Featured Native: Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

Ilex verticillata; 3 ft

For December, we’re featuring one of our finest native species for winter interest—the common winterberry (Ilex verticillata).  Native to most of the northeastern third of the United States; from Wisconsin to Maine and south to the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee, Ilex verticillata is a suckering large multi-stemmed shrub or small tree that finds a happy home in wet areas or in the shrub border.  It typically grows 6 to 15 ft tall in its native environment with a spread equal to its height.  In the wild, it is typically found in stream bottoms and in wetlands, but tolerates drier conditions in the garden with supplemental watering during long dry spells.

Ilex verticillata; 5 ft

Ilex verticillata has small dark-green elliptical leaves, typically 2-3” long.  These leaves usually turn bright golden-yellow in autumn.  Inconspicuous yellow-green flowers appear in late spring.  Properly pollinated, these flowers give rise to numerous ¼” berry-like fruits that closely hug the stems through the winter.  Like most hollies, Ilex verticillata plants are of separate sexes, so a nearby male plant is necessary for fruit set on the female.  But unlike typical hollies, winterberry is deciduous, which only helps to further enhance the display of bright red fruits after leaf fall.  These fruits are a favorite of native songbirds.  The smooth, grey bark provides a nice backdrop to the fruit display.  Tea from the colorful fruits was used as a fever remedy by Native Americans, but can cause nausea and low blood pressure if consumed raw.

Ilex verticillata; fruit detail

In the landscape, winterberry is ideal for swales and drainage areas and works well in the shrub border where it serves as an ideal background to colorful annuals and perennials before coming into its own glory in autumn and early winter.  It prefers full sun or very light shade at the edge of a woodland.   It is virtually pest-free aside from occasional leafspot or leaf mildew during prolonged rainy spells.  Like most water-loving plants, it prefers a neutral to acidic soil.  It is relatively slow-growing and requires only occasional pruning in late winter to maintain shape.

White House Natives supplies Ilex verticillata in a range of sizes including 4 ft, 5 ft, 6 ft, and 7 ft.  If you’re looking for a standout showy shrub for the winter garden, you can do no better!


Featured Native: Black Gum/Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

Nyssa sylvatica, spring.

One of the most up-and-coming native trees over the past twenty years is black gum or tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica).  Native to the United States east of the Mississippi River as well as the Ozark Plateau and from the southern Great Lakes and southern New England to central Florida, Nyssa sylvatica is a versatile larger tree that thrives in a broad range of conditions.  Typically growing 75 to 100 ft tall in its native environment with a straight central leader and a narrow crown of right-angled branches broadening with age, tupelo generally exhibits a more moderate height of 40-50 ft in the cultivated landscape, making an excellent specimen or focal point.  In the wild, it can be found on dry upland slopes and even more frequently in moist valleys and riverbottoms.  In fact, the common name ‘tupelo’ is a corruption of the Muscogee/Creek Native American phrase ito ‘tree’ and opilwa ‘swamp’ or swamp-tree.  In mixed-tree settings, it favors the forest edge, so it likewise prefers full sun to light partial shade in the landscape setting.  Tupelo also has the

Nyssa sylvatica, summer.

distinction of being the longest-lived non-clonal woody plant in eastern North American, with some specimens documented at more than 650 years of age.

Nyssa sylvatica starts the spring with rusty-backed, bright greenish-yellow new growth that matures to very glossy, 2”-5” long dark-green leaves.  The foliage is clean and free of most pests and diseases.  It is typically one of the first trees to show color at the end of the season, with the first tinges often appearing by late August.  Fall foliage is a kaleidoscope of colors, from brilliant gold and fiery orange to pure scarlet and purple.  In winter, the deep-grey to black bark, finely plated like alligator skin, provides a striking contrast on snowy mornings.  Flowers are a inconspicuous greenish-yellow, but are nectar-rich and loved by bees; they make an excellent honey.  The flowers are followed by small, blue-skinned stone fruits, usually in groups of 1-3, which are beloved by many songbirds, especially the American Robin (Turdus migratorius).  Tupelo develops a strong central taproot, so plants for landscape planting are best secured from container culture or B&B nurseries that do regular root pruning, such as WHN.

As a lumber tree, the wood of Nyssa sylvatica is hard, heavy, and very durable; its cross-grain structure makes it very resistant to splitting, especially when cured.  These properties made it a favored wood for early turning parts, such as pulleys, rollers, wheel hubs and weaving shuttles as well as mauls, mallets, yokes and tool handles.  In fact,

Nyssa sylvatica, autumn. Just a sampling of the incredible color display!

its usefulness as a striking tool lead to the local common name in southeast New England of ‘beetlebung’; beetle being an old word for a mallet used to hammer home bungs or plugs for barrels of beer or liquor.  Its resistance to wear and acid made it a popular flooring material for factories.   Today, it is still a favored material for wood-carvers due its tight grain and resistance to splintering.

Nyssa sylvatica, winter, showing the excellent regular branch structure.

White House Natives supplies Nyssa sylvatica in a range of sizes including 1½”, 2”, 2½” and 3” caliper.  It is a beautiful, clean, and disease-free tree that makes a statement in any larger landscape.







Featured Native: American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)

Carpinus caroliniana; 2″ at the farm.

Carpinus caroliniana (American hornbeam or musclewood) is an attractive but seldom-utilized native tree that excels in small landscapes, especially in moister and shadier situations.   Native to almost all of the United States east of the Mississippi River save northern Maine and the immediate Gulf Coast, musclewood is a much smaller and more irregular tree than its more commonly cultivated European brother cousin C. betulus.  In the wild, C. caroliniana is most often found in rich, moist woodlands, shady valleys and ravine bottoms and clinging to rocky slopes along stream beds.

In the landscape, musclewood matures to an irregularly-rounded small tree; typically no more than

Carpinus caroliniana; fruit detail.

Young Carpinus caroliniana in a landscape setting.

Carpinus caroliniana; autumn color

25-30 feet in height with an equal or slightly larger spread.  The deep green alternate leaves are 2½ to 4 inches long and half that in width, resembling those of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), but with distinctively double serrated margins.  The leaves turn a bright clear yellow in autumn, fading to dark orange then brown before falling.   Inconspicuous male and female flowers in spring lead to an attractive fruit consisting of a short pendulous cluster of small nutlets, each subtended by a three-lobed leafy bract.  In winter, the smooth, fluted blue-gray bark becomes the star attraction and the source of both the musclewood name and the older common name of blue beech.  Carpinus caroliniana thrives in the garden in average to moist soils and in partial to semi-dense shade, but excels in moist, acidic situations. It also has a good tolerance for clay soils and is one of the few native plants that can thrive under the canopy of black walnut (Juglans nigra) trees.  Due to its fibrous, spreading roots, transplanting is best accomplished in the spring and when the tree is relatively young.    It is relatively pest-free and tolerant of pruning once established.

Carpinus caroliniana; 2½” at the farm in winter.

Carpinus in general have very strong, dense, almost white heartwood that can be burnished to appear like horn, hence the common name ‘hornbeam’.  The wood was used by early European settlers for bowls, yokes, and tool handles.  The tiny nutlets serve as food source for squirrels and many native songbirds, grouse, and quail while the tree itself is a favored host of several native moths.

We supply Carpinus caroliniana in a range of sizes including 1½”, 2”, 2½” and 3” caliper.  It is an excellent, attractive, and low-maintenance tree that deserves a place in your landscape designs.






Featured Native: American Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea)

Cladrastris kentukea; 2 in at the farm.

Cladrastris kentukea; 2” at the farm.

Cladrastis kentukea (American yellowwood) is possibly the most unique ‘native’ tree of eastern North America.  ‘Native’ because its current range is primarily restricted to scattered outcroppings in the Ozarks and southern Appalachian highlands where it often grows on shady slopes in chalky, limestone-rich soils. Yet the versatility of this woodland specimen to other soil, light and climatic conditions as well as intriguing fossil clues hint at a much broader range before the last ice age covered much of the northeastern United States; a distribution from the Ozarks east to the Atlantic and north to the southern Great Lakes and the Hudson River Valley.  Cladrastis itself is a very small genus; consisting of one species in North America and an additional eight in east Asia.  It is closely related to another genus in the Fabaceae (pea/legume family), Styphnolobium, the pagodatree with which—unlike most legumes—it lacks the root/microbial symbiosis to fix nitrogen in the soil.

Whatever its past—or present—the yellowwood is an outstanding choice for smaller gardens.

Cladrastis kentukea; bark detail

Cladrastis kentukea; bark detail

As a landscape plant, Cladrastis kentukea typically matures at 35-50 feet in height with a broad, rounded crown of upright branches.  The smooth, grey bark mimics that of Fagus grandifolia (American beech), only slightly darker in tone.  The pinnate leaves, which resemble Juglans regia (English walnut) are 8-12” long with 7-11 leaflets and emerge a bright yellow-green maturing to dark green before turning a bright clear yellow in autumn. Once the tree reaches a decade or so in age, late spring also brings a mass of intensely fragrant white flowers in pendulous 8-14” racemes. Resembling Wisteria, the flowers are typically more numerous every second or third year.  The flowers are followed by decorative 2-4” brown pods that persist late into the winter.  Cladrastis tolerates a wide variety of soils, but prefers sun or very light shade and ample moisture when young; as it matures, water becomes less of an issue.  The tree is deep-rooted, making it suitable for planting near sidewalks and patios; the deep roots also allow shrubs or perennials to grow under the canopy.  Pruning should be conducted in late winter, before the sap begins to rise as yellowwood tends to ‘bleed’ profusely, like many maple species.

Cladrastis kentukea; flower detail

Cladrastis kentukea; flower detail

The common name yellowwood refers to the bright yellow heartwood of the tree; this heartwood yielded an intense yellow dye used by both native Americans and early Appalachian settlers.  Native Americans also used the wood for building and figurative carving, while early settlers prized it for gunstocks. Today, the wood is used for decorative items and woodturning.  The flowers yield abundant nectar and are a favorite of honeybees.

Cladrastis kentukea; autumn color beginning

Cladrastis kentukea; autumn color beginning

Cladrastis kentukea is relatively pest-free; with only scattered instances of borers or Verticillium wilt.  Its main weakness is its somewhat brittle wood (hence the genus name: from Greek kládos/κλάδος ‘branch’ and thraústos/θραύστως ‘snap’ or ‘brittle’), so siting in a somewhat sheltered location is preferred.  The tree can also be damaged by heavy ice storms.  It also has a tendency to be low-branched, a problem easily corrected in youth by White House Natives’ rigorous pruning program.  We supply Cladrastis kentukea in a range of sizes including 2”, 2½” and 3” caliper.  We strongly encourage you to make Cladrastis a regular feature of the urban gardens you design and plant.  You will not be disappointed!





Featured Native: Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea)

Quercus coccinea, 3″

Quercus coccinea (scarlet oak) is another staple of the woodlands of eastern North America.  Often confused with red oak (Q. rubra), black oak (Q. velutina) and especially the closely-related pin oak (Q. palustris), it can be distinguished by its bristle-tipped seven-lobed leaves with broad ‘C’-shaped sinuses, compared to the deeper, ‘U’-shaped sinuses of Q. palustris.  Like the southern red oak (Q. falcata), which we recently featured, it has become more popular in the landscape trade in recent years due to its tolerance of urban conditions.

Quercus coccinea coloring up in mid-autumn.

Growing as tall as 150 feet in its native range—which spans from southern Maine west to Wisconsin and south through Missouri to northern Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia—scarlet oak typically matures at 60-75 feet tall in the landscape with an irregular, rounded crown.  Unlike some of its oak brethren, scarlet oak tends to cast a broken rather than dense shade.  The shiny, dark-green leaves are 5” to 7” long and around 4” wide and color late in the autumn, with a reliable scarlet color that slowly fades to claret then brown as winter progresses.  Acorns are usually around ¾” long, half-covered in a scaly, bowl-like cup; light in most years but with a heavy crop every third or fourth year.  The thin, brownish-grey bark develops broad, widely-spaced ridges with age.

In the wild, scarlet oak is a climax forest species, preferring upland sites with good drainage and often thriving on poorer, rocky, gravelly or sandy slopes.  In the landscape, it is adaptable to a wide variety of conditions, disliking only alkaline soils.  Once established, it exhibits good drought tolerance and is far less prone to chlorosis (leaf yellowing) than its sister species pin oak.  It typically grows quickly when young and usually begins to bear acorns when less than twenty years old.  Scarlet oak makes an ideal shade tree for larger spaces due to its dappled shade which allows a variety of shade-loving shrubs to thrive under its canopy while still receiving filtered sunlight.

Quercus coccinea; fall color detail

Wood from the scarlet oak is often sold as ‘red oak’ in lumber yards.  While not as dense and durable as white oak (Q. alba), the reddish tone and coarse grain of the seasoned wood is valued for cabinetry, furniture and interior detail work.  Like many oaks, dried acorns were leached in water then ground for flour by Native Americans; the acorns are also an important food source for many large native songbirds, grouse, turkey and of course, white-tailed deer and squirrels.

Quercus coccinea in midwinter.

White House Natives supplies Quercus coccinea in a range of sizes including 2”, 2½” and 3” caliper.  As with all our trees, we prune regularly and rigorously, so the trees you receive are ready to make an instant impact on your next project.




Featured Native: Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata)

Quercus falcata in summer.

Quercus falcata is a little-known species in the mid-Atlantic that has gained in popularity in recent years as a great landscape tree for larger spaces.  Commonly known as southern red oak or Spanish oak (Spanish not because of being native to Spain, but rather because it is a common woodland tree in areas of the country originally ruled by Spain) is native to a broad swath of the southeast, from central New Jersey westward to southern Illinois and Missouri and southward through Oklahoma, Texas and the Gulf Coast as far as central Florida.  Compared with the more-familiar northern red oak (Quercus rubra), Q. falcata has distinctive shiny green leaves with 3-5 deep, sickle-like, bristle-tipped lobes that give an appearance (according to some) not unlike that of a guitar.

The leaves are often somewhat droopy and turn reddish-brown in the autumn, then slowly fall over the winter.

In its native range, the southern red oak prefers well-drained sites and is often found in dry, poor soils where it out-competes many other native hardwoods.  These characteristics make it an ideal specimen for urban and suburban sites where soils have been disturbed and watering may be irregular; once established it is quite tolerant of neglect.

Quercus falcata showing autumn color.

A medium grower, with room it develops an open, irregularly oval crown with the coarse texture typical of red oaks and typically matures at a height of 60-80 feet with a spread two-thirds the height in the landscape. As a shade or specimen tree; southern red oaks typically do not display surface roots and feature well-spaced upright branches, thus allowing activity under the canopy.  The thick, furrowed bark is marked with shallow ridges and brownish-gray to black color adds interest throughout the year.

In southern forests, this species can grow quite large.  The US champion in Upton County, Georgia has a height of 137 feet and a spread of 118 feet with a circumference of 28½ feet.

Historically, the heavy, strong wood of southern red oak was used for fence posts, heating fuel, and general construction.  The coarse grain and open pore structure makes the dried timber useful for fine carpentry as it takes both stain and glue well.  Native Americans used both the acorns and bark for medicinal and occasionally food uses, while the acorns are an important food source for turkey, squirrel, rabbit, white-tail deer and black bears.

Quercus falcata in winter.

White House Natives supplies Quercus falcata in a range of sizes including 2”, 2½” and 3” caliper.  All sizes are part of our regular and rigorous pruning program, so the trees you receive are landscape ready and are sure to make an impression on your next project.

Quercus falcata; leaf.



Featured Native: River Birch (Betula nigra)

Betula nigra, or river birch, is a fast-growing shade and ornamental tree. Indigenous to the eastern United States, from coastal New Hampshire west to Minnesota and south to eastern Texas and northern Florida, river birch prefers swampy areas, bottomlands and stream banks in its native range. It can grow as a single-stemmed specimen or as a multi-trunked clump. Pyramidal in form when young, it develops a rounded irregular crown when mature, topping out at 40 to 70 feet in height.

River birch provides year-round interest in the landscape; bright green spring growth matures to 2-3” long leathery, dark green, diamond-shaped, toothed leaves which often turn brilliant yellow in the autumn. Its peeling pinkish-brown to black-brown bark exfoliates to reveal shades of peach and cream. Short green and brown catkins appear in spring as well.

Although river birch prefers moist environments in the wild, it is tolerant of drier conditions when established and is relatively free of the pests and diseases that affect non-native Betula species. It also performs well in urban environments. It can exhibit chlorosis in alkaline soils, but this can be corrected by applications of chelated iron or other products to lower soil pH. It is an excellent choice for streambank and wetlands restoration projects.

Betula nigra sap was used by Native Americans and early settlers as a sweetener, similar to maple sap. Because of this heavy sap flow, pruning should be avoided in the late winter and early spring.

White House Natives sells 3- and 5-stem Betula nigra in sizes from 8 ft to 14 ft and single-stem specimens from 2” to 4” caliper. We stake and prune our trees for even branching and limb them up from two to four feet depending on size to show off their exfoliating bark. Many good cultivars are sold by other nurseries in the trade, but WHN focuses on growing the straight species.



Featured Native: Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)

Trees are fascinating. They are all around us, we see them every day, they are beautiful and each provides many ecosystem services; the more you learn about them, the more amazing they become. Take bark for instance. Every tree has bark – it is the outer skin of the tree, and, like humans, comes in a variety of colors.

All trees grow bark in the same way: tissue cells just under the bark called the cambium divides, allowing the bark to stretch and the tree to increase its diameter. On either side of the cambium, the phloem and xylem add a layer each year, creating the growth rings visible in the interior when a tree is cut. Xylem conducts water and nutrients from the roots to the tree canopy and provides strength to the tree. Phloem transports vitamins, amino acids, sugars and hormones throughout the tree.

If damage occurs to the bark, trees often die. Healthy bark means a healthy tree. Insects and pathogens can hurt a tree, particularly when combined with mechanical damage (weed eaters or mowers scuffing the bark, etc.).  However, trees do a remarkable job of compartmentalizing damage by creating scar tissue around injuries and separating it from the rest of the tree.

One of the most interesting of barks is that of the shagbark hickory (Carya ovata). On mature trees, vertical lengths of bark pull away from the trunk and turn up on the ends. As with sycamore, white oak and birches, this sheeting habit provides valuable protection to many insects, bats, butterflies, caterpillars, spiders and other forest life.

Many Native Americans traditionally gathered and roasted the nuts, a tasty and highly nutritious fall food. Hickory “milk” is made by pounding the nuts into a paste, boiling and pouring off the nutritious liquid to be used in a variety of dishes.  The name “hickory” comes from the Algonquin word “pawcohiccora”, meaning hickory milk.

Carya, the genus name comes from the Greek name for the walnut tree (karya); ovata, the species name, is Latin for ovate, referring to the egg-shaped buds, nut husk and leaves.

Harvest time is in September and October, when the nuts are on the ground, making for easy gathering.

There are four hickories native to Virginia, including shagbark, mockernut, pignut and bitternut with the nuts of the shagbark being the thinnest shell making them the easiest to harvest the meat inside. Shagbark hickories grow in the Piedmont and mountains of Virginia but do not grow along the eastern side of the state or the coastal plain.  They extend as far west as Missouri, but tend to be scarce across the entire area and don’t tend to colonize or grow in great abundance in most areas.

Some caterpillars feast on the leaves but the tree is generally-pest resistant. They thrive in full sun but can handle some shade, enjoying moist, even wet conditions.

In the landscape, it is important to provide them plenty of space as they can reach heights of 100 feet and should be planted in areas where their nuts won’t impact vehicles, walkways or create maintenance issues. They can live to be 350 years or more and, but due to their long taproot, do not transplant particularly well after reaching a certain size (though White House Natives takes particular care in the careful digging and moving of all stock).

The wood of shagbark hickory is very heavy, hard, tough and very strong. According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, no other commercial species is its equal in combined strength, toughness, hardness and stiffness. It is used for tool handles, furniture, flooring, sporting equipment, charcoal and fuel wood.


Shagbark hickory belongs to the Juglandaceae family and can hybridize with pecan trees. In recipes, the sweet, white shagbark hickory nuts can be substituted for pecans..

The Virginia champion shagbark hickory grows in Southampton and towers almost 130 feet tall. The U.S. champion  currently lives in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

Squirrels relish the nuts, as do deer, bear and other mammals. If providing habitat and protection to many small insects and feeding wildlife is a goal in the landscape, shagbark hickory is a great choice.



Article by:
Chris Anderson
Luray, VA


Native of the Month – Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

There are about forty species of birch, growing in widespread habitats from the sides of streams and rivers to forest boundaries and open fields. They are one of the oldest known trees, with leaf imprints found from the Late Cretaceous period, which ended about 67 million years ago. These living fossils are wind-pollinated and tend to colonize quickly, particularly in disturbed areas, creating beautiful stands with trees reaching heights of 60-80 feet.

They typically enjoy a lot of water, making them a good choice for rain gardens or landscaping for natural stream restoration projects. They are so attractive that they can easily serve as a specimen in a front yard or formal landscape, their small leaves turning brilliant yellow in the fall and blowing away in autumn breezes, creating less of a maintenance chore of leaf collection than some larger-leafed species. Their graceful trunks and branching structure can be stunning focal points when illuminated from below by landscape lights, particularly in the winter when their “bones” are easy to see.

Birch belong to the genus Betulacea, along with alders, willows and hornbeams.

Common names for birch come in a number of colors:  white birch, black birch, gray birch, silver birch and yellow birch; each distinguished by certain characteristics, often by how their bark naturally peels from the tree.

Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) bark is silvery bronze at maturity and peels in small, papery pieces. The peeling occurs when lenticels, the dark horizontal lines in the bark, stretch due to the tree’s growth and then peel up and away from the trunk. Lenticels serve an important function by allowing air and gas exchange between the atmosphere and the tree’s internal tissues.

Yellow birch is the most important birch species commercially, used for fine furniture and woodturning, as it is strong and develops a smooth and satiny finish.

One location to admire yellow birch is along the Limberlost trail in Shenandoah National Park. At 1029m (3,377 ft) elevation, the birch grow happily along the trail. The area tells the tale of a quickly-changing forest as the birch are growing prolifically following the mighty hemlocks that have succumbed to the invasive non-native hemlock woolly adelgid. The hemlocks’ demise open up opportunities for the birch to fill the void.

Native American Indians possessed in the past and practice of the uses of native plants. The birch is a valuable survival food and was utilized by indigenous people during starving times. The ground bark of the birch when mixed with flour may support life when other food is unavailable.

‘A Jesuit missionary noted that the bark of oak, birch, linden, and that of other trees, when well cooked and pounded, and then put into the water in which fish had been boiled, or else mixed with fish-oil made some excellent stews’ notes Horace Kephart in a 1917 version of Camping and Woodcraft.[1]

Native peoples have long made use of birch bark for canoes and storage containers, tapping for syrup in the spring, enjoying the twigs which have a wintergreen taste (found in both yellow birch and sweet birch), making birch tea and utilizing the paper-like bark to start fires, even after rains, due to volatile resins in the outer layer.

Euell Gibbons, wild plant expert, notes that sweet birch (Betula lenta) sap flows about one month after maples and that the sap can be consumed straight from the tree and ‘tastes more like spring water than anything else, but it has a faint sweetness and a bare hint of wintergreen flavor and aroma’.[2]

He also provides directions on how to make birch beer by boiling honey and birch sap, pouring it over finely chopped sweet birch twigs and letting it ferment with the help of a little yeast. He cautions consuming it with restraint as it has a ‘kick like a mule’ (Gibbons, 34).

The bark allows hiding spaces for many insects over the winter, treats which woodpeckers enjoy ferreting out. Birds eat the seeds in the winter and the foliage supports several hundred species of moths and butterflies.[3]

In conclusion, for an attractive and valuable native tree in all four seasons, consider the yellow birch or planting a stand for increased wildlife benefit. They can live 150 years and maybe up to 300 years in old growth forests.


Chris Anderson
White House Farm Foundation
1917 Kauffmans Mill Road
Luray, VA

[1] Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917) p. 420.

[2] Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus (New York: David McKay Company, 1962), p.34.

[3] Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home (Portland: Timber Press, 2007), p. 163.

Native of the Month, Robinia psuedoacacia, Black Locust

The south boasts some mighty fine natural smells in the spring and summer– honeysuckle, wisteria, lilac, magnolias all in bloom – but the flowers of black locust rank near the top for sweet perfume.

With creamy white panicles resembling wisteria, the flowers of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) create a stunning display against the delicate green foliage in early summer. Their fragrance wafts through warm air but admirers only have about ten days to enjoy them as they do not last long.

Ask any farmer what is the best wood for fence posts and many will likely name locust. Indeed, its longevity, even when in contact with soil, is well known and the early Europeans of Jamestown built their first structures using locust. A century later, Mark Catesby, historian and explorer, noted that these original buildings were still standing strong, attesting to locust’s hardiness. Those who heat their homes with wood stoves eagerly seek out locust as an all-nighter wood that burns hot.

As with many native plants, the benefits of locust certainly came from Native Americans. Black locust is native to the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains but Europeans found it growing in the Piedmont and coastal areas when they arrived. Sophisticated and extensive trade routes existed among Native peoples for centuries and it is likely that Shawnee, Cherokee and/or Haudenosaunee shared seeds of black locust with members of the Powhatan Confederacy and other nations to the east. The strength of the black locust wood made it a preferable material not only for building but also for tools, bows and arrow shafts.

Black locust trees now grow around the world as their reputation as a preferred building material, beautiful landscape tree and source of excellent honey spread and seeds and seedlings were exported to other countries.

The scientific name Robinia honors Jean Robin, landscaper and botanist for the King IV of France. Pseudoacacia refers to the leaflets resemblance to the acacia tree.

They belong to the legume family and have alternate, pinnately compound leaves with 7-19 oblong leaflets. The distinctive dark, braided bark resembles thick and fibrous rope with furrows and ridges.

Black locust enjoys full sun and can reach heights averaging 70-80 feet with a diameter of two to three feet. They do not tolerate shade very well. Given plenty of room, they can grow surprisingly attractive and balanced canopies. Their seeds resemble flat pods and rabbits, deer, bobwhite quail, mourning doves and others consume them. Honey connoisseurs seek out the light – sometimes almost clear – honey, made more valuable as some years are much better than others for nectar production. George Petrides and Janet Wehr note in Eastern Trees[1] that young shoots and bark can sometimes be poisonous to livestock.

In the landscape, black locust is valuable as a pioneer species, coming up quickly in disturbed sites. As with other legumes, they have the ability to fix nitrogen, an important trait in rebuilding soil structure following disturbances such as fire or land clearing. They are also good at preventing erosion, as their hardiness allows them to take hold and grow fast on slopes. They are often used on mine reclamation sites due to their hardy nature and ability to withstand acidic soils.

They are generally not bothered by many pests, though leaf miners can occasionally blemish the foliage. Their tendency for limb die back makes them better suited to larger landscapes away from buildings or parking lots but placed in locations where their fragrant blossoms can be enjoyed and they can spread out unimpeded by other trees.

As noted in the book, The Remarkable Trees of Virginia, in 2007, the Virginia champion black locust graced the yard of a home in Wytheville with a height of 95 feet and a circumference exceeding 168 inches. Its canopy spread shows how beautiful black locust can be in the landscape. The current champion lives in Fauquier County in Upperville with a height of 71 feet, a crown spread of 74 feet and circumference of 195 inches.

As noted in the Remarkable Trees of Virginia2, in 2007, the Virginia champion black locust graced the yard of a home in Wytheville with a height of 95 feet and a circumference exceeding 168 inches. Its canopy spread shows how beautiful black locust can be in the landscape. The current champion lives in Fauquier County in Upperville with a height of 71 feet, a crown spread of 74 feet and circumference of 195 inches.

Chris Anderson, Executive Director
White House Farm Foundation
1917 Kauffmans Mill Rd.
Luray, VA 22835

[1] George Petrides, Janet Wehr, Eastern Trees, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1988),  p. 230.

[2] Nancy Hugo Ross and Jeff Kirwan, Remarkable Trees of Virginia, (Earlysville, Albemarle Books, 2008), p 115.