I was walking along Riverside Drive about to enter the park at 88th street when I saw the remains of one of my favorite trees: the Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia. I stopped to take the photo at the left and to look more closely at the exquisite bark of this amazing tree. Black locust trees are beautiful year round: in spring they produce wisteria-like flowers that have a wonderful fragrance, appealing to bees who then make delicious honey; in the summer they have graceful shade-producing feather-pinnate compound leaves; in the fall, the leaves turn golden; in the winter, the furrowed bark turns the tree into a sculpture. The trees fix nitrogen in the ground, and as historian Wesley Greene writes, “a cord of locust has the same Btu potential as a ton of anthracite coal—the highest fuel value of any American tree.” The timber from the Black Locust is extremely resistant to rotting; it is the strongest wood in North America, and the nails made from it are credited with helping the Americans to win the war of 1812. British ships were built with oak nails and American ships with locust nails. When the ships were hit by cannonballs, the British ships came apart, but the American ships held together. As you might expect, the British began to import locust nails making for a lucrative business, and well the rest is history.
The black locust was described as early as 1610 in William Strachey’s book, The Historie of Travell into Virgina Britinia. It is posited that Native Americans exported the trees from the mountains to the coastal plains prior to the arrival of the colonists. Native Americans used locust wood to form their bows; soon after they arrived on North American shores, colonial builders learned from the Native Americans and started erecting buildings supported with locust wood--some of those original posts still exist. Then in a turn around, Americans exported Black Locust to Europe. Once the trees arrived in Europe, they quickly became a favorite. Luckily for those that love them, they are hardy. easy to grow, and now have the widest worldwide distribution of any North American tree. So while it is with sadness that I witnessed the demise of one tree on Riverside Drive, I am reminded of what Leslie Day has said about these trees on walks we conducted in Central Park. The Parks Department uses the remains of Black Locust trees to form benches, bridge handrails, and arbors. The wood lasts forever; it is just continues in a different form.