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Honey Locust: Description, Types, and Care Tips (Full Guide)

Honey locust trees in a neighborhood

The honey locust, scientifically known as Gleditsia triacanthos, is a deciduous tree native to North America. One of the first things you’ll notice about this tree is its impressive size. Honey locusts can grow up to 100 feet tall, creating a magnificent canopy with ample shade. What’s truly unique about them are their pinnately compound leaves, which give the tree a delicate, fern-like appearance. These leaves change color with the seasons, adding to the tree’s aesthetic charm.

Honey locusts come in different varieties, the most common being the thornless honey locust and the thorny honey locust. The thornless variety is a popular choice for landscaping due to its lack of sharp thorns. The native species of honey-locust has large thorns on its stems and bark. For the sake of species diversity, it should only be planted after carefully considering alternatives. This species is native to the Chicago region, according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

Honey locust trees are primarily native to the central and eastern regions of North America, thriving in a wide range of climates. You can find them from southern Canada down to Texas and from the eastern United States to the Rocky Mountains.

The honey locust has many uses that have made it a valuable tree throughout history. The timber of honey locust is exceptionally strong and durable, making it ideal for woodworking and fence posts. Its sweet, edible pods have even named it “honey locust,” as humans and wildlife enjoy them. Additionally, the thorns on some varieties serve as a natural protection for the tree against browsing animals.

Honey locusts have a rich cultural history. Native American tribes used the wood for crafting tools, and early European settlers relied on its strength for construction. Furthermore, the tree’s striking appearance has made it a popular choice for urban landscaping, providing not only aesthetic beauty but also shade in city parks and streets. The honey locust symbolizes resilience and adaptability, a testament to nature’s ability to flourish in diverse environments.

As a master gardener with a deep appreciation for nature, I’ve spent years exploring the captivating world of honey locusts. In this concise guide, I’ll share my insights, knowledge, and expertise about honey locust trees, along with essential care tips for cultivating them successfully.

Branches of Honey locust with green leaves

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Botanical Name: Gleditsia triacanthos

Common Name: Honey Locust, Common Honey Locust, Thorny Common Honey Locust, Honey Shucks Locust, Sweet Locust, Thorny Locust, Honey Shucks, Sweet Bean Tree

Family: Fabaceae

Plant Type: Deciduous Tree

Hardiness Zones: 3 to 9

Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade

Soil Preference: Well-drained, moist soil

Soil pH: 6.0 to 8.0

Tolerances: Alkaline soil, Clay soil, Dry sites, Occasional flooding, Road salt, Wet sites

Maturity: It takes several years to mature

Height: 30 to 70 Feet

Spacing: 20 to 30 Feet Apart

Bloom Time: Late spring to early summer

Bark: Narrow, flat plates that are initially grey-brown to bronze, smooth, with many horizontal lenticels

Stem: Branches and trunk are armed with stout, rigid, three-forked spines 2 to 3 inches long.

Twigs: Slender, shiny, greenish brown to reddish brown. Older twigs, branches, and the trunk are armed with single or three-branched or more thorns four to eight inches long.

Flower Color: Greenish-yellow

Leaflets: Shiny dark green above and yellow-green below

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions: Flat, red-brown pod (legume), about 1 inch wide and several inches long. It is often curling. Each pod contains several seeds.

Native Area: North America, Central America

Honey Locust Tree Plant Care

Caring for honey locust trees involves understanding their specific needs and providing the right conditions for their optimal growth. When it comes to sunlight, these trees thrive in full sun to partial shade, so ensure they receive adequate sunlight throughout the day. Honey locusts prefer well-drained, moist soil with a pH range between 6.0 to 8.0. Regular watering, especially during dry spells, is essential to keep the soil consistently moist, promoting healthy root development.

Honey locust branch with thorns and green leaves

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Pruning is crucial to maintain a desirable shape and remove damaged or dead branches. It’s best to prune during late winter or early spring when the tree is dormant. Applying a layer of organic mulch around the tree’s base helps retain soil moisture, suppress weeds, and provide essential nutrients as it decomposes.

Regular monitoring for pests and diseases is vital for honey locust care. Keep an eye out for issues like webworms or leaf spot diseases, addressing them promptly to prevent further damage. Fertilizing the tree in early spring with a balanced fertilizer can enhance its health and encourage robust growth. With proper care and attention to these details, honey locust trees can flourish, adding beauty to any landscape while benefiting from their many positive attributes.

Light

Honey locusts thrive in full sun to partial shade, making them adaptable to various landscapes. These trees require at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily to flourish. Planting them where they receive adequate sunlight ensures their optimal growth and development. Adequate sunlight not only promotes healthy foliage but also enhances the overall beauty of the tree, allowing it to showcase its unique features and delicate leaves. Whether you are cultivating honey locusts in your backyard or a public garden, ensuring proper light exposure is fundamental to their well-being.

Honey locust branches under full sun light

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Soil

These resilient trees thrive in well-drained, moist soil. It’s essential to ensure that the soil provides adequate drainage, preventing waterlogging that can harm the root system. While honey locusts are adaptable to various soil types, they prefer soils with a slightly acidic to neutral pH ranging from 6.0 to 8.0. Testing the soil’s pH and structure can guide you in making necessary amendments to create an ideal environment for your honey locust tree. With the right soil conditions, your honey locust tree will flourish, showcasing its lush foliage and adding natural beauty to your landscape.

Water

Proper watering is essential for the health and vitality of honey locust trees. While these trees are relatively drought-tolerant once established, young honey locusts require regular watering during their initial years to establish a strong root system. When watering, it’s crucial to ensure deep soaking, allowing the water to penetrate the soil around the root zone.

However, it’s equally important not to overwater, as excessively wet soil can lead to root rot and other issues. Regular monitoring of soil moisture and adjusting the watering schedule based on weather conditions can help maintain the optimal moisture levels for honey locust trees. Additionally, mulching around the tree’s base can help retain soil moisture and reduce water evaporation, promoting a healthy and thriving honey locust tree.

Branches of honey locust with lush foliage

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Temperature and Humidity

Honey locusts thrive in various climates, making them adaptable to various conditions. Generally, these trees are hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9, indicating their ability to withstand both cold winters and relatively warm summers. They are resilient to different temperature fluctuations, making them a popular choice for gardens and landscapes across diverse regions. While honey locusts can tolerate moderate humidity levels, they prefer well-drained soil and can endure periods of drought once established. Properly understanding the temperature and humidity needs of honey locusts ensures their healthy growth and vitality in your garden.

Fertilizer

Honey locusts generally benefit from a balanced fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. During the tree’s early years, a slow-release fertilizer with a ratio of 10-10-10 can provide the necessary nutrients for healthy root development and overall growth. Applying the fertilizer in spring, just as new growth begins, is ideal. As the tree matures, it’s advisable to have the soil tested to determine specific nutrient deficiencies. This test can help tailor the fertilizer application, ensuring the honey locust receives the nutrients it needs without excess, promoting robust foliage and vibrant blooms. Regular monitoring and adjusting the fertilizer regimen according to the tree’s response are key to fostering a thriving honey locust.

Samara of honey locust with fall foliage

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Pruning

Pruning is generally recommended to remove dead or damaged branches, enhance the tree’s shape, and improve air circulation. Regular pruning also helps manage the tree’s size, ensuring it fits harmoniously into its surroundings. It is advisable to prune honey locust trees during late winter or early spring before the new growth begins. Careful consideration should be given to the tree’s natural form and growth pattern while pruning, ensuring a balanced and well-maintained appearance. Regular inspections and appropriate pruning techniques can contribute significantly to the longevity and vitality of honey locust trees, allowing them to thrive in various environments.

Overwintering

As deciduous trees, honey locusts naturally shed their leaves in the fall, entering a period of dormancy. During winter, it’s essential to provide them with adequate protection from harsh weather conditions. A layer of organic mulch around the tree’s base helps retain moisture and insulate the roots, safeguarding them from freezing temperatures. Additionally, pruning away damaged or weak branches before winter sets in can prevent potential issues caused by heavy snow or ice. Regularly monitoring the tree’s overall health and promptly addressing any signs of stress, such as yellowing leaves or unusual spots, is crucial for a successful overwintering experience. By taking these precautions, you can help your honey locust thrive, ensuring it bursts into vibrant life come spring.

Bare branches of honey locust during winter

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Types of Honey Locust

Thornless Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis)

Selective of the branches of Thornless Honey Locust

Thornless Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis) – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

The Thornless Honey-Locust, scientifically known as Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis, is a popular cultivar cherished for its lack of thorns. This variety is widely chosen for urban landscapes and gardens due to its safety and aesthetic appeal. Its delicate, fern-like foliage and graceful, spreading canopy create a stunning visual impact. Thornless Honey Locusts are resilient and adaptable, thriving in various soil types and weather conditions. Gardeners and landscapers often favor this cultivar for its ease of maintenance and the inviting shade in outdoor spaces.

Sunburst Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis ‘Sunburst’)

Golden-yellow leaves of Sunburst Honey Locust

Sunburst Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis ‘Sunburst’) – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

The Sunburst Honey Locust, or Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis ‘Sunburst,’ is a cultivar renowned for its vibrant golden-yellow foliage. As the leaves emerge in spring, they showcase a stunning display of bright colors, making it a popular choice among gardeners seeking ornamental trees. This cultivar maintains its golden hue throughout the summer, adding a touch of warmth to any landscape. Sunburst Honey Locusts are relatively low-maintenance, thriving in full sun and well-drained soils. Its striking appearance and hardy nature make it a sought-after choice for adding visual interest and color contrast to gardens and public spaces.

Shademaster Honey Locust(Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis ‘Shademaster’)

The Shademaster Honey Locust, scientifically named Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis ‘Shademaster,’ is valued for its elegant, vase-shaped canopy and delicate foliage. This cultivar is prized for its ability to provide ample shade, making it a favorite tree for parks, streets, and residential areas. Its fern-like leaves turn a vibrant yellow in the fall, creating a breathtaking autumnal display. Shademaster Honey Locusts are drought-tolerant and adaptable, thriving in urban environments where other trees might struggle. Their graceful appearance and tolerance to various soil conditions make them a top choice for landscapers and arborists aiming to enhance green spaces with aesthetically pleasing and functional trees.

Skyline Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis ‘Skycole’).

The Skyline Honey Locust, known scientifically as Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis ‘Skycole,’ is a cultivar recognized for its upright, columnar growth habit. This unique shape makes it an ideal choice for narrow spaces or along driveways and streets, where a tall, slender tree is desired. Skyline Honey Locusts feature bright green compound leaves that create a dense canopy, offering a pleasant shade during the warmer months. These trees are hardy and adaptable, thriving in various soil types and weather conditions. Landscapers often select the Skyline cultivar to add vertical interest and structure to landscapes without compromising shade or aesthetic appeal.

Moraine Thornless Honey-Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis ‘Moraine’)

The Moraine Thornless Honey-Locust, scientifically known as Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis ‘Moraine,’ is a cultivar prized for its lack of thorns. This variety is popular for its safety and aesthetic appeal, making it a preferred choice for urban landscapes and gardens. Its fern-like foliage and graceful canopy add an elegant touch to outdoor spaces. Moraine Thornless Honey-Locusts are known for their resilience, adapting well to various soil types and weather conditions. Gardeners and landscapers favor this cultivar for its ease of maintenance and the inviting shade.

Imperial™ Thornless Honey-Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis ‘Impcole’)

The Imperial™ Thornless Honey-Locust, scientifically referred to as Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis ‘Impcole,’ is a cultivar renowned for its thornless branches. This variety stands out for its vibrant golden-yellow foliage, making it a visually striking choice for ornamental landscapes. Its leaves showcase a stunning display of bright colors, adding warmth and visual interest to gardens and public spaces. Thriving in full sun and well-drained soils, Imperial™ Thornless Honey-Locusts are relatively low-maintenance, making them a popular selection for enhancing outdoor aesthetics.

Northern Acclaim Thornless Honey-Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis ‘Harve’)

The Northern Acclaim Thornless Honey-Locust, scientifically known as Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis ‘Harve,’ is valued for its thornless nature and graceful appearance. This cultivar is admired for its ability to provide ample shade, making it a preferred choice for parks, streets, and residential areas. Its fern-like leaves turn a vibrant yellow in the fall, creating a picturesque autumnal display. Northern Acclaim Thornless Honey-Locusts are drought-tolerant and adaptable, thriving in urban environments. Landscapers and arborists often choose this variety to enhance green spaces, combining aesthetic appeal with functionality.

How to Plant Honey Locust From Seed

Planting honey locusts from seed can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience for any gardening enthusiast. Here, I’ll guide you through the step-by-step process, ensuring your honey locust seeds have the best possible chance to thrive. By following these steps, you’ll not only nurture a new life but also contribute to the greenery around you.

Step 1: Preparing the Seed

Begin by selecting healthy honey locust seeds. Look for seeds that are firm, plump, and free of any visible damage. To enhance germination, it’s advisable to scarify the seed coat gently. You can do this by nicking the seed with a file or soaking it in warm water overnight. Scarification helps the seed absorb water, kickstarting the germination process.

Honey locust seed pods

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Step 2: Planting the Seed

Once your honey locust seeds are prepared, it’s time to plant them. Choose a suitable location in your garden with well-draining soil and partial sunlight. This tree is not recommended for landscapes because of its thorns and seed pods. The tree can spread quickly and become a weed problem in some pasture areas. Mowing or cutting increases sprouts. Look for thornless varieties like Gleditsia trianthos var. inermis or thornless and podless cultivars. Plant the scarified seeds about an inch deep into the soil, spacing them apart to allow ample room for growth. Pat the soil gently to secure the seeds in place, and water the area thoroughly.

Step 3: Providing the Right Conditions

Honey locust seeds require consistent moisture and warmth to germinate successfully. Regular watering is essential, keeping the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged. You can cover the planted area with a layer of mulch to retain moisture and protect the seeds. Additionally, providing a warm environment, such as using a seedling heat mat, can encourage quicker germination.

Step 4: Addressing Common Pests and Problems

Keep a watchful eye on your honey locust seeds for any signs of pests or issues. Common problems include fungal diseases and aphid infestations. Cankers, root rot, and borers are potential problems (most commonly on stressed trees). To prevent fungal growth, avoid overwatering and ensure proper air circulation around the plants. If aphids appear, a mild solution of soapy water can help deter these pests without harming the seeds.

Step 5: Flowering and Aftercare

With proper care and patience, your honey locust seeds will sprout into young plants. As they grow, they will eventually produce lovely greenish-yellow flowers, adding beauty to your garden. Flowers have a sweet fragrance and bloom for about two weeks in summer. After flowering, continue to water the plants regularly and provide them with adequate sunlight. Pruning may be necessary to encourage healthy growth and shape the young tree.

Macro of the flowers of honey locust

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Common Uses of Honey Locust

Aesthetic and Ornamental Value

Honey locust trees, with their elegant, fern-like foliage and picturesque appearance, hold significant aesthetic and ornamental value. Landscapers and gardeners often choose these trees to enhance the visual appeal of parks, gardens, and streetscapes. Their dappled shade and vibrant greenery make them a popular choice for creating natural canopies, providing a serene environment for outdoor activities. The tree’s golden fall foliage adds a touch of warmth to autumn landscapes, making it a cherished ornamental tree in various settings.

Timber and Woodworking

The wood of honey locust trees is highly valued in the timber industry due to its strength and durability. Used in woodworking, honey locust lumber is employed in crafting furniture, cabinets, and flooring. It has been used as fence posts, railroad ties, furniture, warehouse or shipping pallets, tool handles, and fuel. Its beautiful grain and ability to take finishes well make it a favorite among woodworkers. The wood’s natural resistance to rot and decay makes it ideal for outdoor applications, such as fencing and decking. Homeowners and builders alike appreciate honey locust wood for its longevity and aesthetic appeal, making it a sought-after choice in construction and carpentry.

Wildlife Habitat and Forage

Honey locust trees play a crucial role in providing habitat and forage for various wildlife species. Butterflies, bees, and moths nectar at the flowers. It is the larval host plant for the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus). The sweet, edible pods produced by the tree are a valuable food source for wildlife, including deer, squirrels, and birds. These pods, often referred to as “honey locust beans,” are rich in nutrients and contribute to the diet of many animals, especially during the fall and winter months. The bean pods are a favorite food of the white-tailed deer, squirrels, rabbits, hogs, opossums, and raccoons. Domestic animals such as sheep, goats, and cattle will also forage on the honey locust bean pods.

Starling perching on a branch of a honey locust tree

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Honey locust is capable of forming dense thickets of thorny vegetation, which provides excellent cover for a wide variety of game animals and birds. Browsing and grazing animals, such as deer, cattle, and sheep, utilize the tender shoots in spring and the bark of young trees in winter. Additionally, the tree’s dense foliage and sturdy branches offer nesting sites and shelter for birds, making honey locusts an essential component of diverse ecosystems.

Cultural Significance

Beyond their practical uses, honey locust trees hold cultural significance in various societies. Native American tribes utilized different parts of the tree for medicinal purposes and as a source of food. The strong and flexible thorns found in some varieties were used for crafting tools and weapons. Native Americans used the dried pulp from the seed pods as a sweetening agent and used its wood for bows. In folklore and mythology, honey locusts often symbolize protection and adaptability, embodying resilience in the face of challenges. Today, these trees continue to inspire artists, writers, and nature enthusiasts, reminding us of the intricate connection between humans and the natural world.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases for Honey Locust

Honey Locust Plant Bug (Diaphnocoris chlorionis)

One of the most common pests that honey locust trees face is the Honey Locust Plant Bug. These tiny insects, with their piercing-sucking mouthparts, feed on the leaves of the tree, causing yellow spots and distortion. Although they might not kill the tree, they can significantly affect its overall health and aesthetic appeal. To manage this pest, consider introducing natural predators like ladybugs or lacewings. Additionally, regular pruning of affected branches can help minimize the infestation. Keeping the area around the tree clean and free of debris also discourages these pests from making a home in your honey locust.

Honey Locust Spider Mite

Spider mite close up view on a leaf

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Another common nuisance for honey locust trees is the Spider Mite. These tiny arachnids suck sap from the leaves, causing discoloration, stippling, and overall weakening of the tree. To prevent their infestation, encourage natural predators like predatory mites or ladybugs, which feed on these tiny pests. Regularly hosing down the tree with a strong jet of water can physically remove spider mites and their eggs. Maintaining a healthy environment around the tree, with proper watering and mulching, boosts the tree’s natural defenses against these pesky intruders.

Powdery Mildew (Erysiphe spp.)

Powdery Mildew, a common fungal disease, can also affect honey locust trees. It manifests as a white, powdery substance on the leaves, inhibiting photosynthesis and weakening the plant. To combat Powdery Mildew, ensure proper air circulation around the tree by pruning to improve sunlight penetration and airflow. Fungicidal sprays containing neem oil or sulfur can be applied as a preventive measure. Regularly inspecting the leaves for signs of the disease and promptly removing and disposing of the affected foliage can prevent its spread to other parts of the tree.

Honey Locust Pod Gall Midge (Dasineura gleditchiae)

The Honey Locust Pod Gall Midge is a tiny fly whose larvae cause abnormal growths or galls on honey locust pods. While these galls might not pose a severe threat to the tree’s overall health, they can be unsightly. Pruning affected pods and destroying them in the fall can help reduce the population of these gall midges. Additionally, introducing natural predators like parasitic wasps can help keep their numbers in check, ensuring your honey locust tree remains healthy and vibrant.

 

Other Tree Guides from Planet Natural:

How to Grow and Care for a Hornbeam Tree

Bloodgood Japanese Maple Tree: A Guide to Planting And Care

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