The Enduring Osage Orange

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

fashioned from the many angled limbs.

Railroad ties, bridge pilings, insulator pins, telephone poles, treenails, street paving blocks, mine timber, house blocks (used instead of masonry foundations) and tool handles were all uses eventually added to the list. No doubt, some of the first telegraph messages sent west pulsed across parts of the Midwest on wires held aloft on Osage orange poles.

As early as 1806 President Thomas Jefferson referred to the Osage orange in a message to Congress. He had heard from British explorers of the Arkansas country about the tree's potential as a hedge plant, a potential soon to be realized.

The close relationship of the American Indian to Osage orange was soon replaced by the widespread use of the tree by prairie settlers.

How and when the Osage orange arrived in Missouri and the prairies of the plains is not well documented. Many credit Professor J.B. Turner of Jacksonville, Illinois, with early successful plantings and the import of both seeds and plants to the prairie states. Some historians believe the tree was introduced deliberately from its native range in the Red River country of Texas and Oklahoma by Texas drovers.

It seems remarkable that a tree that produces no pulpwood, saw timber or utility poles has been planted more than any other species in North America. But in the 1800s, on the expansive prairies of a fertile new continent, before the invention of barbed wire, settlers needed fence. And Osage orange makes a great fence.

A single row of hedge trees planted a foot apart would yield a fence that was "horse high, bull-strong, and hog-tight" in 4 years. Some farmers would weave the already twisted and intertwined limbs of the young trees tightly together, a technique known as "plashing," for a more impenetrable barrier. Use of the Osage orange tree as hedge was so common throughout most of its introduced range that "hedge" became the tree's common name.

Few records exist about the extent of Osage orange hedge plantings in Missouri. In nearby Kansas, however, between 1865 and 1939, nearly 40,000 miles of Osage orange hedgerows were planted by private landowners. Prairie settlers in other states, including Missouri, also were planting thousands of miles of Osage orange hedge at this time.

Hedge nurseries sprang up to meet the burgeoning need for seeds and seedlings. Osage orange fruits, commonly called hedge balls or hedge apples, were covered with dirt and straw in the fall. In

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