Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Bloomin’ & Perfumin’

The black locusts are in full bloom in northern Missouri. While the emergence of the redbud blossoms (weeks earlier) is marginally more showy, nothing is more aromatic.

I drove from Columbia MO to St Louis yesterday morning to pick up a one-way rental car, and then promptly turned around and drove nonstop from St Louis to Albuquerque (which pretty much defines what people mean by a long day—1175 miles—boy, did bed look good, and not just because my wife was in it).

All day I was streaming past copse after copse of black locust, which were leaning into the Interstate, heavy with off-white blooms and redolent with a cloying fragrance every bit as attention-getting as the sensory gauntlet you traverse when straying too close to the women’s toiletry counter (now there’s an interesting turn of phrase) at major department stores. I suppose that wild plums (which bloom much earlier) are just as intense, but they don't exist in the same numbers as black locusts, which have successfully shouldered their way into the margins of our forest ecology.

• • •
Having grown up in the 50s and 60s, I used to think it was “normal” that women would frequently make their social appearance within a cloud of perfume and deodorant, and that a man’s entrée into a closed room was often presaged by a bow wave of after shave or cologne. It wasn’t until college that I started questioning the point of masking one’s natural smells, and the insidiousness of Madison Avenue marketing aimed at getting people to feel ashamed of the way they smell. Once a stumbled into the more authentic world of cmty living—where people actively cultivate direct communication—I began to reverse my childhood conditioning. Today, I experience perfume and deodorant as noticeably weirder than natural body smells, and cologne as an irritating anomaly. Think of it as the olfactory corollary to what-you-see-is-what-you-get: in cmty, what you smell is who I am.

Although black locust and wild plum blossoms have intense fragrances, it makes all the difference in the world to me that these have been brought to my nose's attention by Nature, instead of DuPont or Chanel.
• • •
White oak is the climax tree in northeast Missouri, and one of the most prized among native species for its lumber—fermented corn squeezings does not make the magical transition from white lightning to whiskey until it's been aged in white oak barrels. Perhaps only black walnut lumber consistently commands a higher price. Commercial value notwithstanding, I have a special place in my heart of sustainable hearts for black locust and it's unsurpassed utility.

How Do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways
1. In addition to the nose-joy available to humans, our honeybees are happily hauling in nectar every waking moment during the 5-7 days the blossoms last. It's the first major flow of the season and helps the hives immeasurably as they ramp up for the sweet clover season, just around the corner.

2. Black locust is a nitrogen fixer, making it an excellent choice for securing and repairing thin ground. Lacking a dense canopy, the crops nearby (whether grass or grains) still get ample light. The roots simultaneously hold the soil and replenish nitrogen; the branches soften the wind, yet allow plenty of sunshine to pass through.

3. As a native species, it is second only to osage orange as naturally rot-resistant wood. It's superior to red cedar or walnut, and untreated black locust posts will often last more than 20 years. Better still, black locust grows straight and you can sometimes get two, three, or even four poles out of the same tree—something you'd never see in osage orange, which grows more twisted than Jim Crow Republicans. Its lumber is a great choice for high-moisture environments, such as root cellars or greenhouse framing.

4. Finally, the wood is readily split and makes above-average firewood. What's not to like?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In France they make the beignets d'acacia (black locust fritters). Google images will tell you about them if you're interested.