Tree with huge thorns

catherinet(5 IN)October 8, 2005

Hi all,

We live in Indiana and have a large property. Close to the immediate area around the house is some type of locust, that has 3-4" thorns. They are massive, and have flatened our riding mower tires a number of times. It gives my chickens their shade, so I don't want to cut it down.

Today, I see all it's huge seed pods are on the ground. I think I will collect them and throw them out. I do hate doing that though, since I'm sure this is a native tree. But I certainly don't want this growing anywhere close to our house. Even driving by it on the mower could cause a huge laceration if we're not careful.

Any ideas? I realize that just because something is native, it doesn't make it fun to be around.

Can anyone ID this tree for me, and tell me if it serves a vital function in nature that I'm ignorant of?

Thanks for your help.

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Sounds like honey locust, Gleditsia triacanthos. Native in Indiana. This is one of those trees that I really like, but most people usually don't... there's also a thornless variety often planted in yards & so forth, though this variety, to me, just isn't nearly as impressive or interesting. The pods are edible & the flowers produce lots of nectar, but other than that I don't know of any particular use for it.

Patrick Alexander

    Bookmark   October 8, 2005 at 5:45PM
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viburnumvalley(z5/6 KY)

The native honeylocust's seed pods are nutritious to livestock. I bet your cows would rather have hay, and your horses sweet feed, but there you go.

You could throw the seeds out in fencelines where you'd like a thorny barrier to trespassers, or to replace barbed wire. Coppiced once in a while, you'd have an impenetrable hedge.

Also, know that if you cut down one of these Gleditsia, you will be blessed with a thousand suckers from around the stump and the root system. It is a quite persistent species. There are still clumps emerging on my farm, now 15 years after it was a closely cropped (mown and grazed) pasture. Naturalization, indeed.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2005 at 6:09PM
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catherinet(5 IN)

Hmmmm.......I wonder if my chickens would like the seeds?
It is a very interesting looking tree. This is rather sad, but my in-laws have a couple of these trees and one day we were looking up at a bird's nest in it, when we realized that there was a parent bird impaled on one of the thorns. It was somewhat shocking to see this! Fortunately, I haven't had that problem with this tree yet.
I wonder what, in it's evolution, made it need those humongous thorns? Perhaps animals were eating the seeds before they were ready, and this keeps animals out, until the seeds would be viable?? Isn't nature interesting??

    Bookmark   October 8, 2005 at 7:20PM
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Soeur(z6b TN)

Honey locust thorns look like something out of a medieval torture chamber. Truly fearsome.

I'm thinking that impaled bird might not have been one of the parent birds of that nest you saw, but rather the future dinner of a loggerhead shrike family. Shrikes store their killed food on thorns, sort of as a larder. If it was a small bird stuck on the thorn, like a sparrow, this could easily be the case. If so, lucky you, as loggerhead shrikes are getting rarer and rarer. They're quite pretty in a rather tailored way, with soft gray, black, and white plumage. They sport a dashing black mask, and white wing patches when they fly which often makes the casual observer mistake them for mockingbirds.

It would be a exceedingly rare event and an incredibly klutzy bird that gets itself stuck on a thorny plant.


    Bookmark   October 8, 2005 at 10:03PM
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catherinet(5 IN)

Hi Soeur,
I wondered the same thing and called someone in the DNR, and he said it was unlikely around this area. And the bird was fairly large. I was hoping I was seeing the work of a shrike. I agree about how rare it would be for a bird to get stuck like this. It was just very curious. Perhaps it was rushing to get away from a predator, and wasn't paying attention? Still......very curious!

    Bookmark   October 8, 2005 at 10:49PM
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catherinet(5 IN)

Hi again,
I checked out the tree this morning, and I was wrong about the thorns.......they are about 8" long with many side-thorns. Wow!

    Bookmark   October 9, 2005 at 2:34PM
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terryr(z5a IL)

I know that tree parents share a lane with the people who have the house closest to the main road. My dad had all of those trees (he calls them honey locust) removed on his part, but the guy on the first part won't remove them. The trees are right next to the lane. So I hate driving down their lane. I've had 2 flat tires and I stepped on one. It went clean thru my shoe into my foot. Talk about ouch....oh and my dad hasn't had any suckers. I would be afraid of the animals eating the seed and then pooping them out and then I've got those trees everywhere....just a thought!


    Bookmark   October 9, 2005 at 6:43PM
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catherinet(5 IN)

Hi Terry,
We haven't seemed to have any suckers either. That tree has been there for ages, and I haven't really seen any others growing. Those things are really dangerous! I wonder if a tree service would even agree to cut it down? Even if a small branch fell on could be really bad! They are pretty amazing to look at though.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2005 at 9:23PM
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Regarding Catherine's question about the evolution of the huge thorns of honey locust:

There has been a lot of speculation that the thorns were a defense against large browsing animals that were part of the North American fauna until recently, geologically speaking. (Another interesting theory is that the mass extinction of these species was due to invasion of human hunters from Asia.) Species such as giant ground sloths and mammoths or mastodons (one of these was a grazer, one a browser; I forget which is which) may once have been the target for these awesome thorns. Since the extinction of these mega-browsers, the only reason these thorns seem to exist only to attack the tires on my Subaru.

It is also thought that the edible seed pod of the honey locust was an adaptation to attract animals to eat (and disperse) the undigestible seeds.

Here is a website that discusses these topics further and refers to a recent book on the subject:

Here is a link that might be useful: Ghosts of Evolution

    Bookmark   October 11, 2005 at 5:14PM
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catherinet(5 IN)

THanks John,
I look forward to reading that link. I'm always trying to understand why certain things develop the way they do.
When I was out yesterday, planting a serviceberry fairly close to the honey locust, I realized that most of it's thorns are on the main trunk. I'm thinking it was to keep animals from eating the seeds before they were ready..........and plus, if the seedpods are so delish, I'm sure the tree didn't want anyone eating them before the seeds were mature. Perhaps if the seedpods were bitter, it wouldn't have had to develop the thorns? ......but then no one would eat the seeds! So to have the yummy seedpod for better seed dispersal, it needed to develop a security system, until the seeds could drop to the ground. How cool if that's what happened (over a few million years, of course).
LOL about the suburu. Our's attacks our John Deere tires on a regular basis. I wonder if the cavemen used them for weapons? .....or maybe like thumbtacks for their bulletin boards? :)

    Bookmark   October 11, 2005 at 5:31PM
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jillmcm(z6 PA)

Another plant that seems to have evolved in the company of large extinct herbivores is osage orange, with those huge fruits that are inedible to just about anything now. They might have been a treat to a mammoth, though.

We have honey locust everywhere on the property and they drive me nuts, native or not. I'll confess to replacing a bunch with more "desirable" natives. We have some shading the chicken run, and I can attest that the leaves won't poison your chickens, but I don't think that the chickens have much interest in them anyway.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2005 at 6:40PM
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I am hoping someone might be able to help me. While clearing some fallen branches in my yard from a neighbors tree, I got four thorns from a tree (I have since identified as a honey locust) stuck into my fingers. My fingers are now swollen, red and extremely sore. I finally ended up a at a doctor yesterday and they put me on antibiotic, treating it as a skin infection. I am no better and wonder if anyone might have any experience with this tree and suggestions of how to to treat this or what to tell doctors if it does not improve. thanks!!

    Bookmark   June 25, 2008 at 7:01PM
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My arborist says black locust (also very thorny) was known in the trade as "blood trees" when he was starting out since the poor guys who had to tangle with them would get scratched up. I had heard on the radio that honey locust evolved the thorns in response to hungry mammoths or mastadons (can't remember which). I would imagine that the thorny trait still is at least a little bit useful (works against me anyway). I think some thornless varieties are on the market. The black locust trees around here do sucker. One that fell down near here is sending up new growth from the downed trunk.

Pat8, sorry to hear about the injury. I don't have any special advice to offer. Keep communicating with your doctor. Maybe it just takes a while for the healing and the medicine to create any noticeable improvement?

    Bookmark   June 25, 2008 at 7:35PM
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Thanks for the info, Bob. The thorns are terrible, a quarter to several inches long. I am hoping the antibiotics will help, although it has been three days now (one with medication) and no improvement. I was hoping to gain some more info about the tree in the event I have to go back. thanks again

    Bookmark   June 25, 2008 at 7:47PM
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greenhaven(SW MI z6)

I know this is an old thread, but I heard a great tip at our last Wild Ones meeting. The speaker was a gal who was actively involved in caring for a coule local prairie remnants, and when they want to eradicate a teree without causing massive suckering, the girdle it.

They make two parallel cuts all the way around the tree, about two inches apart, using a curved pruning saw. Then they chisel off the band of bark between the cuts. This, of course, kills the tree eventually, but is also reported to reduce or eliminate suckering.

Just a thought.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2008 at 10:15AM
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