Turning an Invasive Species into a Resource

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The black locust, insists its harvester Blue Sky, “is a much maligned tree.”  A native of the central Appalachians and Ozark Mountains, it has extended its range into New England, where it is considered to be invasive. In particular, it has become abundant in north-central Massachusetts where Blue Sky lives and logs. He, however, has turned this ecological malefactor into a resource.  As proprietor of “A Black Locust Connection”, he supplies black locust fence posts, trellises, and lumber to a varied and numerous clientele throughout New England and New York.

It was my friend Brian who first took me to Blue Sky’s lumber yard in Colrain, Massachusetts. The Douglas fir frames that enclosed the beds in Brian’s vegetable garden have rotted away, and although he wants to replace them with something more durable, he wants to avoid the use of toxic pressure-treated lumber.  Black locust boards are the perfect solution to this dilemma:  this extremely rot resistant wood will survive in contact with the ground for decades.  Indeed, Blue Sky has a black locust fence post he collected that is still sound, even though, the owner said, the fence had been erected by her grandfather a century ago.   With his custom-built rail-splitter, Blue Sky is currently turning out the materials for new enclosures of this sort.

While Brian selected the boards for his raised beds, I prowled the lumber yard, inspecting the piles of logs, the Wood-Mizer band saw mill, and the stacks of fresh cut and air-drying boards.  I also listened to Blue Sky’s stories about his products.

His lumber business began as a byproduct of his work as an arborist: he began to bring home logs from the trees he felled, logs that were too valuable as a source of lumber to be consigned to use as firewood.  Although, he points out, the dense black locust logs will burn even when green and yield more heat per cord than any othe common firewood besides shagbark hickory. But even now, when processing black locust is his main business, it remains a relatively low volume affair, for Blue Sky says that he has to mill each of these idiosyncratic logs differently, so as to get the most lumber out of it.

“This stuff,” he explains, “is far too valuable a resource to waste.”

The crafts-people who turn his lumber into outdoor furniture, decks, deer fencing, even wooden boats and musical instruments, clearly agree.

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 30 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Essential Perennials, a guide to the best contemporary perennial flowers co-authored with Ruth Rogers Clausen and published by Timber Press.  I’m currently working on a book about ecological gardening with Larry Weaner.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.

 

Contact Tom by email

10 COMMENTS

  1. Invasive? Or: native tree extending its range as the climate warms?

    The answer for the scientists who opine on invasiveness probably depends on where and how the spread outside its traditional home is happening. I suspect the presence of thorns on young locusts and their role as a pioneer species in fields succeeding to woodland has made it easier for landowners to put them in the same category as barberries or burning bush. But they’re much more beneficial plants than those garden escapes, and it’s good to see someone taking advantage of their useful qualities.

  2. I’d be interested to know what actual harm locust trees are doing in New England to warrant language like “ecological malefactor”.

  3. I am glad to see trees being used selectively. I know when my grandparents both passed, the lot they had in town was sold and turned into a parking lot. On the place where 6 enormous black walnut trees. It’s my hope someone ‘rescued’ them and they were just burned for firewood.

  4. In West Virginia it’s said that black locust will last fifty years in the ground as a fence post, then you pull it up and put it in the other way around for fifty more. And don’t forget to make fritters from the blossoms next year. You’ve missed your chance this time.

  5. It is always wonderful to see plants that are considered to be invasive being used for something beneficial and not go to waste, or worse, take over the non-native habitat. But I am also curious as to what the actual negative effects of the black locust are in the New England area?

    • Black locust has been used widely as a street tree outside its native range and from street sides has spread into surrounding woodlands, especially disturbed woodlands. It reproduces not only from seed but by suckers from its roots, often forming large, single species stands that displace the native vegetation. Because it is a legume, black locust also tends over time to boost the level of nitrates in the soil, changing the soil chemistry in a way that is problematic for native plants.

      • Stands of locust are perfect for fenceposts and lumber because they tend not to put out side branches for most of their height. Once the stand has been cut, replanting with locally native shrubs and trees that can take advantage of the higher-nitrogen soils in their early years will return the area to one that will support natives that don’t need or want the higher fertility. The extra nitrogen is “locked up” in the growth of the first-wave woody plants.

        Thanks for answering our question, Thomas.

  6. This is one of the woods I mentioned in the wood chapter of my book, “The Professional Designer’s Guide to Garden Furnishings” because it is a very long lasting wood HERE in the US. We don’t need to buy teak furniture from Asia if we’d just put this wood to better use.

  7. I wish there was easy access to locust lumber in Texas. I don’t see it here.–Spent 15 minutes Googling it yesterday. I’d like to use it as flooring for a shed instead of treated lumber.

  8. Locust is so hard that when my gardener reduces fallen trees with the chainsaw, sparks fly.

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