Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Osage Orange: Living Fences of Bow-wood and Horse Apples

The pointed leaf, spiny twigs, and unique fruit of the Osage Orange

     Among the most unusual and recognizable of fruits is the Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera). It goes by a variety of names: Hedge Apple, Horse Apple, Monkey Ball, Yellowwood, Bois D'Arc, Bodark, Bodock, and Bow-wood for examples. It is actually not native to our region, but has been widely planted throughout North America, in all 48 contiguous states and parts of Canada. In fact, I've been told that the national champion is located in Alexandria, Virginia, at River Farm and was a gift from Thomas Jefferson.
     Originally this small tree (it rarely gets to 60') was mostly limited to the Red River drainage in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. Had it not been for the many virtues that people found in it, it may have eventually gone extinct. Many believe that it originally had its seeds dispersed by megafauna such as giant sloths, mammoths, mastodons, and gomphotheres that fed on its fruits but are now extinct. Very few creatures now feed on it, despite its large fruits, and so it has no real way to disperse its seeds these days. Although squirrels (mostly fox squirrels) and horses (thus the name Horse Apple) occasionally eat them, they do not do so very often and are very inefficient at distributing viable seeds. This is the only surviving member of the Maclura genus. 
     Being dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants, only the female trees produce the peculiar fruits. However, it appears that female trees can produce fruit even in the absence of male trees. The fruits produced however lack actual seeds and are not viable. This large, compound fruit is referred to as a syncarp botanically. It looks somewhat like a grainy grapefruit and has a slight citrus smell. The insides are not edible however, exuding a latex substance that is bitter and might even give some people a rash. 
     The tree has yellowish to orange wood that is extremely strong, rot resistant, and flexible. It also takes a polish very well and has long been considered one of the finest woods for bow staves even to this day. Since the tree often grows gnarled and crooked however, it is not always easy to find a straight and knot-free piece that is long enough for use in archery. 
     It is its use for superior bows that gives it several of its common names. Bois D'Arc means "wood of the bow" and was the French term for it upon seeing the Native American Indians use of it. That led to corruptions of that name so that it is sometimes called Bodark, Bodock, and Bow-wood.  The most common name of "Osage Orange" came about by its favored use as a bow material by the Osage tribe. They were famous for their superior and valuable trade bows.
     But they were far from the only people to use if for bows. Other tribes doing so included the Pima, Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, Seminole, Tewa, Kiowa, and Comanche. Some think that it was so valuable that it was planted far outside its natural range and saved from extinction by the native people. They had other uses for it too. The Pima used for a yellow dye for example (and the tree is sometimes referred to as Yellowwood, though some other trees are also). The Comanche used it for an eye wash as well. 

The twigs and young branches often grow intertwined and are spiny

     But it was some of its other properties that led to it being so widespread. The tree, for example, is very tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions. Not only do the twigs have spines, but each leaf has a spine too. They grow quite fast in the sun, but do not spread very far by seed so as to invade fields. Rather, they can grow very thickly and reproduce next to each other by cloning and sucker growth. They soon can make an almost impenetrable and spiny wall that can be trimmed and pruned. Osage Orange was therefore planted as living fences and windbreaks on many farms before the advent of barbed wire. They could keep stock from wandering, but since they were short, did not shade out too many crops or forage areas. Their use as these living fences and natural wind breaks (promoted heavily in some places) helped this tree spread far and wide.

Each leaf typically has a spine at its base

     These traits were recognized long ago. Francis Porcher in his Civil War treatise on useful plants in the Confederate South praised its use for living fencing. He stated that its presence would "double the real value of any farm it surrounds" while keeping the lands safe "from all thieves, rogues, dogs, wolves, etc." 

An old living fence now has gaps and has fruits strewn underneath and along the whole length of the hedges they now form

     The close-grained and yellowish-orange wood was very much valued, and not just for bow staves. It is considered to be twice as strong as white oak. The timber is extremely rot resistant, even when in contact with ground. Early on, the wood was used for wagon wheels, rail road ties, fence posts, and even police billy-clubs. The timber has some of the highest BTU ratings of any North American wood, so it burns long and extremely hot. Its tendency to spark and throw embers a very far distance should however be taken into account if using it that way. 

The leaves have a slender point and turn yellow in the Fall

     Country lore also has it that the large fruits are a good insect repellent, especially for roaches. Tests however have shown that to be true only for very concentrated extracts from the fruit, so the Osage Oranges themselves would not be very useful for that endeavor. 
     Though few creatures feed on the Hedge Apples themselves, 8 caterpillar species have been documented feeding on the tree. It's real value to wildlife however comes from the shelter the intertwining, spiny branches and leaves provide. Many animals use it for cover and it is a mainstay of hedgerows to this day, surviving as gnarled trees that now have gaps in between that allow many native plants to also grow. 

An Osage Orange

     I have some fond memories of this tree. It was (and still of course is) found along many of the fence rows which I frequented when I was young. My father when taking me hunting as a teen would have me serve some of the duties for the hunting dog we lacked. My brother and I would walk on either side of the hedgerows and flush the game while we hunted. As there were some thickets and the aforementioned spines to be reckoned with, my brother and I would try and find various ways to spook the game for all of us to hunt that would not involve getting into the thickets themselves. The Osage Oranges proved to be just what we needed. We would stop every few yards and load up our game vests with few. That way when we came across a particularly nasty thicket, we could just pull out some of the large fruits to launch into the hedges to flush things out rather than venture in ourselves. So this tree I associate with some of my early outdoor experiences, and I thank it for not just the habitat it provided, but also for saving me from getting poked by sticker bushes. 


  1. Perfect summary of everything wonderful to know about this cool tree! ~Thanks~

  2. Positive site, where did u come up with the information on this posting?I have read a few of the articles on your website now, and I really like your style. Thanks a million and please keep up the effective work. bow making wood

  3. Lots of resources, old stories, Daniel Moerman's works, Francis Porcher, all sorts. Thanks