Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

A Pleasure of Locusts

They've been called 'the settlers' ornamental'. And they seldom let me down. The distinctive tousled Black Locust tree so often serves as a clue to the presence of an early homestead. Almost without fail, a beautiful old home and outbuildings will appear, sheltered by these scraggy gentle giants. Only occasionally, incongruously, a slightly sheepish modern house is to be found, sitting where the ancestors once built.

The farmhouse I grew up in had locust trees out front. Heady fragrance and exotic flowers in June added to the general euphoria of end of the school year. In the late summer, I was fascinated by the castoff exoskeletons of moulting cicadas, clinging to the Locusts' deeply ridged bark. During the dormant months I loved their scraggly profile against winter skies, or shadowed on snow, and the rattling pea-like seed pods which remained like a promise.

L: locusts in ice C: mom
Turns out a lot has been written about the Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). In fact, the tree was often called acacia in descriptions from the nineteenth century. A lot has been written by one woman, in fact, one Sherry Hambly in the Forest History Journal of Ontario (who knew?).

Although she is as drawn, as I always am, to their awkward, "lacily disjointed" silhouette in the sky, she admitted the research became a bit of a slog.
north of Grafton

The Black Locust gets around. It's a native to the Appalachian mountains and Ozark plateau region, and was 'discovered' (never mind that the local first people valued the wood for bows and arrows, and the toxic resin for medicinal purposes) by European naturalists in the early 1600s in Virginia. Specimens returned to England and Europe for the landscaping market over the next centuries.

King's Mill Road near Stirling

near Stirling
 Although it's subject to all sorts of pests, Black Locust wood is extremely strong - (nails made of locust wood were implicated in a successful naval battle on Lake Champlain in 1814.

north of Belleville
Other interesting facts:
-it's related to legumes (those pods are a give-away,) with nitrogen fixing properties
- it propagates by seeds (those pods again) but most commonly by suckering
- it is a bad tree, considered an invasive species and a 'tree killer'
-photos and distribution map here, courtesy of UoGuelph
- and lots more
near Smithfield

And how did the Black Locust make its way to Canada West in the years following the American Revolution? I'll quote Sherry Hambly, from a history of  a church in York Mills: "Apparently, the 'acacia' trees planted around it were transplanted from Long Island by an early settler, Cornelius Von Nostrand, who came to the area in the late 1700s." And we think we know the occasion.

The Experimental Farm in Ottawa established a Black Locust in its arboretum in 1890 (wonder how many there are now?)

Bowerman's Church, PEC
 And because no conversation with me happens without a sidebar: check out this lovely project called Caledon Heritage Trees. Although the document features not a single Loyalist Black Locust, it's an encouraging and important idea.

Hazzard's Corners Church

I've just been reminded that ancient Black Locusts surround very old Hazzard's Corners church, north east of Madoc. I was fortunate to visit a few years ago, in June. The scent was almost too heady for a sedate old Methodist churchyard.

Hazzard's Corners champion Grant reports that the trees seemed to have perished in a heavy frost a few years ago, but clearly they bounced back. Further proof, if proof were further required, that they are a hardy breed, indeed.

By May our doughty Black Locusts will be in pinnately compound leaf, by June in intoxicating flower. And all summer and fall their messy spreading branches and crinkled ancient bark will herald the appearance of yet another worthy heritage house to admire.

near Charleston Lake PP


  1. Nails from wood? Who knew?
    Thank you for a reminder that spring and green and leaves will return...

  2. Ah, if I'd said pegs or trunnels (tree nails) that might have created a more seaworthy picture in your mind.

  3. We had an ancient old black locust beside our family home in Peterborough. The house was built in 1896 by an ancestral cousin of my fathers who originated in P.E.C. Maybe he brought the seedling to remind him of home?

  4. Lovely house, "north of Grafton" (3rd pic).

  5. I think it's on Shelter Valley Road, but need to get back there to confirm (and see it again.)