When English naturalist Mark Catesby first visited Jamestown, Virginia, 100 years after its founding, he saw only the stark ruins of what the first inhabitants in 1602 had called home. But at each corner of the tumble-down huts remained a post-as solid as the day it was erected. He marveled at the still-sound wood, which had been named "locust" after an old-world look-alike.
Other colonists eventually learned of locust's longevitiy, too, because the tree became widely used. No wonder.
Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), as it has come to be called, offers superb qualities. Because a locust's trunk contains mostly sapwood, it's strong. In drying, locust hardly shrinks. In stiffness, it outdoes hickory. Fighting decay, it outlasts white oak. Burned, a cord of black locust throws off the heat of a ton of coal. And machined and sanded, the wood takes on a high luster.
Yet, black locust has never attained commercial status. That's because in most of the areas where it grows the tree suffers from insect attack, leaving few trees sound enough to harvest. So instead of becoming commercial lumber, black locust winds up as fence posts, firewood, and railroad ties. Except for one fleeting moment of historical greatness, that's the way it has always been.
You see, a variety of black locust, caringly cultivated in the late 18th century in New Jersey and New York-especially Long Island-earned renown. The tree's straight, branchless trunk proved perfect for shipmasts. Even today in the area, you can still find examples of those once sought after "shipmast locusts."
Illustration: Jim Stevenson