For many tree enthusiasts and amateurs, July’s Tree of the Month is possibly the easiest tree to identify and the one most likely to give a nice gash. Gleditsia triacanthos, otherwise known as the honey locust, is native to the central United States and commonly has an arrangement of sharp thorns along its bark to scare away nosy animals and pests, making it feel more like a cactus than a tree!
But don’t be afraid of its anti-social attitude, for the honey locust is a very pretty and useful tree that is commonly planted as an ornamental. Its leaves are delicate and narrow, arranged in an alternating compound form that allows more light to reach the ground and can permit other trees or plants to flourish underneath its canopy. In the fall the leaves can turn to a striking golden yellow. The honey locust is a very fast grower, and commonly reaches heights of around 70 to 100 feet. Unfortunately Gleditsia triacanthos does not normally live as long as other trees and can die as early as 100 years.
The flowers of the honey locust are small and not showy, but the fruits are borne in long slender pods 15 to 40 cm long with sticky and sweet bean-like seeds. Expect flowering to happen May through June and for fruit to appear in September and October. Although the honey locust does not help to make honey, the name was given to the sweet taste of the seeds themselves, which were often eaten by Native Americans. They were also used as a coffee substitute and can even be fermented. Needless to say, they are very popular with the local wildlife as well!
It is possible to see many honey locusts in Washington D.C. because the species is highly adaptable and can grow well in urban conditions. Although they prefer moist and well-drained conditions, they are also drought resistant and tolerate a good amount of salinity. This means that they are well suited to D.C.’s marshy and humid environment and can tolerate the frequent use of road salt as well as adapting to the compact soil found along roads and sidewalks.
Likewise, the honey locust is generally free from diseases and pests except for the mimosa webworm defoliator and the canker fungus. So when thinking about a great tree, think about the ease of maintenance, the unique look (as long as you are careful!), and the versatility and adaptability of Gleditsia Triacanthos as you think about planting your next tree. In D.C., the honey locust is commonly planted but look to the National Gallery of Art grounds, 1st Street SE near Independence Avenue, and at the intersection of C Street and Sixth Street, NE for the best chance to check this tree out for yourself!
To find out other places where they grow, check out our interactive tree map. Red dots signify trees planted by the city.