The Mighty Osage Orange
The tree with too many names to remember is unforgettable to anyone who has picked up the bumpy, greenish-yellow, citrus-smelling fruit in the fall. The Osage orange is a tree with a history. It is an unassuming tree that was instrumental in settling the wild frontier. Through the years and across the continent it was called Bodare Us, Bodark, Bodeck, Bodock, Bois d’arc, Bowwood, Geelhout, Hedge, Hedge Apple, Hedge-plant, Horse Apple, Maclura, Mock Orange, Naranjo Chino, Osage, Osage Apple-Tree, Rootwood, Wild Orange, or Yellow-Wood. Originally the First Nations People of the Omaha-Ponca called it Zho-nzi-zhu, which meant yellow flesh wood tree and the Pima called it S’hoitgam kawli meaning thorny fence. To all it is a remarkable tree that offers shelter, protection, strong wood, and interesting fruit.
Botanically, it is called Maclura pomifera, named after William Maclure (1763-1840), who was an American geologist. The species epithet, pomifera means bearing fruit, pomes, or apples which refers to the large, green, grapefruit-like fruit. The Osage name came from French settlers who called the Wazhazhe natives by that name. These natives lived near the trees native habitat. The tree was incorrectly called an orange for the citrus smell of the fruit skin when it is ripe.
French settlers found that the Southern Native people used the highly prized, flexible, and firm wood for bows. It was such a superior wood that it was used for trading, as gifts, or for bartering well beyond its native range. Many archers still consider osage orange wood to be the best in the world for their bows. The common name of bodark (and its variations) is a colloquialism for the French words “Bois d’Arc” meaning wood of the bow. White settlers found that the tree had many additional desirable qualities. It was tough and durable, transplanted easily, and tolerated poor soils, extreme heat, and strong winds. Osage orange trees also had no serious insect or disease problems.
How did osage orange, which produces no building lumber, get planted in greater numbers than any other tree species? Osage oranges were much prized as impenetrable hedges invaluable before the invention of barbed wire. Their dense growth and foreboding thorns were used to keep cattle and horses contained. After barbed wire made hedge fences obsolete, the trees were still used as a source of fence posts and as windbreaks to stop soil erosion. Their strong wood could withstand termites and rot for decades. Osage orange is considered one of the most durable woods in North America. This small tree was planted as living fences or hedges along the boundaries of farms and homesteads and was prized as a divisional fence because timber was scarce in many regions of the mid-western United States. The trees were a good fence alternative that cost little to grow, lasted for generations, needed no repairs other than pruning, and kept out stock of all sizes large or small.
Osage orange trees have been such a common sight through the Great Plains and eastward to the New England states that it is easy to assume that they are part of the native plant community through this area. To date osage orange has been planted in all 48 continental United States and South-eastern Canada where it can survive in hardiness zone 5. The well-travelled osage orange was originally native to a very small area. It grew in south-western Arkansas, south-eastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. Most of its native habitat is along the Red River valley through these three states and also in the Blackland Prairies, Post Oak Savannahs and Chisos Mountains of Texas. It has since escaped and naturalized throughout the eastern and north-western US.
Osage orange is a medium-sized tree with leaves that are up to 20 cm long. The leaves have smooth margins and are tapered to a sharp tip. The best identification features are 1 cm short thorns that are located where the leaf petiole attaches to the twigs. The fruit is very noticeable in the fall once the leaves have fallen. It is a large, green, wrinkled, cannonball-size fruit that ripens in the late fall to a yellow colour. The fruit may be so numerous that tree branches will bend under their weight. The rock-hard, unripe fruit could weigh as much as one kilogram each. Cutting open the fruit will reveal a solid centre surrounded by about 200 seeds and a sticky white sap that can cause dermatitis. The seeds are loved by squirrels who, with great determination, tear apart the fruit to get their food. Since most birds, livestock, and animals find the fruit unpalatable, there’s usually plenty for the squirrels.
Osage orange is a member of a small group of plants that are dioecious and have separate male and female flowers on different plants. The female trees have small green flowers that open just after the leaves unfold. The male flowers are one inch long racemes found on terminal leaf spurs. The pollen is light and travels with the wind. Sometimes female trees will produce abundant fruit without having a male tree nearby, but the fruit will not have any seeds.
The loss of thousands of kilometres of osage orange hedgerows and the ensuing loss of wildlife habitat is a concern. It is estimated that over 400,000 kilometres of fence lines were once planted with osage orange trees from New Jersey to Ontario and south to Texas. Now only the remnants of these vast hedgerows remain 150 years later. Preserving our historical plantings is a goal that should be recognized very soon.
What does the future hold for the osage orange? Plenty of interest is on the horizon about new uses. The fruit is reputed to have insecticidal properties. The heartwood, bark, and roots have extracts that may be used in food processing and dye making. Already, the tree has its own websites dedicated to cultural information, bow making, and gardener testimonials at www.osageorange.com and https://hedgeapple.com.
This fall, if a scenic journey takes you travelling through the countryside, look for the old gnarled trees in a long forgotten hedgerow. If these trees have large yellow-green fruit, think back to the early settlers and their bushel baskets full of grapefruit-like fruit travelling across the land in their quest to find their new home.
All images in this article have been used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License and were originally published at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maclura_pomifera.