Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a spiny, scraggly tree that is found abundantly along the US East Coast. Very little is written about this tree from a magical or mythological perspective, although certainly, anyone who works wood or practices permaculture is aware of the more tangible benefits this tree provides. In today’s post, we explore this amazing tree and start building some more specific magical knowledge to incorporate this tree into local druidic or nature-spirituality practices.
My parents’ land in Western PA, land where I grew up, consisted primarily of old potato fields. We had two sets of tree lines where the farmers had let the trees grow; these lines were full of huge cherry and maple trees grew. In between those tree lines as the land sloped down the mountain were open areas populated with blackberry bushes, hawthorn, and black locusts–several acres of them. These locust trees, rising bare and spindly out of the earth, often looked like skeletons–they would usually wait to put their leaves on well after the rest of the trees had gone green in the spring. They would also be the first to drop their leaves, sometimes as early as mid-September, while the rest of the trees would wait till near Samhain. It was if they didn’t enjoy the light half of the year and preferred the darkness of winter. As younger trees, they have pretty amazing wicked thorns (thorns similar to blackberry or raspberry thorns, rather than hawthorn-style thorns). These are thorns that catch, snag, and hold fast.
I’ve always known these trees to be powerful magical allies with a particularly strong energy–and yet, almost nothing is ever written about them. Needless to say, growing up among the locusts has given me a unique perspective on these amazing trees and I recognize them for the magic they hold. This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern US, including in Western PA, where I live. Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.
Black Locust: Identification and Ecology
Black locust is a distinctive tree–it has compound leaves that are between 6-12″ long. Each compound leaf has pairs of leaflets that are oval in shape. The younger branches and stems often have two sharp thorns at the base as well as thorns going up the smaller branches. Larger branches often jut out in odd directions and grow at odd angles, giving the tree its distinctive appearance. As the trees mature, thick gray-brown bark with thick ridges grows. The wood itself is a brown-gray with distinctive rings and it is very dense and heavy.
The black locusts growing at my parents’ land were growing, in part, because it is a tree that helps regenerate damaged ecosystems. My parents’ home was built on what was once old potato fields. After decades of growing potatoes, the soil was nutrient-poor and full of rocks and clay. Not all trees thrive in such an ecosystem, and this is part of why the black locusts came. Black locusts are trees that regenerate damaged soils–as they fix nitrogen, they often can be an early part of ecological succession to help repair damaged soils and serve as a pioneering species in that regard.
Black Locust is not tolerant of shade, and thus, prefers to grow in areas with plenty of sun including old fields, disturbed sites, and wastelands. It prefers a limestone-rich soil but otherwise can adapt to many other soil conditions. It is an early species–as other species grow up and as ecological succession continues, it dies back and makes way for other species.
Black locusts are native to part of the Appalachian mountains and parts of Iowa, stretching from Western PA to the top of Alabama, but has been widely planted beyond that smallish range. Partially, it is planted because its wood is extremely useful as it is heavy, durable, strong, and rot-resistant. But partially, it is planted because of its a great regenerator of poor soils.
Apparently now in places in the US, it is considered an “invasive” species. But since many of you know my thoughts on that term, I find this label pretty unfortunate. As the link in the first sentence suggests, Black locust is a first aid tree–it is adaptable, deals well with disruption and disrupted soil, has a tolerance for pollution and industrial waste–sounds like a pretty darn badass first aid responder tree to me! It is unfortunate that so many responder plants get such a reputation.
Wood and Uses
A really nice history of the black locust tree at the Live Science website explains how Black Locust is the hardest of our timber woods here in North America, including describing evidence that the Native Americans living in the mountains may have exported black locust to the coastal areas and that black locust was thus a valuable trade item. This is likely because Black Locust can resist rot for up to 100 years, making it an amazing building material! Native Americans also made many of their bows from Black Locust due to its strength. As Eric Sloane discusses in a Reverence of wood, Black Locust was well known in colonial times. Philadelphia, as a planned city, had an important street named after the Black Locust. It was exported very early in colonialization, starting in 1640. In 1686, Captain William Fitzhugh of wrote that the locust as “as durable as most brick walls.” (p. 57, Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond Taylor). These early wood exports (like Black Locust and Sassafrass) were exported because of their usefulness and uniqueness–think about how much value a wood had to be loaded on a ship and sent back to the old world. Black locust was one of the early exports, which really shows its value for a range of applications.
And today, Black Locus is still an extremely useful wood, finding a niche in any projects that call for strength, density, and rot resistance. Traditionally, it has been used for everything from houses to railroad ties and telephone poles to tool handles and mine props. It is very useful to line garden beds because it almost never rots. Because it is rot-resistant, it is also used for fence posting and building projects. As Eric Sloane discusses, it was also a frequent material in living hedges and fencing material due to its thorns.
Another historical fact shared from the Live Science article–it is likely that Black locust pins, holding the American Ships together, helped win the war of 1812. These pins, stronger than those oak pins of the British fleet, allowed the American ships to withstand more cannonball damage than the British ships, leading to victory. In this way, the strength of the Black Locust was directly pitted against the strength of the oak–and the Black Locust was the victor.
Edible and Incredible Black Locust Flowers
For about two weeks a year, the black locust radically transforms from its usual spindly and scraggy self to a carpet of beautiful and fragrant blossoms. These cascades of white flowers with little yellow centers–they look a lot like a pea (and locusts are related to the legume family, so this makes sense). These delightful sprigs of flowers can often be harvested with abandon, and you can harvest as much of them as you can reach!
Due to their abundance, I’ve made a lot of things from these flowers, but the best, by far is a black locust flower fritter. Pick flowers that are still yellow in the center (if they are going brown, it means they are past their prime). Make a simple fritter batter (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 2 eggs) and fry them for 3-4 minutes. I prefer frying them in coconut oil, which really enhances their flavor. The fritters are done when they are golden brown. Sprinkle with some cinnamon and powdered sugar for even more tasty goodness. I’ll also note that, in Nature’s Harvest, Sam Thayer writes that we don’t know how to treat flowers in a culinary sense since we don’t really have them widely used in our cooking in North America. But locust flowers can be treated like any other vegetable. He uses them in salads, vegetables in soups, green salads, fruit salads, stir-fries, and more.
I’ve also made pancakes from them (treating them like blueberries in pancakes) and also tried brewing them as a tea. Given the fragrant nature of these flowers, you’d expect the tea to be good, but really, it just isn’t. It has a bad taste, so I wouldn’t drink it. The pancakes are fun, however, and a nice seasonal treat! You can also eat the flowers fresh from the tree.
The beans are also edible, but they are so tiny, you have to be really dedicated to getting any kind of meal from them. I’ve tried and have collected a small handful of beans here and there, and when I throw them into a soup or something, they totally disappear. So probably not the best wild food out there, but the flowers more than makeup for it.
It’s important to note that beyond the flowers and the beans themselves, everything else on the black locust is toxic, including the bean pods and leaves. A poisonous glycoside called “robitin” is contained within the bark, leaves, roots, and wood, which is toxic to us as well as animals.
Magic and Herbal Qualities from the Western Tradition
This is where things start getting quite thin. Most of my normal reference books for herbalism (Wood, Culpepper, Grieve, Gerard, Gladstar) and magic (Greer, Yronwoode, etc) say literally nothing about black locust. It is a new world tree, and many of the older herbal books are based on old-world plants–new world plants and trees often get no notice (hence, my entire point of this series).
Books aside, a few herbalists list some information on their websites about Black Locust. For example, the Plants for a Future entry seems to confuse the black locust with the honey locust, talking about edible pulp (which is not a feature of the black locust). Henriette’s herbal suggests that the bark was used as a violent emetic (since it’s so toxic, yes, it would make you vomit violently!) It also lists the flowers as potentially anti-spasmodic, but I haven’t found that information in any other source.
That is, as far as I can tell, there is virtually nothing on the magical qualities of the Black Locust from a western perspective.
Native American Herbalism and Lore
Since this was a tree growing in the native range of North America, many tribes did have interactions with it, and I found a small amount of lore and stories surrounding it. Unfortunately, a lot of the tribes that would have interacted with this tree were forcefully removed and/or slaughtered–and much of their knowledge of this tree likely died with them. Here are two useful references:
From Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891) by James Moody, Moody translates a discussion and a commentary on a particular kind of occult disease (or curse, perhaps). One of the ways this curse can manifest is by a maleficent person putting a sharpened stick of black locust into someone’s skin; if it is not removed the person may die.
In a second Cherokee story, the black locust is used to help a deer sharpen his teeth so that they aren’t as blunt (referring, likely, to the strength of the black locust wood).
Magic of the Black Locust
My story that opened this piece shared what I consider to be three of black locust’s most important features: some of the most strong, rot-resistant, and durable wood we have, regenerative qualities that help heal damaged ecosystems; and the skeletal nature of these trees’ growth cycle. To summarize my findings, I’d like to put forth the following magical and divination qualities for the black locust:
Ultimate strength and endurance. Black locust is beyond strong and endures beyond any other tree, particularly in death. It is rot-resistant, literally lasting 100 or more years, even when sunk into the earth. That beats most chemically treated woods, making it a tree that is ultimately connected to endurance, strength, and power.
Death and Life. If we look at the contrast of this tree ecologically, it offers us a rich interpretation of the interconnection between life and death. Here is a tree that looks like a skeleton, and spends more time being bare than covered in leaves. And yet, it offers landscape healing through nitrogen-fixing and regenerative qualities, working to quickly transform damaged landscapes.
Shadow and Underworld Work. Moving from the second point, I think this tree may help the living connect with the dead, and hence, can be a bridge to shadow work, underworld work, and work with the dying/decay energies of this time of year. The Skeletal nature of this tree, combined with its poison, and its short blooming time, really speaks to me of an underworld connection. This is a tree one can use to connect with the energies of the underworld, particularly at Samhain and the Winter Solstice, and use those energies for their own kind of shadow work.
What a tree indeed! Readers, do you have any additional information or stories on Black Locust to share?