You are driving north on 177 leaving Shawnee Oklahoma. Out of the corner of your eye you see a wooly mammoth lumbering across a field. Slamming on your brakes you watch in awe as the elephant sized animal pauses in front of a honey locust tree.

You are driving north on 177 leaving Shawnee Oklahoma. Out of the corner of your eye you see a wooly mammoth lumbering across a field. Slamming on your brakes you watch in awe as the elephant sized animal pauses in front of a honey locust tree. Using its trunk the mammoth grabs several dangling twisted seed pods and shoves them into its mouth. You just witnessed one of the animals that evolved side by side with the honey locust tree millions of years ago. The North American Pleistocene animals such as mastodons, giant sloths and camelops (prehistoric camels) munched on sweet honey locust pods, the green grapefruit sized fruits of the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera), the large leathery seed pods of the Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioica) and the heavy pulpy fruits of the Pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba.) These surviving lineages of trees supported ancient wildlife that became extinct about 11,000 years ago.

Behold the honey locust tree. Perhaps you call it the sweet bean tree, three thorn acacia or sweet locust. Scientifically recognized as Gleditsia triacanthos. Gleditsia honors Johann Gottlieb Gleditsch (1714-1786), the director of the Botanical Garden in Berlin. I love saying Gleditsia. The tongue and front teeth are seriously involved when you say Gleditsia. Tri means three and acantha is Greek for thorn, thus triacanthos describes three-parted thorns. The wicked honey locust thorns may reach 4 inches in length (some 8 inches long) in solitary or 3 branched splendor. Initially the thorns are soft and pliable, but harden as they age. Old thorns become brittle. Whatever the stage, this makes for a formidable native plant.

The tolerance to drought, clay soils, road salt, deer and auto exhaust makes the honey locust, especially the thornless variety, quite good for city life. The thornless honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos variety ‘inermis’) is aptly named as inermis means unarmed. The trees transplant easily and grow fast. These defenseless trees live along the edge of the parking lot at Shawnee Lowe’s and I have found them in the middle of a car-infested lot in front of a computer store in Colesville, Maryland. The armed trees thrive in the forested areas of Cross Timbers, but a few thornless honey locust trees do crop up from time to time. Contribute the lack of thorns to the mystery of genetics and also the source of the commercially available thornless honey locust cultivars. In a similar vein, columnar red cedar trees were seen growing along fences and in pastures. Some enterprising souls envisioned a market, propagated the linear varieties, and, voila, the urban red cedar hit the scene.

The natural range of the honey locust pretty well encompasses the Mississippi River basin. The trees just lost their bright yellow leaves. Many of the twisted dark seed pods have fallen away to the ground. Although the pods can be a bane to homeowners, the carbohydrate filled pulp (35% sugar) that surrounds the seeds makes it an attractive food source for horses, cattle, goats, deer, squirrels, quail, rabbits and starlings. Who knew? The larger animals munch the pods and disperse the indigestible seeds already wrapped up in fertilizer, ready to germinate in the spring.

Humans also figured out the crisp, sweet pulp was tasty and a good honey substitute. The pods can be eaten as a vegetable or fermented into beer and non-alcoholic liquids. Seeds can be roasted and ground to make coffee. Furniture, tool handles, railroad ties and fence posts are cut from honey locust timber. Native American tribes used the wood for creating bows. Honey locust wood is pink, hard, dense, somewhat water resistant, coarse-grained and attains a high luster when polished.

The deciduous tree can grow 100 feet tall and live 100 years, but the limbs are somewhat fragile. Younger honey locusts often grow in thickets that offer them protection. The flower clusters are attached along short stalks. Fragrant blooms are greenish creamy white and the clusters can be composed of all female or male flowers or even flowers with both sexes. Bumble bees are drawn to the flowers, but many other pollinators come to visit in the spring. The delicate green compound leaves provide a light patterned shade. Honey locusts produce deep tap roots that help control soil erosion and is yet another reason they do so well living in suburbia. They are less likely to pop up sidewalk segments and sections of roads. The roots do not have the typical legume nitrogen fixing nodules, but do produce an excess of nitrogen beneficial to surrounding plants; much better than artificial applications of ammonia as a source of nitrogen. Plants require nitrogen for their chloroplasts to trap sunlight and nitrogen containing amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins. Plants must make all their proteins. We must eat or drink our proteins from plant sources or plant-eating animal sources.

The annual fall McNellie’s Pub Run was held Saturday, November 11th, in downtown Tulsa. OKC McNellie’s holds their spring run in May. The Guinness Challenge: Three beers chugged during the 4 mile race. One beer has 1.6 grams of protein. If you missed downing McNellie’s Guinnesses, why not make your own beer: Honey locust beer! Try it. Break up dried honey locust pods, add a few persimmons and dried apples, put into a barrel and pour boiling water over everything. Let the brew sit quietly for 3 to 4 days to ferment. A delightful port wine colored beer with “an alluring piquant taste with some kick in it” will be your reward. William Fitch “Dietotherapy” 1918.