Black Locust: The Tree on Which the US Was Built

Categories: Green

Some historians question the authorship of "The Natural History" and have pointed to parallels between this work and John Lawson's "History of North Carolina" (1714). Though Lawson was familiar with the tree, his description of it was quite different: "The Locust for its enduring the Weather, is chosen for all sorts of Works that are exposed thereto…We have little or none of this wood in Pampticough," he wrote.

The extreme resistance to rotting is perhaps the black locust's best-known attribute, and it was on poles of black locust that the first buildings in Jamestown were erected.

One hundred years after the founding of Jamestown, Mark Catesby, author of "Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas Islands" visited the site of the original settlement and recorded the following: "Being obliged to run up with all the expedition possible such little houses as might serve them to dwell in, till they could find leisure to build larger and more convenient ones, they erected each of their little hovels on four only of these trees, pitched into the ground to support the four corners; many of these posts are yet standing, and not only the parts underground, but likewise those above, still perfectly sound." The black locust is the most durable American wood for ground contact, and it is what is used to line the beds at the Colonial Garden in Williamsburg.

Robinia psuedoacacia, black locust flower

Pin It The flowers of the black locust. Black locust is not native to the coastal plain of Virginia, but was exported by the native population for use in making bows and other objects in pre-European-contact North America. Black locust now has the widest worldwide distribution of any North American tree because once you have one you will, in short order, have many, for it is a prolific seeder and one of the first species to colonize a disturbed site.

Europe's first black locust

The genus Robinia is named for Jean Robin, a Parisian apothecary appointed as the king's arborist to Henry III, a post he retained under Henry IV and Louis XIII. In 1597, Robin is given the commission to lay out the garden for the Faculty of Medicine, which later became the famous Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus credits Robin as the first European to plant the black locust in Europe,.giving the introduction date of 1601. Linnaeus also renamed the locust from Acacia Americana Robinia to its present Robinia pseudoacacia, in Robin's honor. The original tree, transplanted several times, was alive as late as 1963 in the gardens of the Museé d' Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

However, it may not have been Robin after all who first brought the black locust to Europe. He does not list it in his "Catalogus stirpium" (1601), nor is it listed by his son, Vespasien, in his "Histoire des plantes" (1620). The first French citation for the tree comes in Jacques-Philippe Cornut's "Canadensium plantarum historia" (1635), well after the date Linnaeus gave for the original planting.

The black locust is listed as "Locusta Virginiana arbor" in the catalog "Plantarum in Horto" (1634) compiled by the Tradescants — father and son gardeners, both named John, who were botanists and collectors, housing their collections at The Ark in Lambeth near London. John Parkinson recorded the black locust in "Theatrum Botanicum" (1640) and wrote that he had seen "a very great tree of exceeding height with Master Tradescant," suggesting that the tree had been planted quite a bit earlier.

Regardless of who first brought the tree to Europe, it quickly becomes a favorite ornamental tree for its delicate foliage and its large white,wisterialike blooms that produce one of the sweetest fragrances of any landscape tree.

  Page Turn