Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia L.), when not in flower, is one of the most unassuming trees in the forest. With its relatively short lifespan and subdued foliage, it is hated by some and loved by others. Thorny, dense and incredibly useful, it's often twisted-growth heralds fields which have only recently returned to the forest. Not only is it Native to the Southeast, but it also may have originated in the region.
It is an incredibly useful tree, and is aptly the 3rd most planted hardwood species in the world. Yet many people, from ecologists to farmers, speak of this native tree as a weed, or invasive-like species. I see it as a healing tree, for its uses as a reclamation species for its fast growth, durable wood, edible flowers and soil stabilizing qualities. Though it has formidable thorns in its youth, it is a healer of damaged land.
Black Locust is a nitrogen fixer, it is adaptable to a wide variety of climates and soil conditions and is tolerant of drought. It truly is a lovely tree. In the family Fabaceae, the beautiful, fragrant flowers look very much like any sweet pea. It is also very easy to propagate in a variety of ways. Locust's real claim to fame however is its incredibly durable, rot-resistant wood. It is known as the strongest in North America.
This tree has a strong connection with the bee people and is a major source of nectar in the United States. They have been planted in Europe and the honey made from its flowers is known as acacia honey there. Lightning also strikes the locust more often that any other tree, and the oak tree comes next. This giver of thorns and sweetness is also tolerant of human kind's pollution, creating an interesting fusion of light and dark, bitter and sweet.
Black Locust trees have had practical significance since before the arrival of Europeans on our continent. It is believed that First Nations people moved this useful tree from the mountains to the coastal plains for its excellence as bow wood. The wood's rot resistance also made is indispensable to build the first buildings of James Town during the height of colonization. The flavonoids in it's heartwood make it able to resist rot for up to 100 years! It is still used to line the colonial beds in the gardens at Williamsburg. So loved was this tree it was exported to Europe where its beautiful, sweet smelling flowers made it a favorite ornamental and even lent its flowers for use in perfumery.
Some say the Black Locust even helped America to win the War of 1812, for our boats used locust nails, rather than the oak nails of the English. This caused the English ships to fall apart more easily as they sustained cannon fire, while the American ships held fast. It remains to be seen how true this is rather than a fancy of historical folklore, but never the less, it is a testament to the tree's intense strength.
Because of its rot resistance and density, it was used to build support beams in houses, handrails, fences, tool handles, ships and watercraft, excellent firewood, and any wooden structure exposed to the elements.
The wood is not the only useful part of this beautiful tree. The flowers are edible and taste like fresh sweet peas. In Japan they are battered and fried, while in Romania, a fragrant, delicate jam is made from the blossoms. You can also brew with them and use them in meads and wines. Here's a great wine recipe from Southern Forager. I eat them fresh in salads every year.
In folk medicine, Black Locust was used as, " anastringent, cholagogue, diuretic, emetic, emollient, laxative, POISON, protisticidal, purgative, sedative, tonic, and vircidal, black locust is a folk remedy for dyspepsia and spasms (Duke and Wain, 1981). Cherokee used the plant as an emetic and for toothache (3).
Blackthorn was used in folk medicine as well. In pre-industrial Europe, the vitamin C-rich fruits were a remedy for inflammation of the mouth and throat, and the diuretic leaves and flowers were used to clear excess fluids from the body. (12)
While there is not much mention of Black Locust beyond its associations with lightening in Appalachian folklore, but I believe there is much to be drawn from comparing Black Locust magically with the European Blackthorn tree(Prunus spinosa). Though botanically unrelated, it's uses in folk magic and its prominence in English folklore can inspire New World witches in using our native Black Locust similarly as it is a thorn bearing tree.
Blackthorn has much folklore surrounding it in Europe. In Germany, it was the Blackthorn that made diving rods or wishing rods and was believed to cure disease. It was here they also believed he first Blackthorn spring from the corpse of a heathen in battle. In Sussex, England the inner bark was used until rather recently as a tea for a variety of ailments. A wine was also made from the fruit. Similar thorn-ed species such as Whitethorn and Hawthorn were all used to hang above doorways to keep away witchcraft and ill will. In the sharp thorns of these species, the evil would become entangled, unable to affect the dwellers within. Despite this, bringing in the blossoming branches was seen as a sure way to bring about bad luck.(1)
The following charm was used to keep a wound from a thorn of any kind from becoming infected in England,
"Our Savior was of a Virgin born,
His head was crowned with a crown of thorn;
It never canker'd nor festered at all,
And I hope in Christ Jesus this never shaull." (1)
If you've ever gotten stuck with a Black Locust thorn, you'll know its near impossible to prevent it from getting a bit pussy.
Blackthorn was seen as an imposing tree which, with its lovely white flowers contrasted against it's dangerous thorns, represented the play between life and death. It carries many associations with the Fae, death, and the underworld. Many early religions saw the world in terms of polarities and dualisms. The Blackthorn went from being seen as a tree of complex interplay between two opposing forces, to the cause of or promoter of evil. This is where the delightful witchy associations come in. Blackthorn was believed to be used for black magic and cursing. Witch burning pyres were even fueled by Blackthorn wood in Inquisitional Spain (12). Yet, as we mentioned above, the tree retained some of it's protective associations and these protective household uses persisted in Eastern Europe.
While Blackthorn and Black locust are very different in their practical uses and wood types, I believe by adopting some of the folklore around Blackthorn, we can make more magical use of the Black Locust here in the U.S. Instead of buying and shipping Blackthorn from great distances, we can make our own Blasting and divining rods with our humble Locust. Use Black Locust wood for those items intended for rites of defense, blessing, cursing, fertility and power (13).
Use the thorn of Black Locust to fill witch bottles, as an awl for ritual leatherworks, and as pins in poppets or other baneful magics. Use what grows around us for your works, and fuel your magic with the power of our bioregion.
What can I make with it?
Flowers: Eat them! Brew with them! Wear them in perfume!
Wood: Handles for tools, excellent bows, mallets, hammers, and pegs for timber frames. It also makes lovely combs.
Thorns can be used for piercing in spell work (do not pierce yourself! It can get easily infected!!), wands for similar uses to Blackthorn. Ritual combs and hair pieces, durable stangs.
(1) Friend, Hilderic. Flower Lore. Rockport, MA: Para Research, 1981. Print.
(3) https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Robinia_pseudoacacia.html#Folk Medicine
(11) "Black Locust: A Multi-purpose Tree Species for Temperate Climates".
(12) Hageneder, Fred. The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2005. Print.
(13) Gary, Gemma. The Black Toad. Troy Books.: Troy, 2012. Print.
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