Look around the interstates right now, and the white trees you see are black. Black locust. There may be dogwood lingering, and I hope there is, but the two can’t be confused. Locust blooms are not little white plates stretched on graceful branches in the understory: rather, they are white bunches of grapes drooped from scraggly canopy. And they smell divine.
Living near an interstate cutting didn’t seem like a good thing when we bought our house, but the proximity to black locust turned out to be a bonus. Evening breeze washes fragrance down and around, swills it through the yard and window screens.
Last weekend we walked to an I-440 bridge to see how close we could get to the trees, which was not close enough. But we did see the setting sun orange them from white to linen and from linen to apricot.
Luckily, we have a sapling in the back yard, suckered from one of the fallen sentinels that used to mark the back border. It’s taller than I am, but still only about an inch in diameter. Unlike a tulip poplar, which takes twenty years to bloom, black locust is precocious, and our little stick has produced flowers the past three years. Michael counted seven racemes last spring, and each one low enough to inhale, nose to bloom.
The flowers are edible, but nibbling more than one feels greedy, even from a big tree. Better to leave them for the bees. Black locusts have so much nectar they offer it not just inside white, butterfly-shaped flowers, but along the twigs in “extra-floral nectaries.” Which means ants and aphids will be found scurrying or sticking (respectively) near each node. Insects who love to eat sugar-loving insects show up, too. Spiders and assassin bugs know a grocery store is a good place to capture hungry shoppers.
Where are your closest black locust trees? Look up to spot flowers in old yards, old parking lots, and the woods. Though the lumber is valuable—it is famously resistant to decay—the tree has a reputation for being trashy, and is rarely planned in a landscape. In a few days, you can look down to find them, too, because the squirrels will have already nibbled racemes and dropped them.
If anyone knows where I can find local black locust honey, holler. I tasted it once at an edibles workshop, and would love to try again. As lovely as it was, however, it doesn’t come close to the smell of the blooms.