Thursday, June 11, 2015

A swarm of locusts

Bike Week starts this weekend, but my reference to a swarm of locusts is not what you are thinking. I associate large black jacketed Harley riders with pretty fragrant flowers.

This past week patrons visiting the Conway Public Library were treated to a unique sweet aroma from a palisade of trees to the west of the main entrance with cascading showers of small cream colored flowers hanging like grapes from a handful of very crooked trees with deeply furrowed bark that resembles a gator's back. Each year the flowering of these trees heralds the beginning of motorcycle week in New Hampshire. 

The blooms and smell make the trees easy to identify. If you were an early settler to Conway, some 250 years ago, you might want to mark those trees and make a note of their location for they have hidden secrets and serve special functions. 

These secrets are revealed in volume 3 of Jeremy Belknap’s The History of New-Hampshire first published in 1792. A key section of his book, titled modestly “Forest trees and other vegetable productions” is like a “how to” manual for pioneers.

Belknap reports that “Locust (rabinia pseudo-acacia) is excellent fuel. Its trunk serves for durable posts set in the ground, and may be split into trunnels for ships, which are equal to any wood for that purpose. It thrives on sandy and gravelly soils, and its leaves enrich them. For these reasons, the cultivation of the locust has been thought an object worthy of attention, especially as it is a tree of quick growth." 

Fuel: Black locust is highly valued as firewood. It burns slowly, with little visible flame or smoke, and has a higher heat content than any other species that grows widely in the Eastern United States, comparable to the heat content of anthracite coal. It is also popular because of its ability to burn even when wet.

Fence posts: Flavonoids in the heartwood allow the wood to last over 100 years in soil.

Trunnels: The Summer 2013 edition of Northern Woodlands magazine explains that as early as the 1630s, New England shipbuilders used dowels, or treenails, made of Locust trees, that hold a ship’s planks to the frames. The metal fasteners available back then corroded when exposed to salt, and black locust was soon found to be superior to the traditional oak treenails as it is harder and even more decay resistant than oak.

Soil enrichment: Locust trees have nitrogen fixing bacteria on their root systems and as a result, can grow on poor soils and is an early colonizer of disturbed areas.

Belknap's book continues with practical advice for pioneers on the nature of many trees and plants. Drop by the Henney History Room next time you are planning a homesteading type project. 

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