp that surrounds the seeds. Used extensively by wildlife; white-tailed deer, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, sheep, and cattle forage on its tasty bean pods. Gleditsia triacanthos additionally seems to play an important role as a plant for agroforestry. Edible pods that can be used as a vegetable, have a sweet pulpy tissue quality, are routinely engulfed by wildlife.
And it is here where my story begins. Years ago, one of our premier Pennsylvania growers had a surplus of larger caliper Honeylocust trees with a named cultivar. So much so that decisions to “thin the herd” was being contemplated. Thankfully a property for sale locally was purchased by an astute cattle farmer who noticed the large Honeylocusts dripping with fruit in the fall. Eager to purchase advanced trees with substantial fruit already, negotiations were made that not only saved all the trees, but gave more than a decade head start to help bolster his impending cattle. The owners “keen eye” for appreciating the trees nutritional benefits and the grower’s adroit ability to grow such lovely trees was a match.
The Genus name, Gleditsia, honors Johann Gottlieb Gleditsch (1714-1786), director of the Botanical Garden in Berlin. The specific Greek epithet speaks of the trees thorns, specifically the three-branched thorns of this plant. Today there are many cultivars to consider for the landscape that are stronger and healthier. So the next time someone tells you that a tree has no redeeming qualities in a landscape, they may not be looking through the eyes of cattle?