Forestry, Silvopasture and Agroforestry

Sustainable Sugar Source? The Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

Since I started researching the practice of silvopasture, the Honey Locust has become one of my favorite plants. Some of the amazing properties: good burning wood fuel, mildly rot-resistant lumber, food for humans and animals, fast growing, nitrogen fixing, erosion control and many more advantageous properties. At least in the plants that existed in 1929, the bean pod fruit of honey locust has a higher sugar content than any other plant, produces more heavily and requires very little labor. J Russel Smith says it best in his 1929 book Tree Crops (warning: large PDF):

Several generations of Caucasian Americans have called
the sugar maple the “sugar tree.” It had been done before
by countless generations of American Indians. Rare indeed is
the person who will not say that maple syrup and maple sugar
are delicious.
The sugar maple is a fine tree. Its spring sap has from 3 to 6
per cent. of sugar. It grows over a wide area of cold, rough,
upland country with a poor agricultural surface and in some
cases a poorer agricultural climate. Possibly plant breeding
could do with the maple wonders similar to those it has
already done with the sugar beet—namely raise its sugar
content several fold in a century and a quarter.
But why wait? Behold the honey locust! Look at Figs.
34 and 36! There is a wild tree, native, hardy, prolific, and
yielding beans more than a foot long.
The beans from some of these unimproved and unappreciated
wildlings carry 29 per cent. of sugar. This is equal to
the best sugar beets and more than the yield of the richest
crops of sugar cane. This, too, after man has been struggling
with the sugar cane for centuries.
And Mr. Secretary of Agriculture Jardine tells me that
his department has no time for such new things as honey
locusts, that they are busy with the bugs and bites and blights
of crops already established. Such is the scientific side of this
Who will apply science and horse sense to this wonderful
bean tree, which may hold a hundred thousand gullying hills
with its roots while its tops manufacture the world’s sugar
without the arduous toil of women and children on hands and
knees pulling weeds from among the pesky little beets?
Consider the history of the sugar beet, and it seems perfectly
reasonable to picture, fifty years hence, a thousand mountain
farm wagons hauling locust beans down to the sugar factory
in some Carolina valley.
This sugar factory should also sell thousands of tons of cow
feed, rich in protein and having enough molasses left in it to
make the cows fight for it.



One thought on “Sustainable Sugar Source? The Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

  1. petebacher says:

    I have a feeling the quote from JRS is much more likely actually from John W Hershey, who provided a significant amount of additional material that JRS included in the 2nd edition of his book. Don’t know for sure, but the words sure sound more like Hershey’s than JRS’s, and Hershey was an expert on and major proponent of the honey locust.


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