It happens every year: I’ll be in the garden, pulling weeds from the lettuce patch or planting seeds for spring greens, and all of a sudden, there’s this fragrance. I think: Is that the daphne blooming? Loquat? No, it’s too late in the year… And then I’ll look up, and see this:
Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, a tree that spends most of the year cloaked in unassuming leaves and coarse gray bark, until one late-Spring day it throws on a crown of stunning white blossoms. But not just blossoms! These are flowers that fall in the Ephemeral Smells family, along with narcissus, jasmine, orange… the fragrance drifts, wanders, finds you even when you’re far from the tree.
A few interesting tidbits about black locust: It’s in the legume (pea) family, along with clovers, vetch, wisteria, lupines, and the beans and peas we are used to eating. Some people eat the flowers and cooked seed pods, although the bark and leaves of the tree contain toxins, so you might not want to try that at home without a bit of research. The trees are easy to spot even when they’re not blooming; just look for the rounded, opposite leaves and the dried seed pods, which often stay on the branches year round:
But, the real reason to pay attention to the humble black locust: its bloom is a signal for the all-important honey flow! When these trees start to flower, the other “honey plants” do as well: blackberry, clover, star thistle, in quick succession. Beekeepers in our neck of the woods watch locust trees like hawks in spring — as soon as the blossoms appear, it’s time to add empty boxes and frames for honey comb to your beehives. If you don’t add the supers in time, the bees will have nowhere to store all that nectar, and you risk missing out on much of your honey crop for the year.
This is, in a sense, phenology — the study of seasonal cycles and timing in the natural world. Scientists use it to observe variations in climate; gardeners follow natural cues to determine when to plant various crops; foragers use phenology to find mushrooms and other wild foods; and beekeepers know that that black locust acts as a crystal ball for the bees! Ask any long-time gardener about when to start planting this or that, and you’re likely to hear some phenological wisdom, often cross-pollinated with folk sayings, superstitions, and the like… but there’s real (and useful) science to it, not just tales!
Here’s one of our several black locust trees, growing in front of the Little House, where you can take in the full view and fragrance of the blossoms as you walk up the driveway. Honeybees go crazy for the flowers — they’re hard at work here, along with fat black bumblebees, little native bees, and all sorts of happy pollinators. All the more reason to have a black locust tree in your yard!