Horticulture Highlight: Honeylocust

May 30, 2023

Horticulture Highlight: Honeylocust, Gleditsia triacanthos


such forms as can extend the flawed earth

and embody us, intact, unaltering, among

the soft surprising trees of childhood,

mimosa, honey locust, willow

            -Ellen Bryant Voigt

During a week-end long Arbor Day celebration, tours throughout our landscape visited our Massachusetts “Champion Trees”. There exist lists designating what are the biggest individuals by tree species, in the nation, state, county/city or perhaps even neighborhood. With a standardized point system, three measurements of tree height, trunk circumference and tree canopy help to determine what is a biggest individual. Near our entrance is the Massachusetts champion Honeylocust, Gleditsia triacanthos, planted in 1939 and measured at a height of 74.5-feet and 105-inches in trunk circumference.

Honeylocust, Gleditsia triacanthos is a large, tough, fast-growing, deciduous tree, with a wide spreading canopy. The Latin name honors Johann Gottlieb Gleditsch (1714-1786), German physician, botanist and director of the Berlin Botanic Garden. This small genus of a dozen different species is within the FABACEAE, the pea family, the third largest terrestrial family (after ORCHIDACEAE and ASTERACEAE) comprising 670 genera and 20,000 species. We reviewed botanical cousins within this family including redbud, yellowwood, wisteria and silktree. This family also includes soybean, common bean, lima bean, chick pea, peanut and carob to mention some of agricultural importance.

In forest virginity, this is a midwestern tree ranging from Pennsylvania to southern Minnesota and South Dakota south to Nebraska, Texas and Alabama. Extensively planted it has become widely naturalized outside of its original range. Its alternate leaves are 6 to 15” long, pinnate or bipinnately compound, with its many fine textured leaflets casting a dappled shade.

If you were a painter, you’d paint the wind

green. It would shake the boughs of the honey locust trees.

It would chase the leaves across the continent…

            -David Lehman

In late spring they produce inconspicuous, greenish-yellow, mostly unisexual male and female flowers on different trees, although some trees may also contain flowers of the opposite gender (polygamo-dioecious). If successfully fertilized, the fruit maturing in early autumn, is a 7 to 18” -long pod, containing numerous oval, hard, shiny dark brown seeds. These pods contain a sugar-rich pulp that has been eaten, even used as a sugar substitute, hence the common name honeylocust. Often these pods become irregularly twisted.

seed pods on red background

what else but to linger in the slight shade of those sapling branches

yearning for that vernal beau. for don’t birds covet the seeds of the

            honey locust

            -D. A. Powell

The species name triacanthos, alludes to bunches of thorns growing on the trunk and larger branches of wild populations. These remarkable triple-branched thorns arise from the tree’s wood and cannot be easily removed. Fortunately, thornless forms have been found. Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis (unarmed) are the source of most of our and commercially available honeylocust trees.

On a future visit to Mount Auburn look for some of our score of Honeylocust, Gleditsia triacanthos at our main entrance, Gerardia Path, Spruce Avenue, Cedar Avenue, Spelman Road, Field Road, Willow Pond Path, Begonia Path, Dogwood Path, Sorrel Path and Petunia Path among other locations.

a factory of blue jays

in honey locust leaves

            -Yusef Komunyakaa

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →

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