Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Trees with Pods
Nature Bulletin No. 306-A   May 11, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

One of the spectacular sights in early May is a Redbud blushing amongst the understory of a wooded hillside. Examined closely, those little flowers which occur in bundles along the leafless twigs and clothe the tree with a mass of purplish-pink are found to be like the blossoms of a pea or bean. Later, they produce thin flat pods containing small brown seeds. This is one of several native American trees that belong to the Pea Family. Also called the Judas Tree, it is usually small and, unlike most of its relatives, has broad heart-shaped simple leaves -- not compound. It is the state tree of Oklahoma.

The most valuable member of this group is the Black Locust. It spreads rapidly from its own seeds and its root system harbors colonies of bacteria that enrich the soil with nitrogen, like clover, alfalfa and other legumes. Although the tree is subject to serious damage by a boring beetle, it is planted extensively for erosion control, shelterbelts and commercial use. Its natural range was greatly extended by the Indians who used the wood for bows, ate the pods when green and tender, and cooked the ripe kidney-shaped seeds as they did beans. The wood is very heavy, hard, strong, durable and in demand for fence posts, mine timbers, ties, and insulator pins on telephone poles. The branches and twigs have short sharp spines and the compound leaves have from 7 to 19 leaflets on a petiole about a foot long. The drooping clusters of fragrant white flowers, very attractive to bees, are followed by brown flat pods about 3 inches long. Many of these remain on the tree until spring. In the southern Appalachians there is a species with gummy twigs and rosy flowers, called the Clammy Locust.

The Honey Locust becomes a larger, more graceful tree. The trunk and limbs usually bristle with sharp many-branched thorns which may be a foot or more in length. As boys, we used them for many purposes -- including pins to hold up our "britches". We ate the sweetish pulp inside the green pods. The ripe pods are mahogany brown, twisted like an old strap, twelve or more inches long, and clatter in the winds as they hang on the tree all winter. The compound leaves are sometimes double compound. The hard heavy durable wood is used for the same purpose as black locust. A southern relative, found in flood plains and swamplands, is called Water Locust.

Although uncommon as a wild tree, the Kentucky Coffee Tree -- sometimes very large -- is occasionally found at sites of pioneer homes or in small groups which may have been planted by Indians. It has stout crooked branches and twigs, very scaly bark on the trunks of old trees, and huge twice-compound leaves which maybe 3 feet long. Their branched frameworks of midribs create a weird spiderweb pattern after the leaflets drop off in early autumn. The pods, from 5 to 10 inches long, are dark-red, wide, thick and leathery. The round hard-shelled seeds make a very bitter substitute for coffee.

Yellowwood is a small pod-bearing tree of the middle South, rarely found wild but often planted as an ornamental. It has smooth gray bark, drooping clusters of fragrant white flowers, and bright yellow heartwood from which the pioneers made a dye. The Wild Tamarind of Florida and most of the desert trees in our arid Southwest belong to this family. One of them, the Honey Mesquite, is the state tree of Arizona. Its pods and beans, like those of the Mediterranean carob tree -- the '"husks" of which the Prodigal Son did eat -- are sweet and nutritious.

"1 will arise" said he, 'land go to my fodder".

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