The black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a woody member of the pea family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae), and a close examination of its winged flowers, bean-like pods, and pinnately compound leaves will make the relation obvious to any gardener. Native to the forests of the southern Appalachians, it is now naturalized in our region due to extensive cultivation. People often react with surprise when I suggest this plant as a good one for foragers; many have heard that locusts are poisonous, and indeed they are. The leaves, twigs, bark, and roots contain toxalbumins, which can shut down basic cell functions. These parts should never be eaten. There is some debate about the toxicity of black locust seeds. But if you can catch the blossoms during their short season, there is no denying their edibility and unique flavor.
If you plan on harvesting locust blossoms this spring, be ready. Often, the season is well under way by the time the blossoms become obvious, and the blossoms last only a matter of days. Here at the northern edge of the black locust’s range, a good crop is anything but guaranteed. The flowers are very sensitive to frosts, and in years when a late frost occurs, there may not be a single blossom in an entire county. One year, I had to travel over an hour south to find a tree in bloom.
But the trees that do bloom are fecund; blossoms spill from every branch. They can be spotted at great distances, their snowy white flowers glowing against the light green backdrop of a spring hillside. And if you can’t find them by sight, you may be able to find them by their thick, rich perfume, which can sweeten a whole valley. Unfortunately, most of this bounty lies well overhead and out of reach of the enterprising forager. Only the lowest branches can be harvested, and the thorns on the locust’s branches discourage climbing. Still, it usually only takes one or two branches and less than 15 minutes to fill a shopping bag to the brim. The best way to harvest the blossoms is to pull off a whole cluster at its base.
The subtle sweetness of the raw blossoms is almost universally appreciated by those who try them. Just pluck individual blossoms from their stalks. You may be surprised at how addictive the tender texture and sweet nectar can be. In our house, we often plan to pick two bags – one for cooking and one for snacking.
There is not much occasion to use edible flowers in contemporary cuisine. Flowers are most often seen as a garnish rather than a vegetable. But we’ve found several ways to enjoy them, including this recipe, which captures the richness of this wonderful spring food. Eating the flowers this way feels like eating spring itself.
Baked Salmon in a Locust Blossom Cream Sauce
3 cuts salmon, 6 ozs. each
2 tbsp. butter
1 small shallot, minced
1 ½ tbsp. flour
1 cup milk
¼ tsp salt
1 cup locust blossoms (removed from stem)
Preheat oven to 350°. Bake salmon on lightly greased cookie sheet for 15 minutes. While salmon bakes, melt butter in sauce pan. Sauté shallot in butter for five minutes – careful not to burn. Add flour. Stir constantly for two minutes. Add milk and salt. Heat until thick, stirring often. Add locust blossoms. Stir and cook one minute. Serve sauce over salmon with a few fresh blossoms as garnish.