These hands hold great potential. Look closely and you’ll see that the seeds are bean shaped. They’re seeds of my new favorite tree… Ever since I can remember I’ve loved trees, both in the individual case and at the larger abstract species level. As a kid there was a particular White Pine I loved visiting and building forts beneath. When I moved to a new house at age 12 the property had a magnificent Copper Beech of enormous girth that I communed with/in regularly. That particular tree played a part in setting my course for various arboreal interests over the ensuing 25 years. I readily pull to mind 4 different ‘favorite’ trees I’ve held in high regard. The first was Beech, in both its American and European incarnations (Copper Beeches are European). Next was Chestnut, specifically American, but also including European, and Asian varieties. In college I did an internship with the American Chestnut Foundation where I worked for the curmudgeonly director who Barbara Kingsolver modeled one of her characters on in her book Prodigal Summer. Later, I was infatuated with oaks, specifically White Oaks and Bur Oaks.
For those of you who are horticulturally inclined you may have noticed that the above trees are all members of the same family, the Fagacaeae. There are many things to recommend these various past loves, their wonderful nuts/acorns, their tannin rich lumber, their fine figure for high end woodworking projects, their many ecosystem services… But even with all those positives, my obsession has shifted to a new tree in a different plant family - Black Locust. If I’m honest about it, I think a mature White Oak is still the more beautiful tree. But as with any healthy relationship there must be more than looks to make it last. And as a livestock farmer in a cold climate I can’t think of a better tree than the Black Locust. Locusts have many traits that endear them to the eco-agriculturalist, which I will now lay out in a list-
1. They’re legumes (like clover and beans) so they fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil.
2. They cast a relatively light shade which allows grass and other forbs to thrive underneath Black Locusts. Many tree species do their darndest to kill the competition by starving it for light.
3. Their leaves are palatable and nutritious for herbivores.
4. They flower wonderfully with big showy white (or occasionally pink) blossoms and feed bees. Honey from locusts is a thing in Europe...
5. Their wood is more rot resistant than pressure treated lumber, without toxic chemicals and industrial processes to make it. It’s good for outdoor applications and can relieve pressure on tropical forests for furniture grade wood suitable for exposed tables, benches, gardening uses, and boardwalks.
6. They’re very fast growing, particularly when young. Among temperate woody plants only hybrid poplars and willows will put on more pounds of biomass/acre/year.*
7. The wood is dense. In North America only hickory is consistently denser. This means their wood has almost as much heat value as coal on a pound-for-pound basis.
8. They sucker prolifically from their whole root zone if the main bole dies (from fire, logging, or wind throw). The only time they don’t send up numerous suckers is when a tree dies of old age.
9. Possible, and I want to emphasize, possible not probable, synergy with my bamboo grazing experiment
Photo credits - Edmund Brown
*This is a huge ecological benefit since more mass/year means the plants are pulling more carbon dioxide out of the air every year than alternative plants do. Locust is doubly good on the climate change front compared to poplars and willows because the wood takes so long to rot. Rotting willow wood releases its carbon stores back into the air over just a few years. Locust takes decades to do the same.