The Enduring Osage Orange

By Jim W. Grace | November 2, 1995
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 1995

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 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 the spring, the seeds were easily separated from the rotten flesh of the fruit.

One hedge apple would yield about 300 seeds. One bushel of hedge apples in the fall - about 80 apples - would yield 24,000 seeds the following spring. The seeds were then direct-seeded into a prepared seedbed on the farm or planted at the nursery and sold as seedlings. Planting contractors were available to establish hedge rows for 37.5 cents per rod ($120 dollars per mile).

In the 1860s, the Osage orange market went wild. Prices jumped from $8 a bushel to $50 a bushel. In one year alone, 18,000 bushels of seeds were shipped to the northwest United States - enough seed to plant over 100,000 miles of Osage orange hedge! "Hedge mania," as one newspaper called it, was rampant.

A few scattered records give a glimpse of the intense planting period in Missouri: 1844 - Osage orange had been planted in Greene County; 1851 - the first Osage orange were planted in Holt County; 1852 - Osage orange hedges planted in Cass County proved successful; 1853 - Caldwell County: "In May 1853, Mr. Terrill had the hedge fence set out on the east side of his place. The seed for this hedge was brought. . . on horseback from Texas."

By 1879 Monroe County in northeast Missouri and Nodaway County in northwest Missouri each had over 2,000 miles of hedge rows, " . . . more than any other county in Kansas, Nebraska, or Iowa."

But in 1874, Osage orange met its match. A new invention, barbed wire, was now cheaper to use for fencing. Although the Osage orange planting storm had passed, the tree had been planted in all 48 contiguous states.

By the early 1900s the Osage orange hedge was said to be generally disliked by farmers. The plants needed annual trimming, sapped water from adjacent crop land and spread to adjacent fields. The multiflora rose, being promoted by the Soil Conservation Service and Extension Service, offered an alternative stock-proof fence. (Like most exotic plant introductions, however, this species would later prove most undesirable.)

Many Osage orange hedges were removed and replaced with wire fences. Many were just left unmaintained. When the well-trimmed Osage orange hedges of the 1800s were allowed to grow, they matured into tall trees with spreading crowns. These shelterbelts provided habitat for many wildlife species. Nesting sites, roosting cover, travel lanes and food from the 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

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer