The Enduring Osage Orange
plants that grew up under the trees were all provided by the hedgerow.
However, not all wildlife benefited from these tall rows of trees. Many prairie wildlife species require an open landscape without trees. Their daily lives and activities are adapted to a world of tall grass and forbs with only a few scattered shrubs. When the Osage orange rows dissected what used to be open prairie, the wildlife suffered.
Nest predation on ground nesting birds by mammals traveling the hedge rows was high. If the nests did hatch successfully, some avian predators that could not have hunted successfully on the prairies before now had trees from which to perch and hunt. Many prairies species, such as the prairie chicken, suffered.
Eventually prairie settlers found a new use for the thousands of miles of mature Osage orange. As barbed wire fences crisscrossed the continent, farmers needed posts. And, where hedge was available, it became the preferred material.
Osage orange is the best native wood for fence posts. It is one of the heaviest woods in North America and rates at the top for resistance to weathering. Anti-fungal and anti-oxidant compounds that protect the wood from decay have been identified in the heartwood. The outer sapwood is thin, so even small-diameter posts have a high proportion of heartwood. Osage orange posts set 50 years ago are still standing strong.
It seems ironic that the trees that once served as thousands of miles of living fence continue to yield fence posts as their main commercial product. They have truly been adapted to the times.
Osage orange rows have been rapidly disappearing from the Midwest. No longer needed as fence, supposedly incompatible with large scale farming operations, cut for posts, removed as rural roads are widened, and removed to encourage prairie wildlife, the once extensive patchwork of hedge rows is now marked only by scattered remnants.
Some landowners with an interest in wildlife are planting Osage orange for habitat. The Missouri Department of Conservation distributes about 12,000 seedlings each year from its nursery at Licking. Other landowners with an interest in prairie wildlife are removing the hedge rows to restore the prairie landscape.
Landowners with existing hedgerows are using root plows to decrease the crop sapping effects immediately beside the trees. They then take advantage of the positive effects of shelterbelts that have been demonstrated for many years - increased crop yields from wind protected fields. Recently, chemists have begun looking inside Osage orange and found a number of compounds that may be of use for food processing, pesticides, antibiotics and other medical products