Honey Locust, Menacing Thorns Protecting a Sweet Treat

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Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), is a deciduous tree and a member of the bean/pea family. It bears long seed filled pods in fall, of which the pulp is sweet and edible. Also commonly known as a thorny locust, this native American tree glows golden in the fall, but bears a menacing array of thorns.

You’ll find it growing in midwestern states, from eastern Texas as far east and north as Pennsylvania. Favoring areas near rivers or the bottom of valley land, it thrives in rich moist soil. It can however adapt well to other soils, and with its frequent seed dispersal through deer and farm animals, can be considered an invasive pest.

Honey Locust in the fall (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Honey Locust in the fall (Gleditsia triacanthos) (Photo by Kevmin on Wikimedia Commons)

Reaching no more than 20m in height, an abundance of pods should still be well within reach on its low spreading branches. Large and intimidating thorns line its trunk and branches, protruding singularly from the tree or forming angular and threatening clusters. The leaves are pinnate compounds, with each oval shaped leaflet measuring up to 2cm long. Clusters of highly scented cream flowers adorn the base of the leaves, developing into the long 20cm seed pods throughout the summer.

Edible parts and other uses

Only the fruits of honey locust are considered edible. The sweet and fleshy pulp of the bean pods can be eaten raw or extracted and used in a variety of ways. From smoothies, to beer. It has a sweet honey like taste, hence its name.

Honey locust was frequently used as a source of food, wood and medicine by Native Americans. The Cherokee were believed to have cultivated honey locusts to create bows, tools and even carved games for children.

Today the wood of honey locust is occasionally used in furniture or agricultural fencing, however it cannot provide yield great enough for commercial production. The strong thorns were interestingly also once used as nails in the construction of barns and other building practices.

Cautions

Honey locust has a toxic lookalike by the name of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). The black locust inhabits the same native range, and can be found in similar habitats.

A common distinguishing factor is the number of thorns, as black locust tends to have more subtle and a lower number of thorns. However some ornamental varieties of honey locust have been bred with a reduction in thorns, so careful identification is key. The leaves of black locust also have a much rounder appearance, than the longer oval shaped leaves of honey locust.

Honey Locust thorns (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Honey Locust thorns (Gleditsia triacanthos) (Photo by L. Fdez. on Wikimedia Commons)

The thorns when young are soft and green, however when fully formed, and deep red in color, they can be extremely hazardous. Care should be taken when rummaging amongst leaves and walking between the thorn laden branches.

Foraging

Early autumn is the best time to amble out hunting for the sweet tasting pods. Aim for mixed forests and open plains near rivers or streams. It does not fair well in shade so look for it in areas that receive full or partial sunlight.

The pods begin falling to the ground in fall when they fully ripen. Pods that have not fully ripened will have an astringent taste, so look for freshly fallen pods or ones that loosen easily when plucked from the tree.

Honey Locust fruits (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Honey Locust fruits (Gleditsia triacanthos) (Photo by Tournasol7 on Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know…

The oversized thorns are believed to be an ancient evolutionary characteristic. They formed to help the tree in protecting itself from large grazers that inhabited the earth before the last ice age. From wooly mammoths to mastodons!

Conclusion

A fascinating evolutionary history with a sweet and delicious fruit that has been coveted by mammals since before the last ice age. Today when foraging you will compete only with deers and other small mammals, and not the megafauna from an age long gone.

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Written by Hannah Sweet
Hannah is a freelance writer and graphic designer from the UK. With a penchant for travelling, photography and all things botanical, she enjoys writing about a wealth of topics and issues, from conservation and slow living, to design and travel. Learn more about her writing and design services on Upwork.com

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