Swooned by the Sweet Black Locust

By Steven Foster |

Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacaciaSeveral times in the last week, people have asked what is that tree with the white or pinkish pendulous clusters of pea-like flowers? It is Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), a very  early introduction from North America to Europe. Go almost anywhere in Europe or temperate Asia today, and the “Virginia acacia”—our Black Locust—is widely planted as a street tree, and appears as if part of the native landscape. In his 1823 Sylva Florifera, Henry Phillips, tell us that American Indians made a declaration of love by presenting a branch of this tree in blossom to the object of their attachment. No doubt our native Black Locust itself was the object of desire. “Of all exotic trees,” Phillips writes, ” with which we have adorned our native groves, this North American stands first”.

Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia
Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia

Our common Black Locust was fancied by early missionaries to be the Egyptian acacia that supported St. John in the wilderness. They were wrong, so it was called “false acacia,” thus the species designation “pseudoacacia.” It was introduced to Europe at a very early date and planted with religious zeal.

The name Robinia honors Jean Robin (1550-1620) a ParisianBlack Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia apothecary recognized as one of the best French botanists of his time. Henry III appointed him herbalist and arborist at the gardens of the Louvre. His son, Vaspasian Robin (1579-1660) continued his father’s work and planted the tree in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris by 1636. John Parkinson (1567-1650) first described it in his monumental Theatrum Botanicum (Theatre of Plants), published in 1640. By the 1660s our woodland waif was widely planted as a street tree throughout Paris and London.

Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacaciaThe love affair continues over 400 years later. Just last week, I posted a photo of the flowers on Facebook, and a friend from Turkey noted it is common avenue tree there, and that as a child, he ate the flowers. Other chimed in that the sweetly fragrant flowers dipped in cool water are delicious, or that dressed with oil and balsamic vinegar, the flowers are a nice addition to salads, and are great added to pancakes. The heady fragrance was blamed, too, for inducing nausea and headaches, though that accusation has the odor of a swooning Victorian suffering from unrequited love. For better or worse, this is one American tree that we rediscover each spring!


A bee-friended Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia
A bee-friended Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia

Published by

Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-three years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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