Tag Archives: patrees

Underfoot: Honey Locust AKA Thorny Locust

By, Susan Sprout

Take care when walking near this tree – it is armed and may be dangerous! Botanists have indicated that its thorns may be genetic upgrades developed to keep browsing animals from chewing on the bark. Honey locust, with the scientific name of Gleditsia triacanthos, is a member of the Fabaceae or Pea Family, like its close relative found nearby, Redbud, whose magenta flowers will be adorning bare branches soon. It is prettier and less prickly.

close-up of Honey locust thorn

Light-demanding Honey locust trees can be found in wetlands and uplands, too. It is a hardy species, native to states on both sides of the Mississippi and up through West Virginia and into central Pennsylvania. In fact, the USDA Forest Service map showing its spread, actually mirrors the shape of the Muncy “bump,” the geological feature that indicates the end of Bald Eagle Mountain and causes the Susquehanna River to swish around it in  a half-circle. (A much-used visual clue that I use when looking at maps, from there, I know where I am, a short hop to home.) 

I read somewhere that a tree’s trunk is its essential identity. Honey locust’s trunk has ridged and fissured gray-brown bark with thorns growing out of it, up to three inches long. They extend singly and in bunches of three’s up through lower branches. You can see them better at this time of year without leaf cover. Does this indicate that its bark is worse than its bite? And by “bite,” the meaning is clear – the very sweet, honey-flavored “snack” that awaits inside the ripe seed pods. The edible pulp develops between the hard bean seeds in flat and slightly twisted pods that can range in length from eight to sixteen inches long to about an inch wide. Used as food and medicine by many indigenous populations in its range, animals and birds, too, like the sweetness.

notice the rough, fissured bark as well as the thorns 

Do not confuse this tree with mature Black locust tree which has paired spines at the base of each leaf instead of long thorns. It has toxic properties. The Honey locust trees must grow to ten years of age before bearing seeds, with large crops occurring about every other year. They have been found alive up to 125 years old.

Today Honey locust is used as livestock food. Its dense wood is great for fence posts and furniture. Research is being done on its usefulness for treating diseases. A practical use, while camping, hiking, on extended walks – rips in cloth can be held together by thorns, carefully inserted like straight pins!

Thank you to PPL for your support!

Underfoot: Ah, Sweet Mystery!

By, Susan Sprout

I love trees, especially this time of year, when leafless. They stand out so stark and sturdy against the sky. Sometimes, as a game, I try to identify trees by their silhouettes as we pass them by in the car. I look for hints of seeds, cones, leftover flower spikes, branch configuration.

There was no drive-by the day my cousin and I found this lovely mystery tree as we hiked Chad’s Trail at Glacial Pools. The sky was just perfect, a blue backdrop interrupted by wisps of cirrus clouds. We had to check the clues.

Clue #1 Little cone-like strobiles that hold samaras or double-winged seeds, oblong, 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches long, brownish, disintegrating.

Strobiles will gradually give way to the wind for dispersal

Clue #2 The bark – shiny, dark and smooth, not papery and peeling. Many horizontal lines crossing the trunk – lenticels – corky pores through the bark that provide direct air exchange with the tree’s internal tissues.

Smooth, cling bark with lenticular

Clue #3 The twigs – dark brown, slender, hairless. Snap a twig and sniff the broken end. Ah, the odor of wintergreen!

Perfect! Sweet Birch, Black Birch, Cherry Birch, Betula lenta

Sweet Birch, a native to Eastern North America, ranges from Canada to the mountains of Georgia and Alabama. A USDA Forest Survey indicates that it is most abundant in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania. It is one of the species that has replaced American Chestnut where it used to grow. Considered a pioneer species, it tends to grow quickly when young and can grow from stump sprouts if the main trunk is cut or dies. The shiny, smooth bark will become rough and in vertical flat plates as it ages and will continue a pattern of split, peel, and replace throughout the rest of its life which could be up to two hundred years! You can find them growing in cool, moist uplands with hardwoods and conifers. They like the moist , well-drained soil of stream banks as well as dry, rocky soil of ledges.

It used to take one hundred saplings and trees to manufacture just one quart of Birch oil, also called oil of wintergreen. Now chemically produced methyl salicylate is used to flavor things like medicines, candy and ice cream. Plus, you don’t have to tap the trees anymore to make Birch Beer. I like chewing on a twig as I hike along to allay my thirst. Ha. I just like the flavor! 

Thank you Evergreen Wealth Solutions for supporting conservation!

Underfoot: Sassafras

By Susan Sprout

Bright standouts amidst the autumn colors are our native Sassafras trees. They can grow to a height of least sixty feet. One in Kentucky is one hundred feet tall.  Look for them growing in hedgerows, forest openings, and on roadsides.  If traveling on foot, do a close check on their variable leaf shapes, having zero to three lobes. They look like mittens to me…a left-handed one, a right-handed one, and a mitten with the pinky finger and the thumb sticking out on each  side. There are some plain oval leaves with no lobes at all, too. I keep looking for one shaped like the Star-Trek “Live Long and Prosper” shape. No luck yet. 

Notice the mitten shaped leaves

Sassafras is a member of the Laurel Family along with Spicebush (last week’s post), Sweet Bay (source of bay leaves for flavoring soups and stews), and Cinnamon (provider of ground cinnamon that makes just about everything taste better). Not to be outdone by its aromatic relatives, Sassafras has been used to flavor tea, root beer, toothpaste, chewing gum, tobacco, and soap. Its dried leaves are finely ground to make Filé Powder used as a thickener in Creole cooking. Since the 1960’s, its strong oil has not been used internally because it may cause liver and kidney damage. 

Sassafras may have been one of the first medicinal plants sent to Europe by the Spanish from their colony in Florida. It was a major export  because explorers and colonists at the time thought of it as a cure-all. They saw Natives using it for treating fevers, rheumatism, and as a blood purifier. My grandparents used Sassafras wood chips boiled in water as a spring tonic.