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The Enduring Osage Orange

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

Osage orange is a unique tree with a remarkable history. No other tree in central North America has had such a long and close relationship with humans - both Native Americans and settlers. Whether it is known locally as Osage orange, mock orange, Osage apple, hedge, hedge apple, naranjo chino, bois d'arc, bodark or bow wood, it is the same distinctive tree.

Early European settlers in Missouri probably found no Osage orange growing in the wild. The tree's native range was a small area in western Arkansas, southern Oklahoma and parts of east Texas. But early explorers, like Marquette and Joliet, did find the trees growing near Osage Indian villages. And it was from the branch wood of the Osage orange tree that the Indians made their highly prized bows.

Osage orange bow blanks and finished bows were prime items of barter among the tribes. One early report said a well balanced bow was worth a "comely young squaw" in trade. Another said that in the early 1800s the price of a good Osage orange bow was a horse and a blanket. Tribal wars were fought for possession of lands generously supplied with Osage orange trees.

So sought after was the Osage orange bow, it was used by Shawnee and Wyandotte Indians in Ohio and the Blackfoot Indians in Montana. The bows must have been traded over a distance of 2,000 miles.

Early French explorers came to associate the strong powerful bows with the Osage Indians and called the trees "bois d'arc" which means "wood of the bow." This French name was eventually pronounced "bodark," a name that continues to be used for Osage orange in some regions.

Indians had other uses for Osage orange. The stout wood was well suited for war clubs and tomahawk handles. The ridged and scaly bark of the trunk provided both a fiber for rope and tannin for making leather. Root tea was used to wash sore eyes. The roots and inner bark were used to make a light orange dye. Early pioneers adopted this dye for their homespun cloth and later it was used commercially to color the American forces' olive drab uniforms during World War I.

Pioneers found more uses. The wood's hardness and low shrinkage made it valuable for wagon wheel hubs and rims. Supposedly, the first chuck wagon ever built was made of Osage orange to withstand the terrible bumping of the Texas panhandle. Cattle yokes were

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