The War of 1812, the wood product and broken chainsaws – The Black Locust! – Daniel Kier

What do the War of 1812, the wood product industry, and broken chainsaws have in common? The black locust tree! You might ask, “How?”. Read on and find out!

My grandpa bought a hunting camp in the Southern Tier of New York about 15 years ago. Spending my summers with my grandparents, I always enjoyed hikes and tail blazing in this remote area. On one memorable forage, my grandpa and I came across a newly downed tree that was hard like a cinderblock. Flashforward seven or eight years and we stumbled upon the same downed tree. Now, conventional thought would dictate that the tree would be crumbly, covered in moss and fungi, and emitting a distinct odor of rot. Surprisingly this was not the case with our mystery tree! Research revealed that it was indeed a black locust- one of the hardest and most rot resistant trees on the planet! Paying homage to this marvelous specimen, I feel inclined to spread its story.

Robinia pseudoacacia (L.) is a member of the Fabaceae family and can be mainly found in sunny disturbed areas with dry soil. Natively found throughout the Appalachian range, humans have spread the tree almost everywhere.

In North America, you can find this plant in the lower 48 as well eastern Canada. Pakistan, Australia, China, Europe, India, Africa, New Zealand, and southern South America all possess this tree. It can tower above other plants, growing to 100 feet normally and from times up to 171 ft. Root nodules fix nitrogen like other members of the legume family. The wood is very hard, strong, and durable. Leaves are compound and can contain up to 13 leaflets. Each flower can contain up to 10 stamens, produce large amounts of nectar, and produce a strong fragrance. If you thought, “Oh, I wonder if this tree has fruit like other legumes!?”, you would be correct. The black locust can reproduce asexually using suckers. How cool! Perhaps more fascinating is that this tree is a prime example of how a plant can be native to an area and still be considered invasive. For example, in the Midwest, the black locust can swoop in and turn grassland into a forest if not successfully maintained with say fire. Like other species, humans have made numerous cultivars. My favorite (and maybe yours!) is the purple robe. Changing the color of the flower produces quite a beauty.

If cultivars are the future, what was the past?  In early North America, native Americans used the wood for bows and houses. The black locust is one of the only trees that native groups commonly transported from the mountains to the coast. Flash forward to the colonial period to see that Jamestown built its first houses on black locust polls. Mark Catesby observed the site 100 years later and said:

Being obliged to run up with all the expedition possible such little houses as might serve them to dwell in, till they could find leisure to build larger and more convenient ones, they erected each of their little hovels on four only of these trees, pitched into the ground to support the four corners; many of these posts are yet standing, and not only the parts underground, but likewise those above, still perfectly sound.”

George Washington planted the tree on the north end of Mt. Vernon as well. The black locust history and our first president does not end here though! After Washington’s death, a man named William Cobbett pegged the president’s doctor as the reason for Washington’s death. This must not have gone over well, and soon after Cobbett returned to England. Cobbett took with him thousands of black locust seeds to spread throughout the nation. A.L. Howard claims that the evidence of Cobbett’s activity is very marked in the gardens around London and all other cities and towns throughout Great Britain.

Why was the tree so important throughout history? Remember, this wood is very durable, hard, and rot resistant. Many carpenters used the wood for flooring, paneling, fence posts, small boats, and furniture. Perhaps, the most interesting usage of this wood is through firewood. It burns at the same BTU as anthracite coal! Be careful though, chainsaw chains will break or become dull in just a few minutes of cutting! Many cultures eat the flowers and honey produced from this tree. France batters and fries the flower and Japan uses them in tempura. Many others eat the young pod fruits before they become tough. In Romania, a sweet and perfumed jam is made.

Medicinal uses include laxative, antispasmodic, and a diuretic. More research is needed into medicinal uses to determine the true impacts. If I have any horse lovers reading this blog, be careful around black locusts! If a horse eats a flower from this plant anorexia, depression, incontinence, colic, weakness, and cardiac arrhythmia will develop.

We have tackled how this plant relates to chainsaws and the wood industry, but what about the War of 1812?

Regardless of who actually won that war, the black locust tree helped our side in numerous navel battles. Large pins that keep ships together are called nails. Great Britain and Canada used nails made of oak whereas we made nails out of black locust. The end result was that a larger number of our ships survived the numerous cannon blasts!

Chances are you have encountered this little-known tree at some point. Now that you have some fun facts, use them the next time someone starts talking about trees or the like! You will become the life of any party if you start dropping botany fun fact!


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