Beware of the Woods

Friends, donned in heavy fur, carried their picnic across the high school stage. Stopping, the two spread a gingham cloth before opening the wooden basket to slowly extract a long link sausage.

At the cue, I raised my bow and launched into my solo on the double bass. All we lacked was the singer:

“If you go down in the woods today

You’re sure of a big surprise . . .

Today’s the day the

Teddy Bears have their picnic.”

While I have yet to run into any kind of bear in the woods (I do know they’re there), the forest near my home certainly can contain big surprises.

I watch my feet, more for erupting roots who’d like to trip me than for snakes, and I stop after every couple of steps to listen for birds and to look for flowers. Once I’ve crossed the tiny stream and climbed up the farther bank, I can stop to admire the view as well.

I see this as a benign pleasure and would hardly anticipate a “big” surprise.

The tree was just that.

Oh, come now, who expects to be threatened by a tree? Well, the Honey Locust could do a pretty good job on any bare skin you might be sporting should you fall against one of its branches.

Lovely name, Honey Locust. Lovely SAFE name and it’s said that the gummy pulp in its long pods have a very sweet taste. I doubt if I’d recommend venturing close enough to find out. Also sometimes called Sweet-bean or (my favorite) “Honey-shucks” it’s, not surprisingly, also known as the Thorny Locust or, simply, the Thorn Tree. This tree means business.

Closely related to the Common Locust, I suspect we’re all familiar with this tree’s fragrant drooping clusters of pea-like flowers which appear in the spring. There are many alternate leaves on each branch which holds 18 or more green leaflets. The later fruits are thin flat twisted brown pods, generally two to four inches in length, about half an inch wide and filled with four to eight small brown seeds. In the latter throes of depression, if not death, while discovered in mid-summer, my tree’s branches were nude.

The Water Locust, a very close cousin, is found in river bottoms or swamps and surprisingly has “practically no commercial value” at all. So much for family relationships.

It turns out the Honey Locust is indeed a valuable tree for its timber is strong and durable, hard and heavy, as well as shock resistant, easily split and capable of being polished to a high luster. It is used for posts and rails since it is durable and slow to rot if in contact with soil. In the olden times, its thorns were used for nails while tree nails for shipbuilding were fashioned from the wood itself. It can also be used for general construction though only as a niche since there aren’t sufficient numbers to support any major industry.

Native Americans used the dried pulp as food and also fermented it to make beer. Extracts from various parts of the plant were also used in their medicine, particularly to treat rheumatoid arthritis and various cancers. Bows were fashioned from its wood.

This tree is also a favorite for many kinds of wildlife. White-tailed deer, squirrels, rabbits, opossums and raccoons feast on the bean pods while the tree is capable of forming dense thickets of thorny vegetation, strongly preferred by many game animals and birds. Flowers, it says, are incredibly attractive to pollinating insects.

The bad news (besides those thorns) is that in many areas it has become a weed tree and a pest that threatens to take over farm fields. Its spines can damage both people and domestic and native wildlife and puncture tires. Its fast growth may allow it to push out wanted grasses and other crops. Cutting young trees simply makes the stumps and roots sprout more quickly, compounding the problem exponentially.

The good news (yes!) is that a thornless variety has been established as a popular ornamental plant. It can survive and prosper where other trees might not. It doesn’t object to city life, alkaline or compacted soil, road salt, heat or drought. It transplants easily, grows quickly and tolerates poor site conditions where shade might be wanted quickly, such as in new parks or housing developments. Some thornless varieties may be found in the wild, but are certainly available as nursery plants. Once established, this tree is generally maintenance free. It will grow tall and upright if the lower limbs are trimmed.

I have to admit those bright yellow fall leaves are hugely attractive. Still . . .

“It’s lovely down in the woods today,

But safer to stay at home!”

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at