Wild Candy in the Honey Locust Tree

They taste a lot better than they look.

When I was visiting my grandfather in Queens, NY, recently, I was excited to see flat black seed pods on the sidewalk outside his brick apartment building, because they were in front of a tree that had formidable thorns sticking out of its trunk (see below) and compound leaves on its branches. These features are characteristic of the Honey Locust, Gleditsia triacanthos, a tree with edible fruit.

The pods have a gooey pulp between the exterior casing and the seeds that tastes like the sugary insides of a Fig Newton(tm) type cookie. You can only squeeze out a wee bit from each pod, so it’s not a meal or anything, but it’s quite a nice sidewalk score when you get it.
Plants for a Future reports that the seeds themselves are also edible, but I didn’t know that at the time so I didn’t eat them. (If you have, would you leave a comment on this post and tell me what they taste like?)

Historic medicinal ethnobotanical uses for the honey locust tree include a tea of the bark to treat upset stomach, whooping cough, measles and smallpox. Delaware people reportedly combine it with the bark of sassafras, prickly ash and wild cherry trees to treat coughs and as a blood purifier.

Image by South Carolina Forestry Commission

Honey locust trees are native to eastern North America, though the USDA reports they have spread out across the U.S. everywhere but Oregon and Washington.

Back home in Portland, I have seen what I believe to be black locust trees instead. The black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, looks similar but doesn’t have those distinctive thorns coming out of the bark. Its seed pods are reported to be toxic. However, black locust trees do have edible blossoms in the spring or summer. The tricky thing is, there are cultivated varieties of honey locust bred without thorns, so there is some shred of possibility that what I have seen planted as ornamental landscaping in the parking lot of a certain local organic grocery store might actually be modified honey locust.

Bottom line: If there are massive thorns, you’ve got the right tree. If there are not, it’s a gamble.

See the thorns?

Share this post and teach your east coast friends about free sidewalk candy!

39 thoughts on “Wild Candy in the Honey Locust Tree

  1. I live in San Diego Ca. I have several thornles honey locust trees. The seeds taste like little edonomy when you eat them green.

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  3. Picked some honey locust seeds and put them in an old coffee cup… then later refilled my cup. Coffee was rather gritty but tasty. Googled for my mistake and found this blog post. Thanks! Now to decide whether to finish cup of coffee or consider it a seed presoak. … and yes, I want the tree for my food forest and pasture edge.

  4. i’ve eaten the seeds. first i soaked them like you would any dry bean, they weren’t to bad sorta bland, they would be good as a lentil or bean substitute in any traditional meal.

  5. I’m located in Durham NC and the older people that live near me have told me stories of how honey locust & persimmons were brewed into a Beer. I currently have many of the dried pod she collected. (it was a dry season) It is my plan to steem them and extract their sweetness as part of the brewing process. I’d like any info if anyone has tried this before?

    • This was an awful year for honey locust pods because of the dry weather. Thick, squishy pods have lots of sweet pulp, but there are very few of them this year. You might want to wait another year to increase your chance of success with recipes.

      • I tried beer once, in college, and couldn’t stand the flavor, so I’ve never tried making any beer, much less one with honey locust pods, although I presume if you found an efficient way to remove the sweet pulp from the rest of the mature pod, it should be possible. Hope you succeed!

  6. HONEY Locust is an altogether different tree, though the two look similar. Honey Locust, ”Gleditsia Triacanthos” is not toxic in any part. The sugary pods, which contain the honey locust seed, are extremely high in protein. Often honey locust is planted near the edge of a food plot or pasture to supplement the diet of large grazing mammals such as deer and cattle. Wildlife also nibble the bark in winter.

  7. regarding BLACK locust : ”Toxic principle. Robin, a plant phytotoxin, is similar to the toxic principles found in castor bean (ricin) and rosary pea (abrin). The bark, seeds and leaves contain the toxin.”

    • Black Locust is, ”Robinia pseudoacacia” . Used mainly as a beautiful hardwood. Although it is toxic in all other parts, the flowers, (and only the flowers) are safely edible, and from their nectar, bees make wonderful honey. The two trees Black Locust, and Honey Locust are often confused, the Honey Locust is called such because of the sweet pulp of the seed pod, and is not considered the best nectar tree for honey bees..

      • Black Locust is known for it’s rot resistance and has long been used in outdoor applications. It’s a favorite wood for building trail structures on the East coast. Out west we use cedar or redwood. Black locust was also favored for making pegs in post and beam construction. It’s coarse gritty grain made for pegs that stayed in place. On some old log structures you can see the old locust pegs remaining where the log it held is rotting away – that rot resistance again.

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  9. So, I worked on a black seed for a while until I cracked it. Not easy. Inside is a small green mass with the texture of taffy. It has a pleasant nutty taste to it, but takes too long. Don’t waste your time. If you get a pod with some brown to it, the pulp gets thicker, slightly less sweet, but much more fresh, and less messy. Yum!thanks for posting this.

  10. The USDA report on the spread of honey locust not yet reaching WA and OR isn’t completely correct. Honey locust is well established at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. It’s only a matter of time until it makes it’s way down to Portland.

  11. These trees grow like weeds. If the seed pods should drop in your yard (as they do in mine every year) be sure to get them up quickly! They root quickly and within a few weeks, you have sizable saplings! The thorns! OH THE THORNS!!! They are not kid friendly, let me tell you that! The tree on my neighbor’s property is an eyesore. If given the choice… RUN AWAY!

  12. Take my advice for what it is worth. If you have a honey locust in your yard, cut it down. The thorns when they fall from the tree always land in a position to puncture your feet and shoes. Step on one and it goes through your shoe and through your foot. I pulled one out last night. All the way through my foot. I’m just waiting to see what my body does regarding the puncture.

  13. I’ve eaten honey locust seeds when green, though they are quite bland. If you cook them with flavorful things they might be good. I currently have a bunch of dry ones stockpiled which I am trying to figure out what to do with. I have thought of maybe grinding them into a flour, but I’m not quite sure how to do that. Any ideas? Maybe a mortar and pestle if I can find one…

    I have also eaten black locust seeds when they are green, they actually taste better in my opinion, though they are much more work to extract because of their small size. They are not poisonous, at least in small quantities. Sam Thayer also reports them as edible, but if I remember correctly he also hasn’t eaten them in large quantities so I would be careful before doing that.

  14. Thanks for the tip. I kept finding the pods on my walk today and finally saw a tree with the tell-tale spikes. So sweet and delicious! My dog kept staring at me hoping I was eating something good.

    I popped one of the seeds in my mouth to test it, and had to spit it out because it was way to hard to crack. Makes sense why Steve mentioned they are edible when young and green.

  15. A friend of mine in NE just sent me thorns from her tree (and they are huge!) to use in my artwork. Had I only known, I would have had her send me some pods for my belly as well.

    Thanks for another interesting post.

  16. Couplan reports, “If the pulp is eaten raw by itself, however, it tends to irritate the throat.”

    I don’t know if that is a common reaction or just his reaction. Might have been just an allergy that wouldn’t effect others.

      • Sorry. Francois Couplan. In his book ‘The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America’.

        Yes, I was taking about Black Locust.

        Thanks, Steve.

    • Couplan is a French foraging expert who has always been very friendly to me, but he hasn’t foraged here, so his book on American edible wild plants, based on 3rd hand info, repeats many mistakes from other older books by non-foragers who also use 3rd hand info.

      I’ve never had anyone have this reaction on my tours. Someone must have bitten the outside of the pod, which has tannin, and will cause this reaction.

  17. Great Trail – thanks to all for the excellent info. Previously, I had read that only the outer edge of the pods was edible and that REALLY didn’t seem worth it.

  18. I would also recommend cross referencing anything on Plants For A Future. It is a great resource, but I have found some mistakes as well.

    Samuel Thayer shows how to eat young black locust seeds on his DVD The Forager’s Harvest.

    I had been wondering whether honey locust was edible. Thanks.

      • I haven’t done much basic research in a while, and lazily assumed what I’d read in books before the advent of the Internet was reliable. I’d try Google Scholar and check as many botanical sites as possible. Perhaps Jim Duke’s site has info. Let me know what you find. I should re-examine assumptions about plants I don’t eat myself.

    • On another note — RE honey locust — thank you for the lima bean comparison.

      Do let us know when your app is available for Droid.

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