Black LocustBy Sharon Brown (Sharran)
December 2, 2008
"It's been a blue, blue day, I feel like runnin' away, I feel like runnin' away from it all..." from a song written by Don Gibson
If you stood on the top step leading up to the front porch, and if you turned around to look back at where you had been, you would see the first terraced level of the yard. To the left was the mountain stream that trickled its way from its cold source at the top of the mountain the house was built on. In front of you, there was the sidewalk leading down to the second level, and on to the narrow winding road that wove its way on up the holler. But if you looked to the right, you would see the black locust tree, spreading its limbs over the road below it, and over the overhanging roof of the front porch on its other side. I can see it clear as a bell in the early summer, bees buzzing around its drooping white clusters of flowers. And the scent was heavenly.
I had entered my teens, hit high school with a loud splash, and my moods changed direction as often as the wind whistling through the trees. And I was crazy mad in love. I still wandered with Aunt Bett, and I still helped put those white half runners on long threads to hang in the attic to dry. But nothing acted as a deterrent to my love. I must have grown, not so much in size, but in my ways of thinking, and I spent a lot of time in the shade of the black locust, just thinking.
I could hear them talking: "Where's Sharon? I haven't seen or heard her all day." "Oh she's out under that locust, just pining." "She's too young to pine." "Then you better be the one to tell her that, cause she sure don't listen to me." And I would sit there, watching the clouds, just pining away.
The black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, was a great tree to pine under. Actually it was great for a lot of things. It's lower branches had been trimmed to just about my height, but when it was in bloom, the weight of the flowers caused the limbs to droop. I could very nearly hide under it. It was the tree that I used to crawl under and throw pawpaws down on the heads of unsuspecting boys who walked along the road. By the time I entered my teens I didn't throw any more pawpaws, but I would curl up beneath its limbs and read, and think, and dream of all my tomorrows. That really wasn't pining, because I was pretty sure that Billy and I were crazy in love, but I just liked to think about it. So I let them believe what they liked.
Nobody ever came near the locust, because there were places on its bark where fairly large thorns grew. The thorns rendered it unsuitable for climbing. It also had thorns at the base of each leaf, too, so I didn't have to worry about anybody sneaking up on me, while I was under the black locust. I thought of it as my protector. My little brother was only 5 or 6, and he was terrified of the thorns, that could be because I filled his head with thorny monster stories, sweet sister that I was.
The black locust prefers deep, rich, moist soils, but will grow almost anywhere. It ranges from Nova Scotia to Ontario and throughout the United States from Maine to California. It is a deciduous tree, about 60 to 80 feet tall, with a thick, deeply furrowed, dark brown bark and crooked forking branches. Compound feathery leaves 8 to 10 inches long consist of oval leaflets that are a little more than an inch long. A pair of half inch long thorns forms at the base of each leaf. White sweet scented flower clusters that bloom in May through June resemble pea blossoms. In the fall, smooth brown pods contain the poisonous seeds. Those poisonous seeds formed another layer of protection against my brother. I threatened him with them.
Actually, the tree is a member of the pea family. A North American native, the black locust is believed to have originated in the Appalachian Mountains. At one time, American Indians prepared emetics and strong laxatives from the bark; but since the tree contains mildy toxic substances, it was never used very extensively as a medicine. My family never entertained the thought of using it for anything except its beauty and shade, but I was always curious about all plants so my great Aunt Bett explained to me many of the things that I learned about it. It was certainly widely used as a building timber. Locust posts set in the ground will remain sturdy for 50 years, and that led settlers to spread its range, so it is pretty well established in North America. Its seeds went back with explorers in the 17 century, and its growth expanded throughout Europe. It became the most important timber tree in Hungary and Romania, and became a landscape tree for others. The Europeans also experimented with black locust for medicinal purposes, and a tea was made from the flowers and tried for headaches and nausea. Locust blossoms steeped in wine were used to treat anemia.
The black locust is no longer used for medicine, but the hard, very durable wood is made into fence posts, railroad ties, and mine timbers. Because the trees grow quickly, conservationists favor them for erosion control.
Nearing the end of the '50s when I was just entering my teens, the words of songs and the world of music had entered my life. Every song was written for me. Somewhere along the way transistor radios became the new invention for teens, and we could carry our little transistors with us. It was hard to pick up stations in the mountains, but as things often do, music wafted its way from Knoxville, straight up through all those valleys and hillsides, and I could listen to the music of some really great songwriters. One of the greatest was Don Gibson. He was known as the sad poet, and those of us who were in the angst of first love, lapped it up like the sweetest chocolate. He played his songs in a little Knoxville radio station, and on a clear day I could hear him. I remember Patsy Cline singing his "Sweet Dreams", and it instantly became my song. But then in the late '50s when I heard "I Can't Stop Loving You", then that became my song too. When things were not going so well, there was always one of his others available to all who listened, and on those days under the black locust, I sang along with "It's been a blue, blue day, I feel like runnin' away, I feel like runnin' away from it all."
And so it went beneath the black locust, a little privacy, a lotta music, and a very young teenager, crazy in love.
If you search the web for information on the black locust, all sources will tell you the same thing as I have written, and are similar in what they present. The Reader's Digest Association publication of "Magic and Medicine of Plants", 1986, verified more concisely.
I simply googled Don Gibson for date and song title verification. Again many sites told me what I already knew. Mr. Gibson passed away at age 75 in 2003.
All photos are from Plant Files, thanks to these photographers: Melody, Equilibrium, and Linda_nc.