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Honeylocust: the thorny tree of the midwest.

The honeylocust name is an ancient one. The botanical name for honeylocust, Gleditsia triacanthos, dates back to 1753 when it was named in honor of Johann Gottlieb Gleditsch, a professor of botany in Berlin. The name triacanthos -- three thorned -- refers to the tree's thorns.

The English name has its roots in the Bible. Hugh Johnson in his book "The Encyclopedia of Trees," notes that "The term locust, which has stuck with several members of the family, started as the Latin word for lobster." Johnson said it was then used to describe the hopping bugs which resembled grasshoppers. According to the Bible, locusts were the food John the Baptist ate with wild honey as, "his diet in the wilderness," although more recent reading of the Bible gives his food to be the fruit of the carob trees. The names black locust and honeylocust are also said to be derived from a similarity to the carob trees.

Locusts generally belong to three genera: Gleditsia, Robinia and Ceratonia. The true honeylocust is generally believed to be Gleditsia triacanthos, but in some areas the name honeylocust is also used for Robinia psuedoacacia or false acacia, commonly known as black locust. However, according to Larry Frye, executive director of the Fine Hardwoods/American Walnut Assn., botanists classify honeylocust with the Kentucky coffeetree and redbud, rather than with the black locust, Robinia psuedoacacia.

Sturdy, but only locally used

Of the three species of Gleditsia that thrive in North America, honeylocust represents the largest of the species. Honeylocust's chief timber use is for fence posts and railroad ties because of its strength and innate ability to resist decay. It is also used for furniture production, interior finish, turnery and rough construction and is considered an ornamental tree. Honeylocust is sturdy and "wind firm" and generally free from disease. It also transplants well.

Yet, despite its varied uses, honeylocust is not an especially important tree commercially. One veneer dealer explained that there is nothing wrong with honeylocust, just that it is a scarce tree. "The wood is nice enough looking, with an attractive figure and color and good strength properties. But there is simply not enough of the tree to make it in demand," he explained.

"You will find that the areas using honeylocust are mostly the areas where it grows. It has been lumped with black locust because it has many of the same uses -- fence posts and railing plus general construction uses," he added.

Honeylocust grows in the United States most successfully from western Pennsylvania to southeastern South Dakota, south in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma to eastern Texas. It grows east to Alabama and north as far as the Appalachian Mountains with the prime growing area in the valleys of small streams in the southern parts of Indiana and Illinois.

The honeylocust trees of Gleditsia also grow in other areas of the world. Gleditsia is a group of some dozen species that grow in North and South America, Africa and Asia. Other honeylocusts from around the world include Gleditsia japonica or Japanese locust; Gleditsia sinensis or Chinese honeylocust from Peking; and Gleditsia Caspica or the caspian locust from northern Iran. Gleditsia coronilla is from Brazil and Argentina.

Thorny tree, coarse wood

The most telling feature of Gleditsia is that the tree is thorny -- so thorny, in fact, that the tree is described as formidable. Once you get past the ferocious looking thorns on honeylocust's trunk, another sure-fire way to identify the tree is from the single pinnate leaves and long, thick-edged seed-pods.

The wood has a reddish, brown heart-wood and a thin, pale yellow sapwood. The wood is strong and coarse.

The common names of honeylocust are honey shucks locust and sweet bean tree. Those names are said to refer to the sweet pulp in the immature seed pods. The pods from the honeylocust are a flat dark brown or purple color and provide food for cattle, deer, rabbits and other wildlife. The pods grow to 1 foot or longer and mature in early winter. Honeylocusts also yield flowers that are fragrant and a favorite with bees and birds who eat the nectar.

Honeylocust is a tough and strong wood and it is extremely durable when exposed to the elements or in contact with soil. The trees thrive in moist and fertile soil, often growing along streams or lakes. The honeylocust tree grows in single or scattered groups. Its use is affected by the small amount of the tree. However, the trees grown for shade and for ornamentals have been cultivated. Two cultivars include the sunburst honeylocust which bears beautiful golden leaves and the inermis, which has no thorns.

Honeylocust trees when young have trunks and branches with a very smooth bark that is gray to brown. The mature tree's bark is much thicker and divided into narrow ridges caused by fissures in the bark. The mature bark will peel off in strips. The long thorny bristles are visible on immature and mature trees and the forked thorns grow from deep inside the tree. Botanists say the thorns come from buds in the tree and some honeylocust trees have thorns that grow leaves in addition to the honeylocusts traditional leaves -- the compound and double compound pinnate leaves.

Family Names

Gleditsia triacanthos of the Family Leguminosae

Other Names

Honeylocust, honey locust, common honeylocust, honey shucks locust, sweet bean tree


Average height is 75 feet with 2 to 3 foot diameters but can grow to maximum height of 140 feet with 6 foot diameter. Average weight is 44 pounds per cubic square foot.


Honeylocust is hard, heavy and strong wood. Wood is course grained. Slightly hard to work with hand or power tools. Will finish well. Highly durable when in contact with soil.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Wood of the Month
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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