The Versatile Osage-Orange

By Ball, Jeff | American Forests, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

The Versatile Osage-Orange


Ball, Jeff, American Forests


When Lewis and Clark set off to explore the Louisiana Territory, the first tree they sent back east from St. Louis was the osage-orange (Maclura pomifera). Native to a relatively small area in eastern Oklahoma and portions of Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas, it had been used for centuries by Native Americans for war clubs and bows.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries the tree was planted throughout the United States probably more than almost any other tree species in North America. Still considered the best wood for archer's bows, osage-orange was valued as a natural hedgerow fence, which made agricultural settlement of the prairies possible. It led directly to the invention of barbed wire in 1874, then provided most of the posts for the wire that fenced the West.

Known also as hedge, hedge apple, bodark (from the French bois d'arc, meaning wood of the bow), and bowwood, the osage-orange's name comes from the Osage Indian tribe, which lived near the tree's home range, and from the orange-like aroma of the ripened fruit. These trees are easily recognized by their glossy, lance-shaped leaves and stout, one-inch thorns, which give them value as fences for farm animals.

TREE PARTICULARS

Osage-orange can be either a shrub or a tree, depending on its surroundings. Standing alone in full sun it will become a multi-stemmed shrub; with neighboring competition it can become a single-stemmed tree. Although it is the only member of its genus (a monotype), it is cousin to the mulberry family (Moraceae).

The osage-orange averages a height of 30-25 feet, but heights of more than 60 feet have been recorded. Circumference can reach 4 to 7 feet, although 1.5 feet is the average, and the crown spread can reach 60 feet (with an average of 25 feet). The nation's biggest osage-orange, which stands outside the Virginia home of Patrick Henry, was grown from fruit sent back by Lewis and Clark and given to Henry's daughter, who planted it at Red Hill.

The bark, up to 3/4 inches thick, is light gray-brown tinged with orange. On large trees it separates into shaggy strips. Preferring open sunny areas, the tree can grow in a variety of soils and is considered hardy to Zone 5. Native to the south-central United States, it now can be found naturalized south of the Great Lakes and north of Florida, across the whale of eastern North America into the Great Plains states almost to the Rocky Mountains. Because it was used so extensively in our pioneer days, it can be found along western settlement trails and old fort locations, even in the Pacific Northwest.

The leaves of the osage-orange are thick, shiny, and simple, alternating along twigs. Dark green on top and light green underneath, the leaves of the osage-orange turn bright yellow in autumn.

The trees are either male or female, and only the females hear the rather ponderous fruit from rather small insignificant-looking flowers. Called "hedge apples," the fruit is a large, green-yellow wrinkled ball up to 6 inches in diameter. As it ripens in the fall, the fruit often hangs in the tree after all the leaves have fallen off. These large fruits can be somewhat dangerous if you happen to be standing directly under them when they fall.

The tree's fruits contain a chemical (2,3,4,5-tetrahydroxystilbene) that has been proven to repel many of those pesky insects that get into homes: cockroaches, crickets, spiders, fleas, box elder bugs, and ants. The chemical does not kill the insects but for some reason effectively repels them from the area where the fruit is located. Whole ripened fruit left sitting on the floor in places where insects are a problem will usually repel pests for up to two months.

For more immediate control, cut the fruit in half or crush it on the driveway with your car, then place it in a dish set in the pest problem area. This method is good for repelling insects for a few weeks.

The milky juice in the tree's stems and fruit may irritate some people's skin, especially after long periods of exposure. …

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