What is a Honey Locust?

Nick Doniger

The honey locust is a deciduous tree that grows abundantly in the midwestern and southern United States. These trees prefer moist soil and unshaded areas, though they are fairly hardy in nature. Seed pods sprouted by the honey locust are eaten by wild animals and farm animals alike, and the sweet flavor of the pulp is what gives these trees their name. Honey locusts have been used by humans as well for food preparation, but are considered more useful for their quality, dense wood. The thornless varieties of the tree are also prized for their aesthetic appeal.

Honey locust trees are a food source for deer and other animals.
Honey locust trees are a food source for deer and other animals.

Most commonly, honey locusts are found in the east-central United States, ranging from the American Midwest down to the American South. The tree is infrequently found in coastal regions. Occasionally, small honey locust weeds are found in India, Africa, and New Zealand, though they rarely have the chance to mature to full trees.

Honey locust trees have also been used as firewood.
Honey locust trees have also been used as firewood.

High moisture plains close to bodies of water provide the optimal environment for these trees to grow to their full potential. Honey locusts may also be found along some rocky hills. The trees are adaptable to varying moisture levels, as they are both flood and drought tolerant. They tend to prefer moist soil with a close to neutral pH, and are fairly tolerant of salinity.

Open areas with direct sunlight are necessary for honey locusts to grow. They do not thrive well in shaded areas and would not likely develop far beyond seedlings in a dark forest floor. However, under the right conditions, the trees live to be about 125 years old. Between 25 and 75 years old, the trees will produce their highest number of seeds.

Honey locusts sprout legumes that are eaten by many animals, such as pigs, cattle, deer, rodents, and some birds. Deer and some other animals may also eat the tree's soft bark and leaves. Historically, the legumes were also used by Native Americans, who ate either cooked pods or ground up the pulp to be used as a sweetener. This practice ended, for the most part, due to the fact that the pulp is considered a throat irritant and mild toxin for humans.

There is some significant variation between the different races of honey locust. For example, some produce thorns. The types that do not produce thorns are popular in the United States as ornamental plants. Certain adaptive variations may also differ by location. Northern honey locusts are also much more resistant to winter climates. Their southern counterparts may not tolerate the cold as well, but they produce much more nutritious fruit for cattle feeding.

While not very abundant, the dense, hard wood of the honey locust is also considered useful. This wood has been used in various aspects of construction and industry, such as making furniture, pallets, crates, and railroad posts. It has also been used for firewood.

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