Black Locust: The Tree on Which the US Was Built
As the strongest timber in North America, black locust helped build Jamestown and hardened the navy that decided the War of 1812, yet today few Americans have heard of it. The nation's taste in ornamental trees has changed fairly dramatically since the first street plantings were made in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the 1730s.
The catalpas that line the town's Palace Green, which was one of the first examples of a municipal street planting in British North America, are seldom planted today and are considered by most horticulturists as little more than weed trees. [Quaking Aspen: Trees of the Mountain West ]
The paper mulberry, whose twisted trunks elicit so many comments from visitors, was one of the first Asian trees brought into cultivation as an ornamental tree in North America. John Clayton first described the paper mulberry in "Flora Virginica" (1762), and by the end of the century, it was a common component of the Virginia plantation landscape. Today, it is nearly impossible to even find a paper mulberry for sale at a nursery.
The tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) that were found by the homes of many of the 18th-century Virginia gentry have been returned to the forests from which they came, seldom planted in residential landscapes, and the Lombardy poplars planted by Thomas Jefferson along Washington D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue (called "the Grand Avenue" at the time) have largely disappeared from the American landscape.
Of all the trees favored by our colonial predecessors, both as an ornamental and as a utilitarian tree, the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is perhaps the most significant. It is first mentioned by William Strachey, a member of the 1609 resupply mission to Jamestown . In "The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania" (1610), he describes it as "a kind of low tree which beares [sic] a cod like to the peas, but nothing so big: we take yt [sic] to be locust."
The name stuck, but it is interesting to speculate what Strachey meant by a locust. The locust tree of Europe is the carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua). Some believe this tree, rather than the insect, was the food that sustained John the Baptist in the wilderness and gave it the common name of St. John's Bread.
It is doubtful that Strachey ever saw a locust or carob tree, as this Mediterranean plant will not grow in England, but he may have seen the branches of the carob pictured in signs above the doors of goldsmiths as the large, uniform seeds of the carob provided the original carat weight. Both the black locust and carob trees are members of the large Fabaceae, or pea family, and have similar leaves, and this was probably the source of the confusion.
Botanists have suggested that the black locust is one of the few examples of a tree exported by the American Indians from the mountains to the coastal plain for domestic use, and by the time the first colonists arrived, they found them planted "by the dwellings of the savages" (Strachey, 1610).
The American Indians used the locust to form their bows. This use is recorded in "The Natural History" (c.1730), attributed to William Byrd II: "Locust tree is a very straight, tall and rather thick tree whose wood is the toughest in all the world, and almost cannot be broken; thus the savages usually make all their bows from it."