I will never forget being puzzled by a large tree, trying to ID it during a plant monitoring project but the leaves were all too high up and young to distinguish. So I climbed it. That’s when I had the “oh duh!” moment. Looking closer at a small branch, the large paired thorns below leaves of many pinnate leaflets were a total give away- that’s a black locust tree! Quite pretty actually, but still not a tree I especially like. Dang, not what we wanted to find.
I tend to not "like" plants that are super invasive, especially if I have had to control them, or been stabbed by them. Looking sternly at you, Himalayan blackberry….
Recently I learned the flowers are edible and quite tasty off these not-nice locust trees and they are PRO-lific bloomers. Like, dang. A few in the neighborhood creates a lingering almost overly sweet and sort of fruity aroma. They smell to me like fruit candy.
I am a big fan of reducing the seed-set of an invasive species by eating it, so time to go forage the small forest of these near by. I find seedlings in the yard on occasion. Yep. Invasive. They also create suckers from roots and can build their own little clone army woodland, choking out other species. I highly encourage others to eat these!
Eradication by Mastication!! Eat it before it becomes a plague.
But, before we harvest- we must KNOW. What is black locust? What, when, where, how.
Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) of the Fabaceae/pea family, are large deciduous trees, rapid-growing and have the unusual leaf type of small pinnately lobed leaves. They are rounded and small, unlike the long pointed leaflets of our native ash trees (with similar linearly and narrow furrows of tan brown). The name pseudoacacia is referring to how the leaves look similar to acacia tree leaves. The other give-away and acacia-like trait: them thorns. Large and in pairs all over the branches and often at the base of a short leaf shoot.
Rumor has it that this species was discovered by British colonists in their new Jamestown and called it a locust because it looked very similar to the carob locust in Europe (Ceratonia siliqua). Indeed they even have similar dry thin pea-pod style fruits. Black locust is native to a few areas of eastern/central US, but have been introduced here on the western
Useful trait- black locust are nitrogen-fixers, and can be used increase the fertility of soil if you kill a young stand and send their fixed N into the soil. In theory at least. Do people do that? They have been mass-planted for soil restoration around mining operations. The trees and their huge bloom displays are also used to support honey bees for honey production, and these are the primary nectar source for Hungarian honey bees. Walking among the trees, I could hear the low hum of hundreds of bees of various species.
The wood is also super dense and strong, but we’re focusing on eating these today.
It’s the flowers we’re after for eating.
Late May was prime blooming for about two weeks for the trees around me, and it was a short walk to find some trees with low enough branches to collect from. Height can be a limiting factor in collecting edible items from trees. Being good forage for browsing deer as well, they seem to all be at a minimum height just above a deer’s head. You’re looking for grape cluster sized drooping flower racemes from the leaf axes (watch out for the thorns), made of a few dozen asymmetrical pea-family type flowers with white/creamy yellow petals and a peachy calyx in back. They tend to have a yellow spot on the big upper banner petals.
Once sure this is the correct tree you can also triple-check by looking for any of their fairly wide and flat dry seed pods, left from last year. They differ from honey locust by having straight pods, while honey locust has curving pods (+ smaller leaves and unimpressive small flowers). There were plenty of flowers, most fully open but I wanted as many un-opened ones as well as they would hold up better to cooking and could last longer.
After a visit to a few prolific trees, I had a full bag and a few odd looks from dog-walkers- time to process. Since these are tree flowers, they should have minimal pollution, and no dog-pee at 5' high. They just need a quick rinse and then ready to eat/cook. As I see it, forage foods aren’t that different from grocery produce, and both should be cleaned (you have no idea who has been touching that apple or what else it’s touched). The main difference is possible unknown chemicals and pollutants. Some suggest not washing the flowers which risks decreasing their flavor. I say, have fun eating a few spiders for even more flavor. Eat at your own risk and do what feels right to you. Bugs do have protein...
General life rule- wash anything before you put it in your face.
I am entranced by using edible flower clusters in a sort of fritter/pancake recipe since trying that with big leaf maple flowers (yum!), so that’s my plan for these. Dunk clusters in basic batter and fry up on a griddle. I can them make them sweet or savory as the flowers have a fairly mild flavor, less than their aroma, surprisingly.
The flowers can be used for making jellies and syrup, and can be eaten raw or cooked. Since you can eat them raw, there’s a lot of other options like a salad topping, morning yogurt and granola addition, etc.
What I learned is that it would be better to remove the flowers from their peduncle (flower stem) though this would remove my ability to dunk the whole cluster for a fritter-type pancake. The peduncles are a bit tougher to chew and you may find a whole one resisting being broken up and threatening to be swallowed like a long strip of celery. That is not a great feeling. Yet, cutting the pancakes into smaller pieces would also eliminate that. What am I, shoving whole ones into my face?? No comment. Some foragers are also against eating the green peduncles, possibly from worry of inedibility from some toxins like those in the leaves (also a lot in the seeds) but flower stems of edible flowers are very unlikely and I’ve had nor seen any reports of issues. If there is any in the flower stems, the protein is denatured by heat, so cooking will also take care of that worry.
My pancakes were tasty with a hint of sweet floral notes to a generally pea-like flavor among the dough. Topped with just butter or honey and they disappear quickly. I find this a pleasant way to reduce the reproduction of what some have labeled a “garden thug” tree. I am sure my effect was negligible, but still. Every drop of water contributes to the flood.
Once the flowers are spent, they fall in a floral snow covering the ground, just after cottonwood seeds do the same. Look at all the flowers I didn't eat... Existential crisis- the pancakes left unmade.
What would you have made with these edible tasty and nutritious flowers?