Dare I Speak the Name?

As I was bicycling down the rail trail that runs past my back yard, I was almost bowled over by a most delectable aroma wafting from a most despised plants. Autumn olive blossomsThe plants were autumn olives (Elaeagnus umbellata), shrubs whose fine qualities I’m reluctant to mention for fear of eliciting scorn from you knowledgable readers.

Yet, you’ve got to admit that the plant does have its assets, in addition to the sweet perfume of its flowers. Okay, here goes: The plant is decorative, with silvery leaves that are almost white on their undersides. And the masses of small fruits dress up the stems as they turn silver-flecked red (yellow, in some varieties) in late summer. Autumn olive fruitThose fruits are very puckery until a little after they turn red, but then become quite delicious, and healthful.

(I included autumn olive in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, and also planted them — but that was before the plant became illegal here.)

Another asset of autumn olive is that it actually improves the soil, converting air-borne nitrogen, which plants can’t use, into soil-borne nitrogen for use by autumn olives and nearby plants.

This native of Asia, introduced into the U.S. almost 200 years ago, was promoted in the last century as a plant for wildlife and soil improvement. Decades ago I worked for the USDA in what was then known as the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resource Conservation Service), an agency that not only promoted the plant but also developed varieties for extensive planting.autumn olive fruits in bowl

Autumn olive likes it here and has invaded fields throughout the northeast, the Pacific northwest, and even Hawaii. It’s an invasive plant. Don’t grow it! (But feel free to enjoy its aroma, its beauty, and its fruits.)

One of My Favorite “Invasives”

As autumn olive blossoms fade, the temporary vacuum in sweet-perfumed air will be filled by another plant, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). That aroma comes from the white blossoms that dangle in chains like wisteria blooms from this tree’s branches.Black locust flowers

Like autumn olive, black locust has other assets in addition to those offered by its blossoms. It’s a leguminous plant, like peas and beans, so, with the help of bacteria residing in its roots, also puts air-borne nitrogen into a form utilizable by plants. 

Black locust’s other assets refer to it when dead: The dense wood is very resistant to rot — much, much more so than cedar — and is very high in BTUs for burning. I converted all my garden’s fenceposts and arbors, which I had previously made from cedar and lasted only about 10 years, to locust.

I’m lucky enough to have a mini-forest of them growing along one edge of my property. I cut them when they are five or six inches in diameter, and in 10 or so years I have a new one to replace the cut one. It adds up.

Quick growth and the ability to resprout from stumps and grow in poor soil by “making” its own nitrogen makes black locust, like autumn olive, a plant not loved by everyone. Despite being native here in the U.S., black locust has been classified as a “native invasive.” The reason is that it was originally native to only two regions in the U.S., from which it has now spread far and wide.

Change Will Come

The classification of “native invasive” highlights the capricious legality and classification of invasive plants. Where is the boundary within which a plant becomes an accepted native? In the mountain that rises up just behind my valley setting, lowbush and highbush blueberry are thriving natives. But these plants would never turn up here on my land, except that I planted them. (And both thrive.)

Clove currant is another plant I grow, one that, in addition to bearing spicy fruits, is resistant to just about every threat Nature could throw at it: deer, insects diseases, cold, drought. And it’s a native plant, but native throughout the midwest, not here. Should I call it a “native?”

Black locust is such a useful tree that its spread was aided and abetted by humans. But it also would have spread, albeit more slowly, without our intervention. Even autumn olive, given enough time, might have hitch-hiked here in some way from Asia.

The Earth’s landscape is not static. Changes represent interactions of climate, vectors, chance, and time. Nostalgia may have us wishing for the view out the window to remain the same as it was when we were children, but that’s not Mother Nature’s way.

Loving Locust

With a bit over 2 acres of land to play around with, I could have a woodlot. But I don’t. (I do harvest a lot of sunlight, though.) Still, because this is what I call a farmden (more than a garden, less than a farm), trees, aside from fruit trees, have to fit into the picture. To wit, four sugar maples planted  in 1997 as a sugarbush for tapping in another 20 years and my locust mini-grove.
Locust — black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, that is — is a tree of many qualities. For starters, the roots can garner nitrogen from the air and put it into a form the tree can use, eventually putting it in the soil. Black locust also laughs off heat, drought, air pollution, and road salt. The tree’s craggy branches and deeply furrowed bark are fondly reminiscent of those trees that hugged Dorothy on the yellow brick road to Oz. Towards the end of next month, chains of pale lavender blossoms will be dangling from the branches. More than just pretty, these flowers fill the air with a sweet aroma that carries far.
What more could one ask from a tree? Wood! Some of which I was harvesting from my locust mini-grove last week. The grove is a stand of locusts of various ages popping up in a swathe about 15 feet wide by about 60 feet long. Forsythia shares that space as understory, new plants developing wherever canes arch to the ground to root. The locust grove formed naturally from a long-gone nearby grove on a neighbor’s property, felled by chainsaws, the new plants arising from dropped seeds as well as from root suckers.

Locust is one of the best woods for burning, but cutting trees from my mini-grove for firewood would hardly be worth it. One week in winter would decimate the small patch.
The locust I cut is destined for posts. Locust is one of the most rot-resistant woods, putting even cedar to shame. It can outlast pressure-treated wood, offering a nice rustic look to boot. Spring, before the leaves come out, is a perfect time for cutting locust for posts because that’s when the bark peels off easily in long strips.
The locust posts are for a new grape trellis. My grapes started out being trained to the traditional 4-arm Kniffen system, on two wires, one at 6 feet and the other at 3 feet from the ground. Two canes, originating near a central trunk, are trained horizontally in either direction along each wire to give a total of 4 canes each shortened to about 10 buds long. (A “cane” is a one-year-old stem.
The 4-arm Kniffen system has its limitations in terms of exposing the vine to maximum light, which translates into better-tasting grapes, and keeping foliage and berries dry, which translates into less disease.
So,a few years ago I morphed the vines to the high wire cordon system. A trunk about 6 feet high branched into two permanent arms (cordons) that travelled in opposite directions along a wire at trunk height. In this case, instead of being left with 4 long canes after pruning, the vine is left with many short canes drooping downwards right off the cordons.
We bag some of grape bunches to foil the birds and the bees, as well as other pests. Bagging also lets fruits hang on the vine longer without damage and so develop sweetness and aromatics that make for finest flavor. The problem with the 4-arm Kniffen and high wire cordon systems of training are that the fruiting shoots droop downwards, which makes bagging difficult and puts the bags at an angle that defies gravity, not a good thing. Which is why my grapes have morphed again, this time to a 5-wire trellis system.
The latest incarnation of grape support consists, then, of sturdy T-trellises spaced 10 feet apart. Running perpendicularly to the cross-arms of the T are 5 wires, the middle one to support 2 cordons growing off horizontally in opposite directions atop each vine’s 7 foot high trunk. The other wires will support the fruiting shoots that grow from short canes along the cordon perpendicularly to the outrigging wires. The more horizontal growth of the fruiting shoots should make bagging easier.
So it’s locust wood from my mini-grove that will deserve some thanks for luscious grapes.
Not everyone is as enamored with black locust as I am. Many classify it as an invasive plant; here in New York, I’ve seen it classified as a native invasive plant. It originated in southeastern U.S. but now ranges far and wide because of its fecundity and it’s tolerance for a wide range of conditions below and above ground. The tree’s beauty and utility have also contributed to its spread, by humans.
My only beef with black locust is with its thorns. Still, I like my black locusts and I like my grapes.