Sunday, May 27, 2007

Black Locust

What’s blooming in the area: Purple and white locusts, locoweed, oxalis, tamarix, snowball, privet peaked, silver lace vine, red hot poker, short yucca with stiff leaves peaked, Joseph’s coat, Austrian copper, pink shrub, Dr. Huey, miniature, tea and other hybrid roses, Apache plume, skunkbush, four-winged saltbush, oriental poppy, peony, fern-leaf globemallow, purple beardtongue, purple salvia, white evening primrose, purple mat flower, bindweed, wooly plantain, blanket flower, goatsbeard, hawkweed, native and common dandelion, rice, redtop and three awn grass; tumble mustard near 5' where sunflowers grew several years ago; long needle grass seeds are reflecting light into sheets of white; downy chess turning brown, buffalo gourd and milkweed visible from road; daylilies have buds.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Lady Banks rose, golden spur columbine, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow; buds on hartwegi, coreopsis, chocolate flower.

Looking east: Coral bells, thrift, pinks, small-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, creeping baby’s breath, pink evening primrose, last year’s snapdragons, pink salvia, rockrose, winecup, California poppy, Mount Atlas daisy, Kellerer yarrow; buds on hollyhock; zinnia and sweet alyssum seed sprouting.

Looking south: Weigela, beauty bush, spirea has few flowers left, raspberry; rugosa rose; buds on floribundas and Blaze; glads, cosmos and bundle flower broke ground.

Looking west: Iris, flax, catmint, baptista; buds on sea lavender and Valerie Finnis artemisia; perennial four o’clock emerged.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy, marigold.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium; buds on coral honeysuckle.

Animal sightings: Red-throated bird was calling from utility line after Wednesday’s rain; large yellow and black butterfly (or moth) landed with open wings on beauty bush; large bumble bee at top of locust; grasshoppers, mosquitoes and crickets have been hatching; large black ants were stealing zinnia seeds Sunday.

Weather: Full moon; stormy weather most of week, with real rain Friday; sandwiched between the cloudy, windy afternoons was our first summery weather which killed two roses with weak roots. Horseweed seeds no doubt are ready to sprout where I pulled plants from wet ground yesterday.

Weekly update: When I got out of my car Monday evening, I discovered my black locust was blooming.

My exhilaration didn’t just come from the contrast with the temporarily still weather. When I saw trees covered with white clusters in the village last weekend, I told myself this was another year when my only reward would be that my tree had survived the frost.

I planted the bare root sapling in 2000. It first bloomed in 2004, when it was about six years old, which is about when the species begins to bear seeds. The next year, I thought I’d killed the shallow roots when I dug a hole for another shrub, and the leaves died. Last year, the leaves emerged around April 15, and were killed by frost a week later. No more flowers. This year it waited until May 2, and still the leaves were blasted May 9.

I can’t say my tree is beautiful. The frost apparently killed the potential blossoms near the canopy base. At the top, some branches had shot up, and destroyed the general symmetry. They are the ones now weighed by heavy racemes that toss in the wind like camels’ heads.

It’s another plant so sensitive to temperature that every ten feet of altitude translate into flowers a day later. I don’t know if that’s why it leafs and blooms from the bottom, or why the top branches were saved by their height, or even if that’s why my tree is slower than the ones in the village.

I certainly don’t understand how nature can produce a tree that so consistently gets its timing wrong. Even in its native range, the zone 6 Appalachians and Ozarks, George R. Trimble says Robinia pseudoacacia is highly susceptible to frost damage. Outside the range in England, Allan Mitchell complains black locusts bloom less often than not.

Even though nature guarantees the large florets will attract bees, even to the heights, it doesn’t rely on seeds for reproduction. This locust only produces a good crop about half the time. Instead, trees expand through root suckers into copses.

Worse than suckers, thorns and blighted springs, Mitchell grumbles he’s left with a graceless, brittle tree in summer. In Albuquerque, Rosa Doolittle warns it’s scraggy in winter, and the pods, when they do appear, are a nuisance.

If master gardeners disdain it, nature has found other admirers. Its Leguminosae roots support bacteria which divert nitrogen from the air into the soil. It’s so effective, other species, including catalpa, grow better when they can take advantage of its largesse. Coal land owners use it to reclaim stripe mines, and, in Europe, trees have colonized large areas reduced to rubble by war.

People in the village grow it anyway. A few have purple cultivars, but most have tucked the white species into a fence row where it fertilizes its neighbors without defiling the area near the house. We’ve all learned, beauty comes with imperfections and compensations.

Doolittle, Rosalie. Southwest Gardening, 1967.

Huntley, J. C. "Black Locust," in Russell M. Burns and Barbara H. Honkala, Silvics of North America, 1990.

Mitchell, Alan. The Gardener’s Book of Trees, 1981.

Trimble, George R. Summaries of Some Silvical Characteristics of Several Appalachian Hardwood Trees, 1975, cited by Huntley.

Photograph: Black Locust, 26 May 2007.

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