Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) is a medium to large deciduous tree with an oval crown and short trunk. Leaves are compound and consist of 15-30 long leaflets. Fall color is pale to golden yellow, but leaves frequently dry, orange-brown in late summer. Twigs are stout, zigzag, and tapered. Bark is dark gray-brown, often with reddish or orange tone, sometimes with pale horizontal lenticels. Older trunks have broad ridges peeling from sides. The tree is best identified by its ferocious thorns on its trunk and lower branches. Male and female flowers are on separate trees. Fruits are long pods that are broad, flat, and dark red-brown. They contain a sweet edible flesh (origin of its common name) which has been used as a sugar substitute and fermented to beer. Native to the central and eastern United States, the honey locust is very common in cultivation and was over planted in the 1970s. The trees are prized for their light airy shade and tiny leaflets making minimal mess. Their hard wood has been used for fence production. Cultivated in Europe since 1700. Although this tree is usually well-armed and spiny, spineless and fruitless varieties have been developed for city use (these are termed .inermis – Latin “unarmed”, no thorns). The genus celebrates the contributions of Johann Gottlieb Gleditsch (1714 -1786), director of Botanical Garden, Berlin. The specific epithet comes from the Greek acantha meaning “thorn” and tri meaning “three” in reference to the three-branched thorns on the plant.
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Common name: Honey Locust
Scientific Name (family and order): Gleditsia triacanthos L. (Fabaceae, Fabales)
Species Origin: South and Eastern North America
New Jersey Status: USDA Native
Habit: 70 – 100’ tall, 70’ wide.
Habitat: Zone 4 – 9; found in rich soil, moist woods.
Trunk/Stem: Bark is dark brown, smooth when young but rough and scaly when older, with clusters of branched thorns. The thorns are glossy, reddish brown to dark brown; those on leafy branches are 1 -4” long, unbranched or with 2 short prongs. On the trunk and lower bough thorns may be 12” long, multi-branched and in dense clusters.
Leaves: Deciduous, Pinnately Compound, Alternate. First leaves grow from spurs on the old wood and are pinnate; when leaves grow from new shoots they are usually bipinnate with numerous small leaflets, 1 ½” long; margins have fine serrations; the blades are bright green, turning yellow in autumn. Each leaf has up to 36 leaflets.
Flowers: Dioecious (Polygamo-dioecious: perfect and imperfect flowers on the same tree) Male and female flowers are very small and yellow-green, growing separately in upright 2” long spikes or racemes. Unlike other members of the pea family, the honey locust does not produce the typical “wing and keel” pea flower. The flower is bell-shaped and 5-petaled.
Fruits and seeds: A large brown hanging pod, 18” long which twists into a corkscrew shape on drying. The pod contains 12 – 14 shiny hard, dark brown 3/8” seeds embedded in sweet tasting pulp.