In this patch of paradise

known as the Grand Course, we have our distinctive urban forest.

Just as the southwest has the ubiquitous saguaro, these precincts have the ubiquitous honey locust.

Yes, there are some oaks in the tree pits along the avenue. You can recognize red oaks among others by the sharp points at the tips of their leaves. Also there is the occasional pin oak, with deeply carved nodes on their leaves. Pin oaks rock, if you ask me.

A Chinese elm with its crazed, beautiful bark.

A gingko with fan leaves a-flutter. Somehow, dating back eons, it just looks just right with prayer flags adorning it.

Elm, whose leaves in this case reveal that some nibbling has taken place.

A few London planes, with their distinctive camouflage bark. You can call the London plane an l.p if you want to seem in the know at an arborist get-together. If you do attend such a gathering, prepare to quaff a lot of beer.

Even an amur maple, with its sinuous silver trunk.

But the honey locust dominates the landscape in this part of the Bronx.

It’s an creature with an unusual pedigree, the honey locust. Gleditsia triancanthos comes to us from Central North America, where its feet like the damp soil of river banks. The flat plates of its trunk are instantly recognizable.

Sometimes it’s called thorny locust or thorny honeylocust. The reason is obvious.

The trunk and branches protect themselves from eager eaters with noxious prickers, probably evolving from long-ago protection from hungry Pleistocene megafauna. The tree is invasive in Australia, where great tangles of tree thorns prohibit cattle grazing. On a side note, it is said that American Confederate soldiers used the thorns to fasten their uniforms together. Just saying. Few knew how to sew, I guess.

Well, to make use of its advantages – honey locust is fast growing, hardy, able to withstand bad soils, drought-resistant, possessed of a delicate canopy, perfect urban tree in so many ways – those thorns would have to go. Come the botanists, those magician scientists who cross this with that plant and come up with a (usually) improved variety. We now have Gleditsia triacanthos var inermis, which lacks those pesky thornsYou won’t see a Gleditsia with thorns in New York City.

Though I happen to agree with poet Marianne Moore in Roses Only, “Your thorns are the best of you.” Perhaps that is why I like the thorny version so much.

It may not be widely known in our parts that the fruits of this tree are long pods containing seeds surrounded by a bright green legume pulp which is edible and sweet and has historically been used by Native American people for food, medicine and tea.

Not at the moment considered a gourmet delicacy here on the Grand Concourse, where chicharrones reign supreme. Perhaps worth some experimentation, though, for a high school science project or some such.

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Filed under Jean Zimmerman

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