The honey locust tree is simply beautiful. It comes equipped with amazing compound leaves that resemble those of a fern plant. This unique shaping of leaves makes for a very majestic shade tree. Their leaves are very similar to the Kentucky coffeetree.
These trees produce long leathery pods that encompass a sweet and delicious pulp that is snacked on by humans and wildlife alike.
Keep reading to learn more about Gleditsia triacanthos, or head on over to 101 Types of Trees to learn about all of our friendly, gently giant neighbors. Don’t forget about the Black Locust tree either!
Also referred to as either thorny locust or thorny honeylocust, the honey locust tree is a deciduous tree that is native to all of eastern North America. It grows in all provinces and states on the eastern side of the continent and is so prosperous that it is considered to be an invasive species in Australia.
These trees are highly adaptable to all sorts of environments, and it is both helpful to their natural environment and menacing. The honey locust is fast growing, semi-long living (120 years), and gets to be a medium-large height.
Their name derives from the sweet-tasting legume pulp obtained from their seed pods that have been used traditionally by First Nations communities for centuries.
What does Honey Locust Trees Look Like?
Honey locust trees are very good at establishing a very strong root system. Most trees won’t grow roots deeper than 1 meter into the soil, but this tree will dig down between 3 and 6 meters — this feature is why they can be such a nuisance, and so hard to remove from an area.
These are strong taproot systems, where the roots spread widely, deeply, and they grow very thick. The honey locust does this in response to its environment, and its root system is what has enabled its prosperity.
The honey locust tree is a very fast-growing tree, and will usually reach a height between 20 and 30 meters tall. The branches grow in an angular fashion into a flat-topped crown.
Young trees are more of a pyramidal shape, which eventually even out. Because of their sparse foliage, their canopy is airy with lots of pockets.
On a young tree, honey locust bark is brown and smooth with small horizontal lenticels (pores) that peel away ever so slightly. An older tree will have bark that becomes darker and develops deep furrows with scaly ridges that peel off in greater amounts.
A honey locust twig is dark brown and forms in a gentle zig-zag shape. These twigs bore the short shoots where the locust leaves and flowers emerge. Leaves emerge in late spring.
A honey locust has pinnately compound leaves (bi-pinnately on young trees) that are bright green. A compound leaf is comprised of multiple leaflets, and these are less than one inch long.
Honey locust leaves greatly resemble those of a fern. They have a fine texture and their branching pattern is open and airy.
The defining feature of the honey locust tree is its thorns. Thorns grow in great and dense clusters all along the trunk and branches of the tree (they are even known to be strong enough to pierce car tires). It is hypothesized that these trees are an evolutionary trait to help ward off over-foragers.
Very young thorns are very green and soft, and they become red and very hard as they age. Once the tree is fully mature, the thorns will be an ashy-black color and they become rather brittle.
How do Honey Locust Trees Reproduce?
Honey locust trees are of either sex. Male trees will possess loosely grouped male catkins that are green with 5 very small petals. Female trees have female flowers in tighter clusters that are a very attractive cream color. Both genders of flowers emerge from the base of leaf axils.
These honey locust flowers appear in May or June, right around the same time as the new spring foliage unfolds. These female flowers are very pleasantly fragrant, and that helps attract pollinators. Bees will bring male pollen to the female flowers for successful fertilization.
Once a tree has been fertilized it will produce fruit in the form of a flat legume, otherwise known as a pod. These pods are between 6 and 8 inches long, and they mature in the early autumn. Honey locust pods are soft and green when they first emerge and eventually fade into a maroon color.
These pods are encompassed in a tough leather casing that is stuck to the pulp within. This pulp is very strongly sweet, crisp, and succulent. Within this pulp, there are bright green little unripe beans. The beans are loaded with rich tannins.
A honey locust seed will then be eaten by many different species of birds or small animals and spread to farther locations.
The digestive enzymes from the animals will help break down the tough pod, and when the animal defecates the seed will be encompassed in a very helpful fertilizer to help with germination.
What is Another Type of Honey Locust Tree?
Because of the aforementioned honey locust thorns, scientists have cultivated a new subspecies of thornless honey locust.
This tree has been trademarked as the Sunburst honey locust, Skyline honey locust, or Suncole Honey locust (gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis). The latin term inermis cleverly means “unarmed”.
This thornless variety is both podless and seedless, and the cultivars come from only male trees. This species is much shorter than the original honey locust, about half the height, and has a much more pyramidal shape.
This seedless male cultivar was created because the honey locust offers such attractive fall foliage and makes both a great ornamental and street tree. However, the thorns were not only a nuisance but dangerous. And so this new cultivar was created.
Are Honey Locust Trees Invasive?
Honey locust trees are remarkable at adapting. They can grow in almost any temperature, soil condition, water level, and sun exposure. They also possess root systems that grow very deep into the earth, making it very difficult to transplant or remove them.
Many name the honey locust as being a weed-tree, and it is considered as being an invasive species in Australia. Because these wild trees are native to North America, the ecosystem is in place to ensure that the tree doesn’t overcome the forest environment.
Where do Honey Locust Trees Grow?
Honey locust trees grow all over the eastern half of North America. Because they are so adaptive, they are present in every province and state on the eastern side of the continent.
They will grow in many types of environments, but they are found most commonly in moist soils of river valleys.
What are the Growing Conditions of the Honey Locust Tree?
The honey locust tree can truly exist in almost any climate, the only condition is that the temperature cannot drop below -35 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a pretty reasonable request for anyone.
If it wasn’t already obvious, the honey locust can thrive in almost anything. They prosper in dry soil and wet soil, logged or well-drained soil, sandy soil or clay, salty soil or alkaline soil… However, they prefer soil that is hardy and loamy. They have a tolerance to floods and drought.
Honey locusts prefer full sun exposure, though they will not perish if they become a member of the forest understory. They will simply grow more healthily when they have full sun all day long. Not to mention, the lovely foliage on the tree creates a beautiful dappled shade.
How is Honey Locust Trees Used?
The wood from a honey locust tree is of very high quality. It is durable, flexible, and polishes very well. However, the tree doesn’t grow in solid stands, making it not very significant in the lumber industry.
There is a very niche market for honey locust furniture, however. The wood is also used in the manufacturing of fences, rails, and posts, because of its rot-resistant quality.
Additionally, mature thorns taken from the tree are strong enough to be used as nails!
First Nations cultures have used the pulp from the honey locust tree for medicinal purposes for centuries. The pulp is eaten as food and is sometimes made into a tea to be taken medicinally.
Many species of wildlife also nibble on the fallen fruit pods from the honey locust tree as well. They usually have to be fallen, otherwise, the wildlife has to deal with the unpleasant protective thorns.
The pulp on the inside of the pods is consumed by livestock, small mammals, birds, and many types of larger omnivores as well.
What pests affect the honey locust tree?
Lucky for the honey locust tree, they are resistant to gypsy moths. However, they are easily defoliated by the mimosa webworm and spider mite. There are also rather susceptible to the growth of canker and galls.
Are honey locust pods edible?
The leathery outer pod of the honey locust fruit is tough and inedible, but the white pulp on the inside is not only sweet and delicious, but it is also nutritious as well. This pulp is eaten by many animal species as well as humans.
Do honey locust trees produce pods every year?
The honey locust tree will usually produce large crops of seed pods every 2-3 years, with smaller less productive crops through the years in between.
Does honey locust make for good firewood?
Honey locust trees are fast-growing and invasive, and so they automatically make good firewood. The wood isn’t particularly dense and so it burns quite quickly and tends to produce a lot of smoke. It’s not the best firewood, but it does the trick.
Does honey locust fix nitrogen?
The honey locust is not part of the leguminous family and therefore does not produce root nodules that are nitrogen-fixing. However, recent studies have shown that the tree is actually able to fix nitrogen directly through its roots without the formation of nodules.
Do honey locust trees have flowers?
Honey locust trees have very fragrant and beautiful cream-colored female flowers. Their intense scent is meant to attract pollinators.
Does honeylocust tree make good lumber?
According to the lumber industry, the honey locust does not grow in independent stands that are large enough to make for a good forested tree. Their populations are divided and dispersed, making for difficult foresting.
However, honey locust wood is more of a niche market and is still harvested for the manufacturing of furniture.
How long do honey locust trees live?
Honey locust trees have a lifespan of up to 120 years.
Are honey locust trees fast-growing?
Honey locust trees are incredibly fast-growing trees, with many of them being able to shoot up a baffling 2 meters in their juvenile years.
How tall do honey locust trees get?
The honey locust tree grows between 20 and 30 meters in its lifetime, but the thornless honey locust will usually only grow to be about 15 meters in height.
Should I prune a honey locust tree?
Trees do not need help from humans to grow. The purpose of pruning is only for the preference of the landowner. If you are going to prune, it is best to keep to branches that appear as sick, or are growing in an awkward way and blocking the growth of another branch.
What is the difference between honey locust and black locust?
Black locust trees (robinia pseudoacacia) have bark that is more roughly textured and is much darker in color than the honey locust. A black locust tree will also grow to be taller than its sibling, and its thorns are far less pronounced and intimidating.
How do you identify a honey locust tree?
The most identifiable feature of the honest locust tree is its thorns. These thorns can sometimes reach 8 inches in length and are incredibly strong and sharp. Young thorns are green, turning a deep red in maturity, and to an ashy black as the tree is dying.
How long before a honey locust will flower?
Honey locusts are fast-growing trees and become sexually mature quickly as well. They will usually start to flower and produce seeds after 5 years.
What color are the flowers on a honey locust imperial tree?
The flowers on honey locust trees are cream-colored and very fragrant.
Do all honey locust trees have thorns?
There is a subspecies of honey locust tree that is a thornless honeylocust, and it has been branded as a “Suncole” or “Sunburst” honey locust. Scientists created this tree so that it could be an easier and less thorny ornamental tree.
Is honey locust wood rot resistant?
Yes. This makes honey locust wood a popular option for making posts, rails, and fences.