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Secrets, lies and the false acacia tree

PUBLISHED: 16:36 13 December 2017

The false acacia, or black locust tree, Robinia pseudoacacia.

The false acacia, or black locust tree, Robinia pseudoacacia.

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William Cobbett sold more than a million trees. And it was all a big con, says Grace Corne.

At many times over the years the English countryside has fallen foul of those who would make money by not being quite honest. One such was William Cobbett, who introduced the False acacia tree in quantity in Britain in 1823. He had become familiar with the tree when he had grown it in Long Island near New York where it was locally known as ‘the locust tree.’ Cobbett actually came to England in 1819 with the seeds of the tree in his pocket from which he grew, and in due course consequently boasted, he sold more than a million young trees.

Seemingly nobody realised that the tree, under the name Robimia pseudo acacia had been in the country for many years, and while Cobbett was selling thousands of them under the name ‘locust’ the orthodox growers actually had problems selling their Robinias at a much cheaper price.

It was recorded that a gentleman who had bought a large estate went to Cobbett’s nursery to purchase the ‘wonderful locust trees.’ He was advised by a famous botanist that he could buy excellent plants from a nearby nursery under the name Robinia for “half the price and subject to less than half the expense of carriage” and the plants would be in much better condition when delivered. The would-be purchaser would not hear of it!

It was possible that entirely by accident a Norfolk man also boosted the sale of this tree for Cobbett. Mr William Withers, a landowner from Holt, was a very close friend of Cobbett and decided to explore these wonderful trees in more detail.

He discovered that they grew rapidly but rarely became large trees. However the wood was found to be “heavier, harder, stronger, more rigid, more elastic and tougher than English oak.”

Cobbett predicted that the locust tree would be more common in England than the oak, and that a man would be thought mad if he did not use the wood for sills, gates, joists, stocks and axles etc and hop poles. The last being yet another untruth because the trees, although useful and decorative, never grew large or tall enough for this purpose.

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