Friday, June 7, 2013

Black Locust flowers

Black Locust flowers (Robinia pseudoacacia)

There is something special about eating trees- food that towers above your head and doesn’t need to be watered or weeded. Whether bast, leaf, fruit or flower, many trees have at least something edible to offer. Today, while walking along Bellingham Bay, I noticed that the flowers of Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) were in the perfect stage for harvesting.

My friend Sam Thayer introduced me to the delicious flavor of Black Locust flowers a decade ago, but I haven't eaten them in years because they aren’t planted as commonly in western Washington as they are in other parts of North America. Black Locust is native to the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania southward to northern Alabama, as well as the Ozarks of southern Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, but they are planted extensively throughout North America, and have escaped cultivation on many other continents. In the Pacific Northwest, they are commonly planted as street trees or escaped into old fields on the east (dry) side of Vancouver Island south of Campbell River, in the BC interior south of Kamloops, east of the Cascades in Washington, and in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. Black Locusts are less commonly found in cloudier climates like western Washington.

Silhouette of Black Locust street tree
Black Locust bark
Black Locust trees typically reach heights of 70 to 80 feet tall and widths of 1-2 feet in diameter. Bark is grey with orange to whitish highlights between deep, braided fissures. Multiple trunks, or trunks that branch low to the ground are common, and the trunks often reach strongly upward before assuming a gnarled or curled shape in the canopy. The young branches, especially those from vigorous new growth, are armored with pairs of large, slightly ascending thorns that are up to an inch long.  Leaves are pinnately compound, 20-40 inches long with 9-19 oval leaflets; each leaflet is 1-2 inches long, and 0.6-1.2 inches wide. The honey scented flowers are white with red blotched calyxes. They hang in racemes that are 3-8 inches long and begin to blossom in late May and early June, after the leaves have emerged. Pollinated flowers develop into 3-4 inch long pods, each with 4-8 seeds.

When harvesting Black Locust flowers, target those that are fully open and have a faint yellow blotch in the center. The flowers have a divine flavor that is akin to a snow pea dipped in honey, with an ambrosia like aroma. However, the young or unopened flowers will taste more like peas and less like honey, and over-mature flowers become bitter as they wilt and fall to the ground. The best way to eat the flowers is to pluck off a raceme and—holding it by the bottom—stick the entire thing in your mouth, purse your lips, and pull the stem out, using your lips to pluck off all the flowers. For more civilized circumstances, such as adding the flowers to a salad, strip the flowers off by pulling the stems between your thumb and index finger

Flowers like garlands of popcorn
The first flowers I found were located at none-other than Locust Beach in Bellingham. I ate about 300 flowers and filled my pockets. While biking home I found a few more trees planted along a residential street near my house. My eyes and enthusiasm now tuned, I will undoubtedly start seeing this rediscovered tree elsewhere. Now is the time to spot Black Locust- look for cream colored flowers hanging like short garlands of popcorn from a wispy leaved canopy, or just follow your nose.

Sam Thayer reports that the pods and seeds make a tasty vegetable when full sized but still green and tender (See Forager’s Harvest, pg. 246-250). I look forward to trying them this summer.

Warning: The bark and leaves of Black Locust are toxic.

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