Locust Blossoms: Bottle Spring!
The black locusts enchanting blossoms are melting away in the rain as I write. As everything else this year, they were 10 days to 2 weeks earlier than usual – I generally count on the 2nd week of May to be peak time for the pearly bunches of fragrant flowers. My nose noticed the first ones on April 28, this year, as I was walking out of the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire & Rescue Hall where I was cooking for a wedding. But unlike many other years, this year was a good season, with showy, abundant and long lasting blossoms – well over 10 days. Despite almost 6 inches of rain last week, they kept blooming. But all things end, and now they are just drooping, brown and limp, rain water pulling them down closer to the ground…
Robinia pseudo-acacia is a tree native from the US southern Appalachian mountains — but one that was introduced to France in 1601 – and was widely planted. Locust is a tough tree, in the legume family in fact, so it adapts to many soils and climates, even enriching the soil with nitrogen. Coppiced or pollarded it becomes a managed source of extremely good fire wood and valuable fence posts & rails in the country-side: locust burns slowly and hot, ideal for burning overnight in the winter; as well it is rot resistant. Because of its adaptability – including polluted environment – it has been planted extensively to line & shade European city streets. It has also planted itself, spreading by suckering and by seeds!
Its flowers provide copious amounts of nectar which honey bees transform into a delicate floral fragrant honey that remains liquid for a long time – one known in France as “acacia” honey. We hope our honeybees are making black locust honey this year! A most useful tree indeed.
I have learned to never postpone the harvest of locust blossoms. As soon as I can smell them (a heady fragrance reminiscent of orange flowers), I need to go and collect them. I only pick fresh bunches with no spoiled flowers, often the top flowers have not yet opened. I prefer to harvest mid-to-late morning after the dew has evaporated but before it gets too hot. Delay the harvest till tomorrow and a storm may well ruin them. Delay them until next week, and they are gone!
It may be tempting to bite into a raw bunch of flowers. Beware: they may well be slightly toxic and, in large quantity, make you nauseous. They contain the toxalbumin robin, which loses its toxicity when heated – hence it ‘s OK to eat them if you cook them. In fact, the rest of the tree (bark, twigs, leaves, pods, seeds) is considered poisonous to humans, horses & chicken.
I harvest flowers, in their prime, from trees free of pesticides and away from the road. It’s better to just gently shake the flowers to dislodge insects, so as not to dilute the scent. But if needed, I rinse them by switching them gently (and briefly) in a bowl of cold water. And then I run my fingers through each bunch to detach the individual flowers from the central stem which I discard.
The easiest and most versatile way to preserve them is to turn them into cordial, which has many uses: cocktails, of course (with a few drops of bitters or tart juice to balance the florals) and wine spritzers; mixed with sparkling water for a very floral homemade soda; a few tablespoons to macerate berries or a fruit salad; a drizzle on yogurt or ice-cream; as replacement of simple syrup in sorbet to add another flavor dimension; to flavor pannacotta, custard, mousses, or pound cake etc.
Jelly is an other possibility (but takes more time that I am willing to give at this time of the year). I have also made excellent ice-creams and pannacottas by simmering the blossoms in cream (at a bare simmer)
Black Locust Blossom Cordial
Yields about 5 1/2 pints
. 1/2 lb (250g) freshly collected black locusts flowers, rinsed & removed from their stem
– 1 quart (1 liter) water
– 4 C (800 g) sugar
– juice and grated zest from 1 juicy lemon
– 2 tsp citric acid
Bring water to boil in a non-reactive pan. Remove from heat, add the flowers, cover and let steep overnight with the lemon zest. Filter, pressing on flowers to extract liquid (discard flowers).
Bring tea back to gentle boil, add sugar & lemon juice and simmer briskly for 15 minutes. Add citric acid.
Bottle in hot clean mason jars or canning bottles. Process as if canning at 180-185F (85C ) for 15 minutes.
If you rather not can, then refrigerate (but shelf life will be shorter). Once open, refrigerate and use within a couple of months.
PS – There are still 2 black locust trees in Paris planted in 1601 and in 1636. Long live the black locust!